Some time ago, I had what I thought was a great plot for a science-fiction novel, only for it to turn up in Terminator 3. Today, I am feeling equally miffed in that the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has pre-empted me on a blog post in which I was planning to ask, “Why should atheists have children?”
The lead to Singer’s article came from the Anglican Mainstream site, which points to a comment on Singer’s post, which can itself be found on the New York Times blog site. It is the last of these which you should really read.
Singer is a truly radical thinker, with (as I argued in my debate with Richard Norman on whether we can be good without God) a much better grasp of the philosophical implications of atheism than someone like Richard Dawkins. To some people he is known as an advocate of ‘animal rights’, but that is not least because he views human beings as another species of animal, and therefore is willing to extend the same moral principles as apply to humans to the rest of the animal kingdom.
At the forefront of Singer’s thinking is the question of suffering and its avoidance. In simplistic terms, he is a ‘utilitarian’, evaluating actions overall by their outcomes in terms of bringing about the best of situations for the most of sentient organisms.
In his blog article, therefore, he pushes this thinking to examine a question which I am surprised has not been given greater prominence before, namely, given the inevitably limited quality of all human life, would it not be better, now that we know there is nothing more than this life and have the ability to control our reproductive capacity, simply to make sure that this is the last generation of human beings?
He is prompted to ask this, however, by the publication of a work by a South African philosopher David Benatar — someone of whom I admit to never having heard, but whom Singer describes as “the author of a fine book with an arresting title: ‘Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.’”
In evaluating Benatar’s work, Singer notes that there is an asymmetry in our thinking when it comes to begetting children. We are troubled at the thought of brining into existence a child whose quality of life might be very low, but we do not use the idea that they might be happy as a converse argument that we should try for conception. (In fact, as Singer observes, the reasons why people decide to have children are generally much more to do with their own happiness and quality of life than anything which might benefit the child.)
Benatar, however, notes that all human life involves some suffering and (if we are honest) considerable disappointment. Thus, for example, as followers of this blog will have noticed, my wife’s elderly father is currently in hospital where his illness may prove terminal and where he is experiencing not just weakness, but indignity. Yet every child born is potentially like to suffer the same or worse, at least towards the end of their life. Singer notes, “To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person,” but, he continues, “to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her.”
Therefore, in Singer’s words,
Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.
Singer therefore offers this thought experiment to test our response to Benatar’s argument:
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!
As Singer points out, this has certain advantages, not least that we could stop feeling guilty about what we are doing to the planet. And we would not be depriving anyone of anything, for that potential ‘future generation’ simply does not, and will not, exist. As Singer puts it, “Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?”
However, Singer himself rejects Benatar’s conclusions, and his justification for this is worth reading in full:
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe [ie, one with no human beings]. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.
The first point to note here is that Singer makes quite a sweeping claim: “In my judgement, for most people, life is worth living.” Yet earlier in his post he is careful to apply his standards of judgement to “most people in developed nations”.
The reason for this is obvious: in under-developed nations, life for millions, if not billions, is a constant struggle. And indeed, Singer shows he is aware of this in his next sentence, “Even if this is not the case ...” Yet Singer basis his objection to Benatar’s pessimism on his own mere optimism and faith: “I am enough of an optimist to believe ...”
Singer, it seems, finally falls foul of the problem which affects many atheists, that they just do not want to act like one. A world without human beings is, for Singer (if you’ll pardon the pun) inconceivable, even if the only justification for its continuation is the blind hope that “things can only get better”.
Yet even he can only hope for a world in which there is “far less suffering”, not one in which there is none at all. And if the avoidance of suffering is important then we come back to the questions with which he concludes:
Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?
For a thinking atheist, these must be a real challenge.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
10 June 2010
10 June 2010