Thus the ‘thousand consolatory fictions’ that deny our captivity in dying beasts, afloat on a speck of dust in the eternal void. And after all, if a godly creator is waiting in the wings, it must be akin to the Lord in The Book of Job, since it allows its breathing creations to be “tumbled and destroyed in a vast machinery of forces foreign to interests.” Asserts Zapffe: “The more a human being in his worldview approaches the goal, the hegemony of love in a moral universe, the more has he become slipshod in the light of intellectual honesty.” The only escape from this predicament should be to discontinue the human race. Though extinction by agreement is not a terribly likely scenario, that is no more than an empirical fact of public opinion; in principle, all it would require is a global consensus to reproduce below replacement rates, and in a few generations, the likening of humankind would “not be the stars or the ocean sand, but a river dwindling to nothing in the great drought.”
So if you believe in a moral world order and the ultimate hegemony of love in the midst of all this misery and apparent senselessness, if you deny our irremediable "captivity in dying beasts," (what a great line!) then you display a lack of intellectual honesty. Let's think about this.
The gist of Zapffe's s position as best I can make out from the fragments I have read is that our over-developed consciousness is an evolutionary fluke that makes us miserable by uselessly generating in us the conceit that we are more than animals and somehow deserving of something better than dying like an animal after some years of struggle. Giseles: "Evolution, he [Zapffe] argues, overdid its act when creating the human brain, akin to how a contemporary of the hunter, a deer misnamed the ‘Irish elk’, became moribund by its increasingly oversized antlers." A powerful image. The unfortunate species of deer, having evolved huge antlers for defense, cannot carry their weight and dies out in consequence. Similarly with us. We cannot carry the weight of the awareness born of our hypertrophic brains, an awareness that is not life-enhancing but inimical to life.
Human existence is thus absurd, without point or purpose. For human existence is not a merely biological living, but a conscious and self-conscious living, a reflective and self-questioning living in the light of the 'knowledge' of good and evil. Human existence is a mode of existence in which one apperceives oneself as aware of moral distinctions and as free to choose right or wrong. Whether or not we are really free, we cannot help but experience ourselves as free. Having become morally reflective, man becomes self-questioning. He hesitates, he feels guilty, his direct connection to life is weakened and in some cases destroyed. He torments himself with questions he cannot answer. The male beast in heat seizes the female and has his way with her. He doesn't reflect or scruple. 'Respect for persons' does not hobble him. The human beast, weakened by consciousness, self-consciousness, moral sensitivity, reason, objectivity, and all the rest, hesitates and moralizes -- and the female gets away.
In short, man is a sick animal weakened by an over-developed brain who torments himself with questions about morality and ultimate meaning and then answers them by inventing consolatory fictions about God and the soul, or else about a future society in which the problem of meaning will be solved. Either pie in the sky or pie in the future to be washed down with leftist Kool-Aid. The truth, however, is that there is no ultimate meaning to be found either beyond the grave or this side of it. The truth is that human existence -- which again is not a merely biological living -- is absurd. And at some level we all know this to be the case. We all know, deep down, that we are just over-clever land mammals without a higher origin or higher destiny. One who will not accept this truth and who seeks to evade reality via religious and secular faiths is intellectually dishonest. Antinatalism follows from intellectual honesty: it is wrong to cause the existence of more meaningless human lives. It is unfortunate that the human race came to be in the first place; the next best thing would be for it to die out.
Many of us have entertained such a dark vision at one time or another. But does it stand up to rational scrutiny? Could this really be the way things are? Or is this dark vision the nightmare of a diseased mind and heart?
There are several questions we can ask. Here I will consider only one: Can Zapffe legitimately demand intellectual honesty given his own premises?
The Demand for Intellectual Honesty
Zapffe thinks we ought to be intellectually honest and admit the absurdity of human existence. This is presumably a moral ought, and indeed a categorical moral ought. We ought to accept the truth, not because of some desirable consequence of accepting it, but because it is the truth. But surely the following question cannot be suppressed: What place is there in an amoral universe for objective moral oughts and objective moral demands? No place at all.
It is we who demand that reality be faced and it is we who judge negatively those we do not face it. We demand truthfulness and condemn willful self-deception. But these demands of ours are absurd demands if our mental life is an absurd excrescence of matter. They would in that case have no objective validity whatsoever. The absurdist cannot, consistently with his absurdism, make moral demands and invoke objective moral oughts. He cannot coherently say: You ought to face the truth! You ought not deceive yourself or believe something because it is consoling or otherwise life-enhancing. Why should I face the truth?
"Because it is the truth."
But this is no answer, but a miserable tautology. The truth has no claim on my attention unless it is objectively valuable and, because objectively valuable, capable of generating in me an obligation to accept it. So why should I accept the truth?
"Because accepting the truth will help you adapt to your environment."
But this is exactly what is not the case in the present instance. The truth I am supposed to accept, namely, that my existence is meaningless, is inimical to my happiness and well-being. After all, numerous empirical studies have shown that conservatives, who tend to be religious, are much happier than leftists who tend to be irreligious. These people, from the absurdist perspective, fool themselves, but from the same perspective there can be no moral objection to such self-deception.
So again, assuming that human life is absurd, why should we accept rather than evade this supposed truth?
The absurdist cannot coherently maintain that one ought to be intellectually honest, or hold that being such is better than being intellectually dishonest. Nor can he hold that humans ought not procreate. Indeed, he cannot even maintain that it is an objectively bad thing that human existence is absurd.
The fundamental problem here is that the absurdist cannot coherently maintain that truth is objectively valuable. In his world there is no room for objective values and disvalues. By presupposing that truth is objectively valuable and that our intellectual integrity depends on acknowledging it, he presupposes something inconsistent with his own premises.
"You are ignoring the possibility that objective values are grounded in objective needs. We are organisms that need truth because we need contact with reality to flourish. This is why truth is objectively valuable."
But again this misses the crucial point that on Zapffe's absurdism, acceptance of the truth about our condition is not life-enhancing, not conducive to our flourishing. On the contrary, evasion of this 'truth' is life-enhancing.
Addendum (2/25): Karl White refers us to some translations of Zapffe.