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Peter Singer: Should This Be the Last Generation?

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The philosopher Peter Singer discusses the ethics of procreation and voluntary extinction in the New York Times:

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.

Two things are surprising about this:

  1. The antinatalism question is appearing in a major media outlet at all.
  2. The treatment and the comments are surprisingly balanced and intelligent, especially given the nature of the medium and the audience.

Singer does throw in the usual dash of Pollyanna-ish, feel-good idiocy:

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.

Overall, however, it’s a huge step forward for the antinatalist cause.

A thoughtful comment from “sarah” in Brooklyn:

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.

Thanks Rob!

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Written by Sister Y

June 7, 2010 at 9:06 pm

15 Responses

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  1. You quote Singer playing nice:

    “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.”

    Although these lines are preceded by the soft declaration that “I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe,” the passage you quote provides more of a palliative than a supporting argument. Singer's non-sequitur speculations (that for most people life is worth living, and that suffering will be alleviated to whatever extent in the future) are prosaically defensible and serve to subtly shift the focus from the central problem that he articulates more clearly when he summarizes Benatar's views.

    I think Singer is choosing his words very carefully. Could be, he's just testing the waters.

    Chip

    June 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

  2. Interesting. I think your interpretation is more in line with the tone of the earlier part of the essay.

    And more in line with what little I know of Singer.

    Sister Y

    June 8, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  3. “Could be, he's just testing the waters.”

    I was wondering the same thing. Tip-toeing around the subject, perhaps? I can't really speak to what he actually believes, but I imagine he'd lose a lot of credibility in certain circles for seriously condoning the 'A' word.

    metamorphhh

    June 9, 2010 at 3:25 am

  4. Do you think he has any credibility in those circles in the first place?

    Chips interpretation has some plausibility. It's quite possible that Singer does indeed think antinatalism isn't correct, but that he wrapped it up in such crass optimism may be a tribute to the public. I wonder if that was a responsible thing of him to do as a philosopher, as I guess many people will just say “Oh, look, even Peter Singer thinks that existence is, after all, a good thing, so it's fine to be optimistic.”

    On the other hand, what I could bear to read of the comment section suggests otherwise. These people seem to be largely ignoring the last paragraph…

    Constant

    June 9, 2010 at 9:30 am

  5. I doubt Singer would risk jeopardizing the viable efforts to ameliorate suffering he's involved with by publicly endorsing antinatalism, even if he does think it is correct.

    In September, when he visits my neck of the woods for a lecture, I'll ask him during one of the informal activities surrounding the occasion for his thoughts on antinatalism.

    Rob

    June 9, 2010 at 5:09 pm

  6. Constant:

    I noticed a lot of the commenters passed right by Singer's Pollyanish conclusion, seemingly choosing to castigate him for daring to even bring up the subject. This all makes me appreciate Benatar's straightforwardness all the more.

    metamorphhh

    June 9, 2010 at 6:40 pm

  7. I sent Singer a copy of “Confessions of an Antinatalist” yesterday.

    Rob: can you provide details on the lecture? I'll make plans to attend.

    Chip

    June 10, 2010 at 1:46 am

  8. Jim makes an excellent point about the commenters. I noticed it too. Does it mean that in order to be taken seriously, you should start with feel-goodish idiocy? Jim and Sister Y, you had better rename your blogs into Lolcats haz cheeeezburgers and ZOMG!Robert Pattinson!!! asap.

    And then there was a disturbing amount of people dismissing the article either because it didn't contain the word God, or because they think philosophy is stupid. Makes you wonder why they even bothered reading it. Did Focus on the Family link to it already? And then someone said Singer was advocating “passive genocide”. Aren't people the best?

    CM

    June 10, 2010 at 3:44 am

  9. Suicide story you might be interested in:
    http://nymag.com/news/features/66285/

    I also think Bryan Caplan has a more accurate perspective than “sarah”.

    TGGP

    June 10, 2010 at 5:24 am

  10. CM:

    I've run across the 'genocide' charge quite a few times. So, if advocating that folks en masse voluntarily stop having babies is genocide, does that make discouraging every 14yr old fertile girl from breeding…murder?

    metamorphhh

    June 10, 2010 at 3:51 pm

  11. The comments to this Psychology Today post are even more unhinged and vitriolic.

    Chip, I'll email you the details.

    Rob

    June 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm

  12. Thanks for the link, Rob. I posted it on my blog.

    metamorphhh

    June 10, 2010 at 5:52 pm

  13. Looking forward to this collection and Benatar's contribution to The Onion and Philosophy.

    Rob

    June 11, 2010 at 12:08 am

  14. Whenever I come across those daft “Children Are Pwecious” commenters, watching this video makes me feel better.

    Elizabeth

    June 13, 2010 at 7:16 pm

  15. Singer now has a follow-up post, the best moment of which, to my mind, comes from a reader he quotes: “I love my kids so much that I didn’t have them.”

    Rob

    June 16, 2010 at 8:58 pm


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