Should This Be the Last Generation?

June 13, 2010

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He raised this question in a NY Times Opinionator blog post: Should This Be the Last Generation?

Singer ultimately answers no to this question:

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?

So what is his justification for his choice?  Either today or in the relatively near future, we will have a world where there is less suffering.  In other words, on the whole, people will have lives where the joy outweighs the pain, and life will be worth living.

What reasons does Singer give in favor of this being the last generation?  He refers to Schopenhauer who claimed that even the best life is a futile struggle of satisfying our desires.  He refers to Benatar who argues that you can only harm – never benefit – individuals by bringing them into existence, and that “we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely [so that] continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none”.   According to Benatar, those who believe that lives can be, on balance, good, are merely Pollyannas – “irrepressible optimists” (Webster).  Singer appears to disagree at only one point: he is an unapologetic optimist.  Singer’s ethics are based on the principle of maximizing joy and minimizing suffering.

There are several unstated premises in this article worth noting.   Whether we accept them or not has a significant impact in how we answer the question at hand.

First, there is the assumption that the value of life is rooted in experience: how much suffering versus how much joy one experiences.  A competing premise is that life is valuable because it is the creation of a Creator and it is held valuable by Him, and that human life in particular is valuable because humans resemble that Creator in various ways (we reason, we love, we relate, we create).

Second, there is the assumption that the suffering and joys one experiences are limited to this life.  A competing premise is that our bodies are tents in which eternal souls dwell, and that beyond this life, we have been invited to enjoy inexpressible joy for eternity, dwelling with our Creator.  On this view, any suffering we experience in this life is nothing compared to the joy that is ours, just for the asking, in the life to come.

Third, there is the underlying assumption that it is not necessarily a good, indeed it may even be evil, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.  The biblical view is that doing this is positively a good thing (Genesis 1:28).

Other issues I would raise are:

  • The events that bring suffering into a person’s life are confused with the creation of that life.  To give a person existence is not the same as inflicting all the suffering on them that they will ever suffer.  So it is not clear how bringing a life into existence can be said to either harm or benefit that person.
  • If, somehow, bringing a person into existence can be said to either harm or benefit that person, no justification is given for the claim that it can only harm, but not benefit them.
  • How can a non-existent person be either harmed or benefited?

In the end, Singer offers us a thought experiment.  He offers us a choice “between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all”.  Which one is better?  Which ought we to choose?  His wording suggests the premise that the only difference between these two choices is the presence of sentient beings.  This assumes that we are merely sentient beings, and that is all there is to be said about us.  However, suppose that we are not merely sentient beings.  Suppose that we are created sentient beings, created for relationship with our Creator.  Suppose that suffering is present in the world because we rebelled, and continue to rebel, against our Creator.    Further suppose that there is promised a place to come where there will be no more pain, where we can delight in the glory of this awesome Creator, and that we have been given simple directions on how to get there: “Repent and believe”.   Add to this the fact that the Creator himself, on account of his love for us, entered his creation and suffered right along with us so as to open the way for us from here to there.  This is the view that the Bible presents, and these premises radically alter the choice that Singer sets before us.  It is terribly difficult to see what can make life worth living in Singer’s world of merely sentient beings.  Can there be any real meaning or purpose to our lives?  Can there be any real joy without real meaning or purpose?  I’ll take the world as presented in the Bible any day.  Be fruitful and multiply.


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