Philosopher Peter Singer seems to delight in making himself controversial if not blatantly outrageous. In a recent post at Opinionator.com he affords us an interesting glimpse of one aspect of the death wish that follows hard upon the modern denial of God. In the post he discusses the ethics of perpetuating the human species:
[H]uman 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.
So why 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!
Of course, it would be impossible to get agreement on universal sterilization, but just imagine that we could. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? Even if we take a less pessimistic view of human existence than Benatar, we could still defend it, because it makes us better off - for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations - and it doesn't make anyone worse off, because there won't be anyone else to be worse off.
Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species - that's a different issue. Let's assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too - here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do - that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one's rights will be violated - at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?
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?
Now this may seem like a very odd argument for an evolutionist like Singer to make, and it reveals, I think, the profound emptiness to which any atheistic worldview must ineluctably lead. The reason I say that it may seem odd is that for Darwinians our whole purpose is bound up in survival of the species. Our perpetuation is the ground for all ethics. Any action that runs contrary to the imperative to promote species survival is, for the Darwinian, ipso facto immoral.
I'm also perplexed by Singer's concern for individual rights. Exactly how, in a non-theistic universe, does anyone come to have rights? Who bestows them and what are they based upon? What should it matter whether someone is compelled to do something he doesn't want to do? In a world without God what's "right" is, as Plato told us in The Republic, whatever is in the interest of the stronger.
These quarrels aside, I have to say that I agree with Singer about this much: Life in his world is indeed a miserable affair. We're born, we're bored, we suffer, we have unfulfilled yearnings, and then we die and, if Singer is right, we pass into nothingness. It's a view of life that has led many thoughtful people to embrace nihilism and despair (I'm reminded of the line in the Smashing Pumpkins' song Jellybelly: "We're nowhere, we're nowhere, we're nowhere. Living makes me sick. So sick I want to die.").
The solution to this existential predicament, however, is not to allow humanity to extinguish itself. The solution is to embrace the one thing that makes the meaninglessness meaningful: A God who offers us life everlasting. It's remarkable that Singer, with a modest reservation, would prefer to see the human race go extinct rather than turn to the one thing that could make life's trials meaningful and worthwhile. There seems to be something perverse in this.
I could understand his reluctance to turn to faith were there compelling reasons to think that such a God doesn't exist, but there simply isn't, and, in fact, the opposite is the case. In any event, I think Singer's argument is important, revealing plainly for all to see the culture of death to which atheism leads.RLC