People who oppose abortion like to call themselves “pro-life.” Proponents of abortion object to that term, which implies that they are “anti-life.” But one of the most forthright defenders of abortion–also post-birth infanticide, euthanasia both voluntary and involuntary–really is “anti-life,” arguing philosophically that human life may not be not worth living. Why? Because we will experience suffering and because all of our desires will not be met. (OK, he does conclude by saying that life is worth living in the sense of not wanting to shut off evolution, which gives hope that things might get better.)
I am referring to Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who just over a year ago wrote this for the New York Times, a favorable review of David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence:
To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. 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.
Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. 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 a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. 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? 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?
What are the weaknesses in this argument?
Do, however, note Singer’s honesty in following the implications of his presuppositions. (If there is no God, just a meaningless material universe, of course there can be no ultimate hope. Or reason not to kill unwanted infants.) But note too our contemporary culture’s UTTER inability to deal with suffering, to the point that it is widely considered better to die than to suffer, or to kill to stop suffering. And note our contemporary culture’s UTTER orientation to the will, to desire, as if ANYTHING that interferes with our desires must be a great evil that casts doubt on the value of our lives.
HT: Collin Hansen at Christianity Today