Thursday, July 01, 2010

Peter Singer and the Cleanest Apocalypse

Peter Singer is a rather infamous ethicist at Princeton and a public thinker who is often published in the pages of influential papers and popular journals. This gives Singer’s ideas a relatively powerful public platform, which is a little unfortunate. Most of what he argues for ends up being quite extreme in its dislike of the human species, and certainly at odds with a Christian worldview. Recently, he wrote a short opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “Should This Be The Last Generation?”

His basic question is this:

How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem?

Singer argues that it is certainly true that the birth of each child brings more suffering into the world, and that the birth of any child is neutral in its benefits/drawbacks at best. In other words, it is arguable that the birth of every child is a detriment to both the future of the human species and the planet. The reader should be aware that Singer is the current flag-bearer for utilitarianism, the ethical view that all meaningful notions of good and bad are wrapped up in the consequences of a thing or action. So, given this, it might be reasonable to argue that the totality of the goodness of the birth of a child may be measured by their carbon footprints. And, since they will inevitably add to the overall pollution of the planet, bringing them into existence is an overall moral negative. Hence, “If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

To return to the original question of the piece, whether the expected quality of life is good enough to bring a child into existence, it strikes me as deeply ironic that the answer for most potential children in all the developing world is likely, “no.” If we were to implement Singer’s argument, it would result in eugenics on a scale the world has never seen against the poorest of the poor, the darkest skinned among us, and every economic and ethnic minority you can think of. Surely Singer (and others) doesn’t really want to argue for that. Singer cites another philosopher who has written in depth about this.

...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.

The argument is simple; the assumptions are convoluted and debatable at best. Is the environment more important than having children? That might be a false dichotomy, but Benatar assumes yes. Is the human species the most significant (possibly negative) factor on the environment? With apologies to Al Gore and the NY cocktail circuit, anthropogenic global warming is far from a settled science. Is the value of a potential child captured by either their assumed “quality of life” or impact on the environment? Absolutely not.

And finally, with a kind of “wave of the hand” and after providing some tentative arguments for stopping childbearing altogether, Singer says that’s not really what he thinks. “I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living.”

I know it is a short article intended to provoke, but I am not sure Singer’s form of utilitarianism or general worldview can supply as robust an argument for continuing the species as it can for ending it.


Brian B said...

Hey Phil! Apropos of your post, I thought I'd mention that at the RoME conference next month in Boulder, Saul Smilansky is giving a talk titled "Should We Be Sorry that we Exist?" Don't know what exactly that talk will be about, but Smilansky is very sharp and fun to listen to. Might be interesting!

It also seemed to me that Singer wasn't worried about the impact of more children on the environment as a "wrong" or drawback in itself but only insofar as their "carbon footprint" tended to produce suffering (especially, he seems to say, though not exclusively, suffering for innocent human beings). I take it that he wouldn't worry about environmental impact except if - and to the extent that - it produced suffering or "disutility" of some sort, so that his talk of the former is just a way of indicating the latter, given the broadly accepted connection between the two. That seem plausible?

Phil Steiger said...

Hey Brian! Sounds like an interesting topic at RoME - hopefully I can be around to learn a little more about this whole idea.

It does seem to me Singer is concerned with the "disutility" of further generations, linking them strongly if not necessarily with negative environmental impact. So the likelihood that having children has negative consequences is high if not certain. He doesn't seem to me to come down strongly in favor of radical species limitation, but the article leans that way.

And ultimately, I am not certain if Singer has (or desires to have) categories outside of utility and disutility for "good" and "bad." And might this reduce the debate to one of carbon footprint measurements?

Brian B said...

I think you're right - seems he would want to identify 'good' and 'bad' with how much utility or disutility various courses of action bring about. Utility, meanwhile, he seemed to connect with 'desire satisfaction,' while linking disutility with 'suffering' and 'unfulfilled desires.' (This seems to put him somewhere between a 'preference utilitarian' and a 'hedonistic utilitarian,' I suppose.)

I took his "thought experiment" about climate change to be just one, albeit salient, example of a likely source or cause of disutility, but not to be defining or reducing a life's (dis)utility to its 'environmental impact.' Maybe I didn't quite get his point, but I thought he just meant to talk about carbon footprints as one example of a likely correlate (because a cause) of suffering (just as, for instance, I'm sure he'd talk about a person's spending habits as a good, but only partial, indicator of a life's (dis)utility). But no doubt, if there turned out to be credible evidence that unchecked climate change wouldn't cause suffering, Singer would not count climate change as a moral negative. (That seems to be yet another reason to disagree with him, at least if one is a theist inclined to regard harm to God's creation as wrong because it violates God's commands, even if it weren't the case that such harm directly caused suffering.)

As always, Singer is at least provocative, eh? =)

Phil Steiger said...

Provocative, absolutely! I found his launching point an interesting dichotomy - the possible conflict between the good of having children and the likelihood of their suffering in life. So, how should we gauge the positives and negatives of bringing a child into existence?

Here, I think ultimately, is the problem with a radical commitment to a form of utilitarianism. The theist is committed to the inherent good of each human life, and the wise theist is aware of the formation that is possible through any level of suffering in the course of life. Thus, a utilitatian approach to childbearing seems reductionistic to me.

I love reading Singer - because he always finds a way to irk as well as provoke.