Thomas Ligotti, Philosophy and Antinatalism

Thomas Ligotti is often cited as one of the best, if not the very best, contemporary writers of horror fiction.  Most people have never heard of him.   Part of the reason for this is that Ligotti writes almost exclusively short stories, with one novella, My Work Is Not Yet Done, to his credit.  Another reason is that he is famously reclusive and not much interested in self-promotion.  Probably the most important reason is that Ligotti’s work is so outside the mainstream and philosophically daring as to have almost no mass appeal outside of the niche audience of horror fiction enthusiasts.

Compare Ligotti to  Stephen King, the hugely selling pop culture phenomenon.  King often writes 700-1,000 page novels that are as much fantasy fiction with dense mythologies as they are horror novels.  Ligotti writes piercingly intimate and  evocative short works that owe as much to Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Arthur Schopenhauer, as they do to early horror fiction writers like Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen.   King pens stories that show a sense of normalcy interrupted by malignant forces and normalcy usually reestablished by the end.  Ligotti pens stories about how “reality”, as imagined by humans, is really a delusion that could slip away at any moment and plunge a person into madness.  If King’s formula is built for pop culture success, Ligotti seems to reject this formula at every turn.

Mainstream audiences got a taste of Ligotti through the show True Detective in which Ligotti served as inspiration, some would say was plagiarized, in order to articulate a bleak philosophy of pessimism.  Much of this is articulated in Ligotti’s book Conspiracy Against The Human Race.  The views argued in that book are simplified as follows, that human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake, that humans use self-delusion in order to make their lives tolerable, or to at least seem so, and that procreation should be avoided,

The first point Ligotti makes relies heavily on a materialist and atheistic worldview, as well as neuroscience but Ligotti also uses the views of Buddhist philosophy to make his point.  Buddhism is built around the goal of the elimination of the ego and the ending of the cycle of human suffering through reincarnation.  Ligotti looks at the views expressed in contemporary neuroscience and contrasts them with this spiritual worldview and finds them completely compatible.  Human consciousness is an illusion caused by the appearance of a series of mental processes as a consistent “self” and this is the cause of all human suffering.

This viewpoint is not without some controversy.  Ligotti mentions Nietzsche in his book as somebody who would reject such a view of the self, but Ligotti sees any philosophy that rejects this as merely being a rationalization.  Moving onto his second point, Ligotti argues that existence itself is the source of all suffering and that nonexistence is better.

How one would argue against this seems daunting at first.  It seems unquestionably true that one has to exist I order to suffer.  To Ligotti, there may be moments of pure ecstasy that beings may experience but such states only serve to forget the suffering of one’s existence that is a near constant state of being.  Ligotti focuses much on the idea of the anxiety of death and the slow decay of the body as one ages in order to make this point.

One of the more interesting arguments that Ligotti makes is about depression and specifically melancholic depression.  There is already a “controversial”  view that depressed individuals see the world more realistically than non-depressed individuals.   Ligotti seems to embrace this view whole heatedly and having experienced melancholic depression myself, I can say that it feels much the way that it describes.  It is also very hard to shake because there is a very distinct feeling that one has been given a glimpse of reality “as it really is.”

All of this is great for Ligotti as a horror writer, but there are arguments against it.  Many of them are the same as those leveled at some of the claims of neuroscience.  To many, the idea of consciousness being an illusion is contradictory because consciousness is needed to perceive an illusion.  In other words, to a lot of people the idea of the self not existing is a refutation of the one of the most obvious a priori concepts simply because it cannot fit a materialistic reductionist view of how the mind works.  Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett fire back that though the sentence “consciousness is an illusion” seems contradictory it is in fact accurate because consciousness is “not what you think it is.”

To me this argument is between a conception of the objective and the subjective.  Ligotti’s view waffles because he denies the legitimacy of subjective experiences because it is these themselves that are inherent in consciousness.  However, when it comes to his arguments about depression, he argues that it is the absence of emotions that reveal reality as it really is.  What is implicit in this view is that a lack of emotions leads to a state of objectivity, but since Ligotti has already made the case that human consciousness is not a real property, it is puzzling that he still relies on an enlightenment view of rationality, where his mind is able to perceive an objective reality once emotions are removed from the equation.

This comes up again when Ligotti discusses the idea that if somebody holds a view like his own they should just kill themselves.  Ligotti seems to think this objection is so absurd as to be able to dismissed on its face but he then goes onto argue against it.  He argues that fear of death, emotional attachment and self-delusion are the reasons people do not kill themselves and implies that a perfectly rational person would prefer to die.

The “objective vs. subjective” tangle never gets properly addressed in his book.  He uses the term “malignantly useless” to describe human existence but useless is really a neutral term if we replace it with a term Ligotti uses much more often, “meaningless.”  Ligotti’s whole thesis is that a meaningless existence is inherently bad, but where he gets a negative from a neutral state is not expanded upon.  That brings us to the subject of antinatalism.

Antinatalism can be argued on different grounds than those of Ligotti.  Though he is cited as an influence, philosopher David Benatar takes a less absolutist tact than Ligotti does in his book, Better Never To Have Been.  There are also religious antinatalists who do not rely on Ligotti’s foundation of atheistic materialism.   Ligotti argues that having children is inherently wrong, and that is not because human lives contain more aggregate suffering than pleasure, as Benatar argues, but because bringing beings into existence inflicts suffering and that can never be justified.

The standard argument against antinatalism goes as follows.  In order to compare two states to one another a being must exist, i.e. a state of pleasure is better than a state of suffering.  Since nonexistence is not a state then it can never be said that nonexistence can be better than existence.

I reject this argument as obviously flawed and it resembles Kant’s famous argument against suicide.  Kant argued that to kill oneself in order to avoid suffering violated the categorical imperative.  If one were to kill oneself there would be no self to benefit from the lack of suffering, therefore the maxim was contradictory.   Imagine an elderly person facing imminent death who is in great pain.  They might live for months but suffer horrendous pain for those months.  If they chose to die instead, it would seem absurd to argue that is not a rational choice, and Ligotti uses an example very similar from a real life case.  This is also not a hypothetical for me.  My grandmother faced this same decision in April of this year and chose to die rather than suffer.

Ligotti argues that antinatalism is justified by any moral theory one could apply, but since he argues that the opinion of the subject is irrelevant and denies the validity of subjective experience that simply isn’t true.  His version cannot even be justified by traditional utilitarianism, the way that David Benatar does, and relies on a “negative utilitarianism.”  Ligotti even makes this argument explicitly after saying that “any moral theory” justifies his views.  Negative utilitarianism states that any infliction of suffering is wrong, and therefore having children would be wrong because it is inevitable that any being brought into existence would suffer.

The debate around antinatalism is an interesting one to me because not only do antinatalists argue that having children is an inherent bad, most of the rest of society argues the dubious claim that it is an inherent good.  Many a parent has told their child that they should be grateful to them for “bringing them into this world,” and people who may not be antinatalists, but choose not to have children because of personal preferences are attacked as selfish and immoral even though their decision effects the world in no negative way that could be anticipated.  Perhaps they would have given birth to the next Einstein but that is far less likely than the alternative.

My own view is that the conversation is much more complicated than is usually given credit for.   Like most viewpoints, no matter what version you examine, antinatalism relies on at least a few core assumptions and one’s that it is unlikely that everybody can be convinced by.  Ligotti doesn’t really care, at the end of the day, what people do, but his worldview is “useful” in allowing him to create the kind of horror that he does so well.