Peter Singer and Humanity

Ethicist Peter Singer has done it again. The Princeton professor, you may remember, is best known for creating controversy by treating such practices as infanticide, euthanasia and bestiality as morally neutral. Now he has an op-ed in the online New York Times titled “Should This Be the Last Generation?”

This time, Singer is considering the idea of not just getting rid of the elderly or the disabled, but total human extinction.

You’ll be relieved to hear that Singer has no immediate plans to try to bring this about. He’s not even really advocating it. But he still believes it’s a topic worth considering. As Singer explains it—based on the writings of philosopher David Benatar—if we as a society keep having children, many of them are guaranteed to suffer, so we might actually be doing future generations a favor if we refrained from bringing them into existence.

Thus, Singer writes, “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?

“For one thing,” Singer continues, “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.”

In the end, as I indicated, Singer doesn’t go all the way with this line of thinking. He acknowledges that it would be wrong to choose a universe without sentient beings.

Glad to hear it. I have some things I’d like to consider, too.

If you were looking to caricature utilitarian thinking like Singer’s, you couldn’t do a better job than what Singer has done to himself. Utilitarianism seeks to increase happiness and reduce the amount of pain. Nothing reduces pain like eliminating everyone capable of feeling it.

Sure, the remaining animals would could still feel physical pain, but every animal’s pain, i.e., being eaten is more than balanced out by the happiness being felt by those doing the eating. The net increase in happiness would be undeniable in a “kumbaya/circle of life” way of thinking.

And of course, animals, many of whom abandon their young before they are actually born don’t feel guilt about what they are doing to future generations. It’s great to have a selfish gene.

And Singer needn’t worry about getting agreement about universal sterilization: no one who believed that such a measure was necessary for the sake of future generation has ever waited for such agreement—they just did it.

They didn’t let consideration for the rights and dignity of others get in the way of what was best for the future. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” and all that jazz.

They could do it because they had already decided that there wasn’t anything inherently sacred and worthwhile about human life. To them, the future lay not in God’s hands but in their own—they, not God, decided who did and did not have a future.

As I said, Singer is “nicer” than that. He’s not a monster. Instead, he wants us to imagine being monsters together.

Like I said, caricature.

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  • john2

    Singer is beneath any serious reply. I see him as the carrier of an advanced pathology, far worse than a caricature.

    Always going around and around, soiling his diapers in public. Looking for his mommy.

  • plowshare

    Unfortunately, Singer is a very influential person holding a prestigious chair at a prestigious university (Princeton) and cannot be dismissed easily. He wrote a follow-up essay to correct some misconceptions about his first one, but he still gives the scenario of making the human race extinct too much respectability.

    Some of the responses to him– and there are over a thousand for the first essay and over two hundred for the second — are more worth reading than the essays themselves, and for this reason I give the websites where they can be found:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/last-generation-a-response/#more-52513

    Of course, you have to read with a discerning eye–a depressing number of responders were even worse than Singer, but there are enough exceptions.

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