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Are We Worth the Trouble?

Any piece with a title like “Should This Be the Last Generation?” is bound to provoke a bit of curiosity, especially when the famous misanthrope Peter Singer is discovered to be its author. Today, the issue on Singer’s mind is whether or not human beings should consider ceasing to reproduce as an ethical response to our predicament, whether from the perspective of ecological responsibility (i.e., human beings are bad for the planet, therefore less of us are better than more) or based on more existential concerns (every child born will suffer, and we have a duty to prevent suffering).

And so, Singer is wondering if human existence is a good enough thing to justify foisting it upon human infants who do not ask for it:

How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem?

As any parent knows, walking with your children as they come to realize some of the more unpleasant realities of the world we live in can be a difficult process. My kids are only eight years old, but they are obviously already aware that they live in a world that contains a fair amount of suffering. They know that there are children around the world without moms and dads, children who don’t get enough to eat. They know that some kids are born with medical conditions that they did not ask for. They know that people can behave wickedly and that innocent people get hurt. They might not use this kind of language, but they are aware that the world they will grow up and chart their future in is not an altogether just or safe place.

And despite knowing all of these things as parents before we ever procreate, and knowing that our kids will also have to come to terms with these things, we still decide to bring new life to a planet full of death and pain and injustice and ambiguity and uncertainty.

Our planet certainly contains much that is good, as well, but is it enough? Singer cites South African philosopher David Benatar, who has written a pleasantly-titled book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, who argues that even what we call a “good” life will contain enough suffering to make choosing to bring it about morally problematic. No matter how good things are for us materially, we all live with unfulfilled desires, we all experience the decline of our physical and mental faculties, we all watch people we love make decisions that hurt themselves and others, etc. According to Benatar, all of us tend to think our lives are better than they really are, and “if we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.”

Hmmm. So, given the fact that we’re apparently a lot more miserable than we think we are, and that the prospects of future generations aren’t much brighter, Singer muses along the following lines:

So why don’t we make ourselves the Last Generation on Earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

Of course this sounds comical and ridiculous on one level. But I’m actually inclined to give Singer’s arguments a bit of thought. The world does contain a lot of suffering and every life will be characterized by varying forms of struggle and strain, pleasure and pain. Maybe the assumption that existence is inherently good is worth pondering, even if our ponderings end up, as so many of ours seem to, affirming the merits of existence. Even Peter Singer ends up offering a fairly limp affirmation of human life based, one presumes, on the hope that we will one day come to realize our relative unimportance in the grand scheme of things and that this realization will somehow ameliorate our suffering. At the very least, it’s good to have thought about how and why we value the “gift” of life before passing it on to someone else.

Whatever one makes of the preceding, I’m glad I don’t have to base my answer to these questions on some kind of a misguided suffering calculus. For me, the affirmation that it is good and worthwhile for our species to hang around a while longer, despite the suffering we cause and endure, is grounded in the twofold belief that nothing good is ultimately lost in God’s world, and that grace and redemption are deeper and more lasting realities than whatever suffering I, my children, or future generations could ever face.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. You raise some fascinating — and disturbing — points here…
    As the mother of six… I await His coming in His time.

    The High Calling Community appreciates your thoughtful posts!

    All’s grace,
    Ann Voskamp

    June 7, 2010
  2. Ken #

    I have not read Singer’s work. My impression from the article and wiki entry is that he is not a misanthrope. He is appears quite interested in and concerned with morality, but is not a humanist. He also appears to be experimental, willing to think about what it means to have an ecological, non-human-centered ethic. That does not make him a misanthrope, nor worthy of any of the other bad words you have attached to him.

    It is difficult to believe that natural selection accounts for the origin of species and at the same time, understanding what that means, hold to a humanist ethic.

    In Origin of the Species Darwin explained what happens when the population of a species grows too large. We are there.

    June 7, 2010
    • The word “misanthrope” was used in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek way in light of how Singer is sometimes interpreted (especially with respect to his arguments about “speciesism”). I looked in vain for the “other bad words” I attached to him.

      June 7, 2010
      • Yes, you would have to be familiar with his work to catch that. He is a utilitarian through and through and one of his virtues is for the most part he is always consistent. He is willing to go to its logical limits, as is probably noticeable from the sections you referenced.

        Although, my question is this, would the reduction of humans on Earth increase net happiness. If we were to simply change our habits, such as no more factory farming or raising for slaughter, then does his thought experiment still hold weight. Sure, there would be less life for some species (even extinction), but the type of species does not truly matter. Plus, if we borrow from Mill, humans can experience the higher forms of pleasure, whereas other animals cannot. I guess it largely depends on the quantitative vs qualitative argument, but I fail to say how a reduction of humans rather than a change in habits, would decrease net pain and increase net happiness. Obviously I am staying within the framework Peter singer uses, which I find to be problematic, but it just doesn’t ‘add up.’

        June 7, 2010
      • Of course I share your concerns about whether reducing humans would increase net happiness. The most obvious question would be, “net happiness for whom? or for what?” If the idea is to “party our way to extinction,” net happiness seems to be irrelevant (unless we’re trying to make nature happy :)). The whole line of thinking here seems to boil down to, “sentient life involves suffering so maybe sentient life is the problem.” All in all, it’s a rather bizarre diagnosis and proposed cure, in my view.

        June 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        Ryan, I did not catch the tongue-in-cheek aspect of “misanthrope.” In the last couple of paragraphs you seemed to affirm the assessment saying he offers “a fairly limp affirmation of human life.” In addition, took “misguided suffering calculus” to be “bad words.” I have the impression that you view his work negatively, as in your response to Tyler in which you referred to his “bizarre diagnosis.”

        Tyler, James Lovelock does a good job of explaining the connections between suffering and population in The Revenge of Gaia. His analysis can be seen as an elaboration of the the connections between suffering and population that Darwin made in Origin of the Species. Each also advocates changing habits – Lovelock explicitly and Darwin implicitly.

        June 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        But I do take your word that tongue-in-cheek is what you meant.

        I have not read Singer and probably never will. His interests in morality and beliefs in its importance, benefits and rational determinability far exceed mine.

        June 8, 2010
      • Okay, but those aren’t really “bad words” are they? Singer’s affirmation of life is rather limp—he offers virtually no justification for why he affirms life other than a vague reference to the potential of suffering decreasing and that most people seem to think life is worth living. In light of what preceded this in the article and the underlying question motivating it (even though we seem to assume life is worth living, is it really?) I think the reader is justified in expecting more by way of explanation if the goodness of existence is to be affirmed.

        Re: the suffering calculus, I think it is misguided because I don’t think that in an of itself it is up to the challenge of pronouncing upon the value of existence. There are many people who suffer immensely and still affirm existence. Singer’s views have been criticized heavily by those in the disabled community for precisely this reason. I think that how we evaluate existence has to take more than just the amount of suffering into account. That is why I used the word “misguided.”

        I do view Singer’s work negatively (for logical as well as ethical reasons) and I do consider his diagnosis of our predicament bizarre. I don’t apologize for this. To be honest, I think the idea of “partying our way to extinction” as an act of moral service to ourselves and the planet ought to strike all of us a little bizarre.

        June 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        In the context in which Singer used the expression “partying our way to extinction,” I don’t think he was advocating that approach. And, at the end of his essay, he wrote, “I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living.”

        The irony is that ecological writers believe that what we are doing is “partying our way to extinction.” They (and Singer, apparently) wish we would not.

        From some ecological perspectives belief in redemption is part of the problem, a belief like you advocated in your last paragraph where you wrote about “the twofold belief that nothing good is ultimately lost in God’s world, and that grace and redemption are deeper and more lasting realities than whatever suffering I, my children, or future generations could ever face.” Such beliefs are thought to encourage “partying our way to extinction.” An example of an influential book in this respect is Thomas Berry’s book, The Dream of the Earth. He wants Christians to stop placing their hope in redemption and, instead, to place their hope in emergence. The belief is that hope in redemption keeps us from appreciating the ongoing importance of emergence and from doing what we need to do ecologically to let emergence continue to work.

        June 8, 2010
      • Such beliefs are thought to encourage “partying our way to extinction”

        I very much agree with this. It carries the implication that in the long run it is ok to fail.
        This is not true of all Christians by any means, but it is an easy resting block for many.

        June 8, 2010
      • James #

        What sort of logic implies that it is “OK to fail” if indeed our failures have eternal consequences? I realize that this this reasoning has imputed to Biblical faith but it is neither Biblical nor logical.

        June 8, 2010
      • That’s a good question James.

        Many I talk to seem to easily resign to the idea that good will overcome evil in the end, which is a noble idea but dangerous if one uses it as an excuse not to pursue the good they can do in the present. It make me think of the many humorous yet horrific scenes depicted in Candide.

        June 8, 2010
      • James #

        “many seem to easily resign to the idea that good will overcome evil in the end, which is a noble idea but dangerous if one uses it as an excuse not to pursue the good they can do in the present.”
        Indeed!! Pursuing the good we can do in the present- with an eye to the future- is an ethic I’m sure we all agree on. Very Anabaptist though. [I couldn’t resist 🙂 ]
        Your references take me back to the days when I immersed myself in the great writings of Western civilization for the pure exhilaration of it. Now I have to content myself with occasional visits and revisits 🙂

        June 8, 2010
  3. Ken, I look the book up. there is doubt in my mind that population levels are currently to high and their future estimations are horrifying, not just for environmental reasons, but also economical and social. However, in regards to the post, I don’t think in this case or any other case, has solutions found in the utilitarian system.

    Ryan, it is a bizarre diagnosis but it is expected from consequentialists. “Sentient life involves suffering so maybe sentient life is the problem,” this line is no longer driven by the desire of pleasure, only the absence of pain. It may fit in with the greatest happiness principle but it is so logically awkward. It goes against many other human impulses, such as a will for life.

    As from the critic par excellence:

    “There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.” With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. Supposing that one could altogether abolish danger, the reason for fear, this morality would be abolished, too, by that very act: it would no longer be needed, it would no longer consider itself necessary.”

    June 8, 2010
  4. James #

    I like the phrase “the calculus of suffering [or pleasure].” This is a nice extension of logic. Part of the “calculus,” of course, is the assigning of value. Pragmatism using the “calculus of suffering” is nothing more than a renamed Epicureanism. I think that the big problem for pragmatists [who want assign value to empathy] is that the value I place in my own pleasure [or suffering] is, logically, infinitely higher that of any other creature.
    Not a pleasant conclusion but one that billions of people come to every day. It is a conclusion that moves us from abstract philosophy to real life in the real world. Society has decided to name those who really espouse this philosophy, “psychopaths” as a way of demonstrating disapproval. They are really hard to argue with.

    June 8, 2010
  5. I see I’ve missed an interesting discussion while traveling today. I would simply add that I don’t think that a belief that good will win in the end necessarily leads to a neglect of doing good in the present. I don’t deny that some might act as if this was the case, but I don’t see how any reading of Scripture could lead to that conclusion.

    My comments about grace and redemption at the end of the initial post have to do with affirming the goodness and value of life even in light of the suffering it entails. I certainly was not advocating any kind of minimizing our responsibilities and opportunities in the present.

    June 8, 2010
  6. Check out Jim Crawford’s blog, and his recently published book “Confessions of an Antinatalist“.

    June 12, 2010

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