The French Institute in London inaugurated it’s first Cafe Philo, November 15, 1997 with:
Would it Have Been Better Not To Have Been Born?
At first glance this topic appeared as a non issue dead end street discussion. Well, if we’re not alive then we can’t discuss the matter any further. Most people wanted to push the subject under the table. But with a bit of perseverance and patience we plowed though with this one. At times there were heavy silences. Was it the subject that created this difficulty, or the "first-time" syndrome, or the omnipresence of the media? Can’t really say. The question was attacked as non-sense for if one ceases to exist one couldn’t be able to judge if it were better or not. Better infers a comparison – what was the comparison to: a negative "not to have been born"? Others felt the question was ridiculous and according to Wittgenstein this was "idle talk".
After these inital objections, the topic started opening up into other areas. If we think that it was better not to have been born, than we are starting to look critically at our lives and the world we live in. What kind of world is it? One we want to pass onto our children, or is it better not to have chilren in this world? Can we change this world to make it better for those children we would like to bring into it, or is it just passing the buck… Is there a conscious thought process going on prior to having children (propagating the species) or is it just bestial habit? Should we continue the species and why?
These questions led to other avenues of thought: What does it mean to be human (hence to continue the species or not)? Here we entered into thinking being introduced many years ago philosophically by Decartes with his famous maxim: cogito ergo sum, "je pense, donc je suis" I thnk, therefore I am. If man, as a thinking being must put his thoughts into action…should it not be to improve life and the world we live in? If so, how good a job has he done?
If we look a bit closer at the notion of being and nothingness and slightly follow Sartre’s thinking we come across free will in choosing to live one’s life and then the question becomes what can we do with this life we’ve chosen to live. There’s a certain responsibility attached to our acts and thus we assume the responsibility of our lives by the choices we make. What is the future of humanity? If we stop reproducing then we put an end to the human species. The ethical questions of deciding on "normal" or "abnormal" fetuses and destroying the "abnormal" during pregnancy arised even further thoughts. Is life terminated because of physical or mental disabilities? Who are we to judge? The cloning issue alongside of artificially inseminated pregnancies came up to demonstrate how science has advanced it’s techniques to assure the continuance of the human species. (Hence, there was a definite split in the group when the question of humanity as an evolutionary process set up on one side against the realists demonstrating that humanity has many lessons to learn before we can consider its’ future as progressive.)
Suicide came up as an act considered to disturb the continuum of the human species. For Albert Camus, when one raised the question of suicide, it was the beginning of a philosophical journey…as suicide was a philosophical question most philosophers address. It was pointed out that people taking drugs or other addictive substances were dying a slow death. Finding the world they live in unbearable or otherwise and having the need to escape "reality" (which reality we might ask), suicide became the chosen path for them.
Diversity and tolerance were discussed just as heatedly as the question of humanity’s future…in the present world we live in there’s a multiplicity of cultures and a certain necessity of tolerance for each. (At this point, the real fervor came out when someone asked the social anthropologist: How would he feel and what would he do if a family of cannibals came to live next door? His response: as long as they don’t bother me and my family, it was o.k.)