At the New York Times blog, Peter Singer favorably discusses a book that I haven’t read–Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence–that illuminates the profound danger of Singer’s utilitarian philosophy and the growing nihilism among the intellectual set. From Singer’s post:
Have you ever thought about whether to have a child? If so, what factors entered into your decision? Was it whether having children would be good for you, your partner and others close to the possible child, such as children you may already have, or perhaps your parents?
For most people contemplating reproduction, those are the dominant questions. Some may also think about the desirability of adding to the strain that the nearly seven billion people already here are putting on our planet’s environment. 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.
That’s pretty simplistic. People don’t sit back and coolly make utilitarian decisions. We are more vibrant than that, for good and ill, more messy. Moreover, people who don’t want children that will experience difficulties often make that decision because of the problems it will create in their own lives, a value system promoted by the popular culture–hence the ubiquitous practice of eugenic abortion, and in the Netherlands, infanticide–both of which practices are supported enthusiastically by Singer. Reducing childbearing to crass utilitarian measurements and projections of suffering, thus, leads to justifying killing as an answer thereto, illustrating the oppression unleashed by the avoid suffering at all costs attitudes so prevalent today.
Singer takes this mindset to the next logical step, sympathizing with the view that we should become extinct as a way of avoiding suffering:
The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer held that even the best life possible for humans is one in which we strive for ends that, once achieved, bring only fleeting satisfaction. New desires then lead us on to further futile struggle and the cycle repeats itself. Schopenhauer’s pessimism has had few defenders over the past two centuries, but one has recently emerged, in the South African philosopher David Benatar, author of a fine book with an arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” One of Benatar’s arguments trades on something like the asymmetry noted earlier. 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.
Erin Schell 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.
This is nihilism on stilts and it is polluting the West’s self confidence and belief in universal human equality like the BP oil well is polluting the Caribbean. Only the resulting mess isn’t measured in polluted beaches and dead birds, but existential despair that destroys human lives.
After seeming to embrace the concept of human extinction, Singer takes a step back:
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?
We have to “justify” continuing the species? Good grief. Under the influence of anti-human advocates like Peter Singer, we have gone in the West from seeking to “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity,” to seriously questioning whether there should be any posterity at all. This is not healthy. But it is the natural consequence of rejecting human exceptionalism.