Peter Singer's Swan Song
Peter Singer intends to provoke. So the controversial Princeton University bioethicist probably does not mind the dismay he causes Christians. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler calls him "one of the most reprehensible intellectual forces alive today." Mohler cites a few of Singer's most notorious low-lights. "He has advocated the morality of human infanticide, for the greater value of animal life over some human life, and for a radical vision of animal rights that is based in his purely evolutionary view of life."
But with one recently published opinion piece, Singer may have outdone himself. Writing June 6 for The New York Times, Singer asks a characteristically provocative question: "How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world?" He wonders whether even the comparatively high Western standard of living is suitable for a fulfilling time on earth. Singer asks this question at the prompting of South African philosopher David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, which Singer describes as "a fine book with an arresting title." Singer summarizes Benatar's argument from the 2006 book.
"Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are," Singer writes. "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."
Singer offers climate change as one threat to the Western way of life. And he pulls no punches while offering one possible response to this potential crisis that he says threatens future generations. "[W]hy 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!" Whether he realizes it or not, Singer cites an ethic attested and condemned in Scripture (Isaiah 39:8; 1 Corinthians 15:32). If there is no hope for tomorrow, this dystopian ethic says, at least we don't have to worry about tomorrow. We can live it up today.
Singer doesn't actually go quite so far as Benatar. He acknowledges the abundance of suffering but maintains hope that humans will evolve.
"In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living," he writes. "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."
Though we may hope future generations will learn from our mistakes, history gives little such comfort. And besides, Christian anthropology recognizes the constraints of original sin (Rom. 3:9-20; 5:12-13). If anything, Christians might be considered more pessimistic than even Singer about human prospects. Jesus offered no hope for an ever-improving human condition. On the contrary, he indicated that good and evil would spar until his climactic return and triumphant victory at the end of the age.
Still, Singer prompts us to reflect on why Christians nevertheless enthusiastically bring children into this world. We harbor no false hope about eradicating suffering through evolution. We understand these children to be stained with sin from the beginning. We groan along with a creation subjected to futility, currently awaiting redemption (Rom. 8:19-23). What reason do we have, then, to bring new children into this world?