Last year, bioethicist Peter Singer wrote an essay for the New York Times web site that asked the title question. Who is Singer? He has written many books on issues of human treatment of animals, both domesticated and wild. Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He published his seminal book, Animal Liberation, in 1975. This and other of Singer’s works has led to him being referred to as one of the leaders of the animal liberation movement.
In his Times essay, Singer makes the point that “we think it is wrong to bring into the world a child whose prospects for a happy, healthy life are poor, but we don’t usually think the fact that a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life is a reason for bringing a child into existence (italics added). This has come to be known to philosophers as ‘the asymmetry’ and it is not easy to justify.” To put this another way, if there is a likelihood that most children brought into the world will be happy, does that justify procreation in light of the fact that many of the children who would be created would be profoundly unhappy?
At this point Singer raises the question of how good an anticipated life must be in order to justify bringing a child into existence. To put it another way, is the life that most people in developed countries lead good enough to justify creating it?
Singer refers to the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s belief that the best life we can ever hope for is one in which we reach a goal that brings us satisfaction. However, that satisfaction is fleeting. We then set our sites on new ends, bringing us a cycle of futile struggles. It’s hard for us to believe that Schopenhauer’s pessimistic point of view holds up across the board. You might have a hard time convincing Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Cosby, Mohandas Gandhi, Jimmy Carter or Oprah Winfrey of that argument. We use famous folks here only because they are the ones we all know in common. But these examples are the exception – by a long shot.
Professor Singer refers to South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar’s argument is that to bring a person who will suffer into the world is to harm that person. And most people will suffer. He also makes the case that a child brought into the world who will have a good life is not done for the benefit of that child. In all, reproduction will harm some children severely and benefit none.
Benatar’s argument, Peter Singer explains, is that most of our lives are filled with unmet desires. The occasional satisfactions are not enough to outweigh the prolonged negative states of mind. “This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nevertheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we could see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone,” declares Singer.
The solution? Singer makes the case that the most conscientious of us do things like reducing driving, not flying, or not eating meat, in order to reduce our carbon footprint. The ever-expanding carbon footprint will damage future generations. But why are we creating future generations? In our own book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we discuss that even American slaves kept reproducing themselves without any hope that their offspring would have happy lives.
Singer presents us with this question: Why don’t we all agree to get sterilized? That way we won’t create any new unhappy generations. The current generation would not have to worry about what we’re doing to the planet. We could thereby rid ourselves of all guilt about our impact on the earth.
In practicality, Professor Singer acknowledges that agreement on universal sterilization is just an idea with no chance of actualization. Here is the remaining question: Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence? He believes that eventually mankind will get “it” right simply by learning from its mistakes, and thereby reduce suffering (he is more optimistic than we are). But, he asks, is that enough to determine that life is worth living?
Are the interests of a future child enough of a reason for bringing that child into existence, knowing that the survival of our species will almost certainly bring suffering to future innocents?
There is a lot to ponder here. The toughest part of considering these questions involves admitting that for most people, on balance, life is not the relatively happy existence we perceive from observing the outward demeanors of others. We must, to boil it down, decide whether gambling on bringing new lives into the world is worth the risk.