Thursday, 10 June 2010

Should atheists have children?

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 Richardson
10 June 2010
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  1. Peter Singer can think, speak and write, but he is without natural affection as II Timothy 2:3 describes.

    NO - he should not have children, nor should he be allowed around children.

    He is dangerous to society. A sane institution would not employ him. Woe to Princeton for 'tolerating' such a 'thinker.'

  2. Not wholly the same, but this post brings to mind a section of Chesterton's Ballad of the White Horse, where Alfred, having listened to the musings of the Danes, stands up and asks

    'What have the strong gods given?

    Where have the glad gods led?

    When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne

    And asks if he is dead?'

    Insert the phrase 'better off' into the end of that last line and the (rhetorical) question is relevant to this debate, too.

  3. I think this is a pretty daft line of argument, no offence intended, it is just the way it strikes me.
    An atheist might well say, "why do Christians bother to have treatment for a life threatening illness? If they are going to heaven, surely it would be better for them to die sooner and thus meet their Lord sooner?" Also, why do Christians fuss about abortion? They believe the unborn child has a soul, it is innocent and is going straight to the loving arms of God for eternity. Why take the chance of putting it through life with all its misery and also risking its immortal soul into the bargain? Logically abortion is a better option for the foetus at least?

    Now - I think these arguments are pretty spurious because they ignore the strength of the will to live and the capacity of human life to bring us joy in spite of pain and death and suffering - which is a part of life as a whole.

    For an atheist, there may not be an "ultimate" meaning to life, but that can allow them to see life as a means in itself, not a means to an end. That framework can create a determination to treasure every moment of life and to work for justice and well being on this earth as far as is possible.

    I never seriously ask myself why atheists have kids, just as I never seriously ask myself why a Christian is eager to take steps to avoid a premature death!

  4. Suem, I think the argument with which you have to engage is Singer's and Benatar's, not the 'Christian' argument.

  5. I am pretty familiar with similar arguments (Singer's and Benatar's) and, having engaged with those before, was more interested in challenging yours. I can't see why that is a problem since you wrote the post?
    Ideas about the meaningless of human existence can be traced back quite far. I think it was Socrates who said the best fate of all is not to be born? The twentieth century did see an increase in Nihilistic thought- the ache of modernism - which certainly may be linked to increasing atheism.
    My main argument is with the idea that these types of philosophical arguments can lead us to a view that life and procreation is "meaningful" for those with a faith and "meaningless" for those without. If you have a faith, you do have an increased life expectancy, but I believe Christians still have equally high rates of depression, for example and it is simply not true that atheists find existence empty or meaningless. You could also claim that St Paul, one of the earliest Christian philosophers, was hardly in favour of people going forth and multiplying. Paul thought it best to stay single and avoid marriage ( and so children.) After all, if Christ's return is imminent, what is the point of procreating? You see similar ideas in extreme fundamentalis America - what is the point of trying to save the planet, the end times are around the corner and these things are predicted in the bible?

    A more social gospel does believe in "life before death" - but the idea of the afterlife has been used to tell people to tolerate misery on earth ( Marx opiate of the people) or to justify their execution as they are damned anyhow OR their soul could be saved by burning at the state.

    I suppose I think Singer's argument interesting, but it goes against the grain of human nature and instinct. Atheists, just like Christians,want kids because of human instinct, Christians, just like atheists, fear death because of human instinct. We are still the same species!

  6. Suem, just so I can be clear about this, I wonder if you would mind offering a precis of what you think I'm arguing.

    You've written, "My main argument is with the idea that these types of philosophical arguments can lead us to a view that life and procreation is "meaningful" for those with a faith and "meaningless" for those without."

    Fine, but that's not what I've said. I don't think Singer is saying life is simply 'meaningless', and I'm not saying it is for an atheist either. (I can't speak for Benatar.) That's not the point behind Singer's suggestion, and therefore not the point that needs answering, nor is it the particular issue I'm trying to highlight in Singer and Benatar's work.

    So I just wonder if you could outline how you reached the conclusion that this was anything like what I was saying.

    What I really want to hear is a 'thinking atheist' response to Singer's argument in atheist terms.

  7. Well you do take issue with Singer's "mere" optimism,

    Singer basis his objection to Benatar’s pessimism on his own mere optimism and faith: “I am enough of an optimist to believe ...”

    I may be wrong, but you seemed to be arguing tht optimism was not an appropriate atheistic response to life in that you go on to say,

    "Singer, it seems, finally falls foul of the problem which affects many atheists, that they just do not want to act like one."

    So, atheists should not be optimists, nor place a postive spin on human existence, but live their lives in a way that tallies with a belief that existence is devoid of meaning? If I've got that wrong, you'd need to explain again what you mean by "acting like an atheist" - and whether you think to truly "act like an atheist" one would not want to procreate?

    My point to you was that Christians could equally be accused of not "acting like Christians", so, an atheist might question why a Christian would pursue life saving treatment in preference to meeting their maker that bit earlier.

    (I hope that makes my response to your piece clearer. By the way, I don't actually accuse you of saying that an atheists life is meaningless - I wrote,
    " these types of philosophical arguments can lead us to a view that life and procreation is "meaningful" for those with a faith and "meaningless" for those without."
    Important to note the distinction between the phrase, "can lead us" - not "has led you".)

  8. I am afraid I can't give you an atheist's response, I have discussed these kind of issues with atheists- but I'm not one!

  9. Suem, my objection to Singer's conclusion was his opting merely to be optimistic, rather than evidential: "I am enough of an optimist to believe that ... we will learn from our past mistakes ...", whereas I am genuinely not sure that we do (look at the repetitious nature of economic bubbles, for example).

    I would be interested to see Benatar's response to that. I am not, though, saying an atheist cannot be optimistic, but rather, given the hugeness of the issue Singer addresses, his optimism is simply not a strong answer to his own case.

    In his case, I think his atheism is relatively thoroughgoing. But there is a point at which I think he baulks at his own potential conclusions.

    As to what I understood you to be saying about the approach I was taking, you wrote: "My main argument is with the idea that these types of philosophical arguments can lead us to a view that life and procreation is "meaningful" for those with a faith and "meaningless" for those without."

    Fine, but then I take it your argument is not with me (at least, not at this point)!

    Incidentally, I am just listening to the tail end of the second Reith lecture, by Martin Rees, and I think some of these big questions are now being opened up. But we are not in the habit of thinking things through, nor are we as a culture really, yet, as familiar as we might like to think with the intellectual landscape of a godless Universe.

  10. Interesting!
    I suppose we might ask, if the universe is Godless and life ultimately meaningless, where does that optimism come from? I remember reading a book - it might actually be The Selfish Gene- years ago, and was struck by the author saying he found it hard to account for certain aspects of humanity (music was one of them) in the light of lack of ultimate meaning.
    From a Darwinistic point of view, a thinking atheist might argue that optimism is a "survival mechanism" built deep into humanity to ensure the continuation of the species. This might be seen as a bit of a cruel joke by atheists, as in the comi-tragic view of life; it is not worth living, yet we are at the mercy of our need to cling to it. Alternatively, as in the myth of Pandora's box, optimism (hope) could be seen as the one redeeming quality given to mankind?

  11. I've missed the Reith lectures- are they available online?

  12. Suem, the current Reith lecture is here. I've a nasty feeling we've already missed the previous one even online, but you may be able to find it.

    The 'meaning/meaningless' question is interesting. What do we mean by saying life is 'meaningful' or, perhaps especially, 'meaningless'? Why should it be assumed (as it seems to be by some) that it needs to be eternal to have 'meaning'?

    Also, I'm not sure why the existence of divinity is argued as giving life 'meaning', whereas it is assumed that any sentient life cannot similarly give life 'meaning'. Was not investing life with meaning by the choices we make the basis of existentialism? (I certainly thought it was.)

    Thus I think rather than use terms like 'meaningless', what we should actually say is that life has a very different framework of 'meaning' depending on your overall viewpoint. (This is really just to say things are more complicated than they appear at first glance.)

    The point of the Singer/Benatar 'conundrum' seems to be that whilst those of us who are already here can enjoy life and invest it with our own meaning, nevertheless given the 'payoff' that we know exists in terms of life's disatisfactions and, ultimately, our individual extinction, would it not be better not to bring other beings into existence?

    It is, I think, a fair question, and I will be interested to see whether it attracts more attention now that Singer has picked it up.