No More Generations?

On the NYT’s philosophy blog, there was an article written about the decision to have children. I didn’t realize it when I first read it, but it was written by notorious pro-abort Peter Singer (and by notorious, I mean that he’s pro-choice even after birth).

But very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself. Most of those who consider that question probably do so because they have some reason to fear that the child’s life would be especially difficult — for example, if they have a family history of a devastating illness, physical or mental, that cannot yet be detected prenatally

All this suggests that we think it is wrong to bring into the world a child whose prospects for a happy, healthy life are poor, but we don’t usually think the fact that a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life is a reason for bringing the child into existence. This has come to be known among philosophers as “the asymmetry” and it is not easy to justify. But rather than go into the explanations usually proffered — and why they fail — I want to raise a related problem. How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world?

A quick observation will point out that Singer assumes that health is a requirement for happiness, an assumption well refuted by many anecdotes about the joy of those who suffer with illness.

However, I find it amazing that Singer is willing to attempt to determine how “good” a child’s life will be.

How on earth does a parent determine this? Wealth, health are factors, but you would also need to consider community, education, friends, interests, and so on and so forth. There are innumerable factors that make such a calculation laughable at best. For example, wealth probably depends on one’s job, but as the recent downturn has shown us what was once secure can be gone rather quickly. Then, you could consider community: for example that New York has a great arts scene allowing the child to become more cultured-only to find that the child has no interest in art and would much rather be in Nashville playing country music.

Really, there is no way to determine whether or not a being with free will (which is the problem with much of Singer’s utilitarian analysis; he does not view humans this way) will in fact have a good life.

This then reveals the problem with this line of thought: WE are making the determination about when life starts, a determination that quite frankly we have no business making. God however, does have the capabilities to sort through all the factors to decide when it is best that a child come into the world.

In other words, I think Singer’s line of questioning ultimately leads us to reaffirm the necessity of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, NFP, and the like. Ultimately we need the humility to depend on God rather than our own feeble determinations.

Singer then goes on to discuss a philosopher whose thesis is that human life is actually quite miserable and then raises this question:

If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.

Here is a thought experiment to test our attitudes to this view. Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. Some stop eating meat, or flying abroad on vacation, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. But the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about.

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!

Is this not in fact what we are already doing with contraception? But Singer is proposing contraception across the board: a species-wide sterilization.

No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. 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. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living?

Where can we find an answer to this?

Well Sheen says life is worth living so that settles it.

In all seriousness, you see where we’ve come. We’ve shifted from merely deciding against individual children b/c we have the pride to not trust god to now we’re discussing whether the human race itself should continue.

This is where Sheen’s works come in but also the Holy Father’s, who in Spe Salvi reaffirmed the desperate need for hope both in eternal life and in this life:

31. Let us say once again: we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is “truly” life.

Benedict sees these “greater and lesser” hopes as giving meaning to the sufferings in life, a meaning which ultimately makes life worth living.

But you have to give Singer credit for being logical. If there is no good, no purpose in love or sacrifice and no eternal life, then perhaps life is not worth living and humanity ought to cease to exist. This underscores the need for us to bring God and his hope to people: as Singer makes clear, the future of humanity may depend on it.

12 Responses to No More Generations?

  • j. christian says:

    Comment #4 at NYT:
    “Perhaps it’s my depression talking, but I have long maintained that I was done a disservice by being created in the first place. I would not inflict that pain on anyone else.”

    Comment #6:
    “I think about this a lot – so many pregnant women are out there, and I wonder where they find the hope to have children. My son is a young adult, and I feel that the likelihood of his living out a natural lifespan is small. Environmental disaster, terrorism, the end of the world feels awfully close. Frankly, I love the idea of a planet devoid of people, healing itself from our damage, taken over by animals and plants. I don’t think most people lead such fabulous lives, and I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing our beautiful home to let more people slog along.”

    This is what we’re dealing with.

  • Singer makes an odd structural decision in his piece. He lays out all the reasons for not reproducing, and then throws in with no explanation in the last paragraph:

    I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. 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. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. 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?

    Which leaves us with the question: if he think that life is actually worth living, why? Or is this his own blind leap of faith? From what he lays out before, there seems little reason to come to this conclusion. It strikes me as a rather intellectually cowardly approach not to even provide support for your own conclusion.

  • Yes, that struck me too. It does seem that in essence he has faith in progress (and science presumably) that the suffering scales will be tipped.

    What I don’t understand is how it is justified to make the generations in between suffer (including Singer as he continues to live a life not worth living) so that the future generations can enjoy a life worth living.

  • Geoffrey says:

    “But you have to give Singer credit for being logical. If there is no good, no purpose in love or sacrifice and no eternal life, then perhaps life is not worth living and humanity ought to cease to exist.”

    Isn’t it none-sense to speak about what will be good or bad for a nonentity? I mean, before conception, “you” don’t exist. And if my life is so bad, how could it be better for me to die when (if you believe the self perishes at death), there is no more “me” in the equation?

    Singer is playing with square circles as if he were doing serious geometry.

  • j. christian says:

    Singer is playing with square circles as if he were doing serious geometry.

    When I first heard of the David Benatar book Singer cited, I thought the same thing — it’s sheer nonsense. To what entity does the “good” of nonexistence accrue? What does it even mean to talk of “good” if there is no existence to assert what is good or bad?

    These guys need to do some serious reflection on the meaning of Exodus 3:14.

  • Kyle Cupp says:

    Singer’s position seems to be that life may be worth living in the future, so he thinks it’s worth continuing the species in hopes that we get there, and also because most people today already assess life as worth living.

    I took him to be raising questions more than providing answers, so I don’t fault him for not providing more support for his position. He may, in fact, have developed his position quite thoroughly elsewhere.

  • Kyle Cupp says:

    God however, does have the capabilities to sort through all the factors to decide when it is best that a child come into the world.

    Would you say that when each and every child comes into the world, that God has decided it was best?

  • Kyle:

    I have a feeling “best” is the wrong word, b/c I don’t know if there ever if a “best” time for a child. I do think that God finds that it would be good for a child to be born and so it happens. If it would be bad for a child to come into the world, I don’t think it would happen.

  • Kyle Cupp says:

    Karen,

    I have no qualms about defending Singer when I think he’s right. In this case, though, I merely noted how I understood his position: I didn’t judge his position as right or wrong.

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