Peter Singer in his usual, counter intuitive way, asks if the next generation would be better off not-existing:
One of [South African philosopher David] 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.
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.
The NYT article asks some questions to which the readers are invited to respond, most of which are fairly interesting, but my general response is two fold. 1) The idea of “suffering” is entirely too broad. Benatar takes a kind of cynical Buddhist perspective in that life itself is suffering, therefore to alleviate suffering, we have to remove life. While taking life to end suffering is less desirable than not creating life, Benatar seems to have no trouble with the concept of species suicide. Kill of the species in the name of the rights of the un-conceived. Edelman is probably punching his cat as he reads the article. Given our collective functioning and the universal subconscious (I’m going to butcher Jung here for a second) that our species shares in the form of monomyths and parallel histories, it would seem that while not giving birth to a new generation is not wrong for that generation, it is wrong for the species and humanity because a Form of Life would be terminated. 2) The function of human history has been to slowly eliminate suffering. The process is excruciating, almost unnoticeable, and hugely subjective, but it is difficult to argue that there is not a real, significant number of people who lead lives with less suffering now than they would have if born five-hundred years ago. Why Benatar doesn’t advocate a global cull or some other situation that would reduce the population so dramatically as to make it possible for modern life to continue at a sustainable rate for the lucky few, I’m not sure.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
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