Monday, June 14, 2010

Peter Singer: Should we make ourselves extinct?

Influential Princeton ethicist Peter Singer -- defender of abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and bestiality -- wrote a post for a New York Times blog last week titled "Should This Be the Last Generation?"

The piece has gotten a lot of pro-life attention, including from Dave Andrusko, Wesley Smith, Steven Ertelt, philosopher Michael Liccione, theologian Albert Mohler, professor and blogger Gene Fant, and Megan from Life Training Institute.

Singer flirts with the idea that the human race should become extinct. "Is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?" he asks. "Why don't we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we could all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required -- we could party our way into extinction!"

People talk about end-of-the-world scenarios, but I think this is a new one.

In the end, Singer doesn't actually believe "a world with people in it [is worse] than one without." But for him it's a serious question to consider, and we need a utilitarian calculation to find the answer.

He wonders about the impact of climate change. "The people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived," he writes. "If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel guilty about."

He discusses suffering and asks whether life is even worth living. He cites another philosopher who argues that (in Singer's words) "human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. ... If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone."

So, could reproducing and continuing our existence on this planet actually be a bad thing? Could procreation be immoral? Singer is willing to say no, at least for now. "I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive 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," he explains.

But the key is that, on his view, human life isn't good or worth living in itself. Its value is contingent on external factors (happiness, suffering) that may change. So given tough circumstances, the self-extinction of humanity might be the right thing to do.

(It's not difficult to see how this thinking justifies euthanasia and the killing of disabled infants. But Singer's rejection of intrinsic human value -- claiming instead that certain acquired properties, which human embryos and fetuses lack, are necessary for worth and dignity -- also makes sense of his support for abortion and embryo-destructive research.)

As Michael Liccione puts it, Singer's thinking "bespeaks an attitude toward life that should be treated primarily as a symptom of spiritual disease rather than as suggesting a serious philosophical thesis." But Singer does show us that ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can take us in a very disturbing direction.

Send comments to