The Last Generation?

Should we deliberately make ourselves the last generation on earth?  It sounds like a crazy question, but a few years ago, Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer wrote a piece in The New York Times which pondered whether or not human beings should consider ceasing to reproduce as an ethical response to our predicament.  Singer discussed this possibility from the perspective of ecological responsibility (human beings are bad for the planet, therefore less of us are better than more) but the bulk of his argument was based on more existential concerns.  Every child that is born will suffer, and we have a duty to prevent suffering.  Is human existence is a good enough thing to justify foisting it upon human infants who do not ask for it?

As any parent knows, walking with your children as they come to realize some of the more unpleasant realities of the world we live in can be a difficult process.  My kids are relatively young, but they are obviously already aware that they live in a world that contains a fair amount of suffering.  They know that there are children around the world without moms and dads, children who don’t get enough to eat.  They know that some kids are born with medical conditions that they did not ask for.  They know that people can behave wickedly and that innocent people get hurt.  They might not use this kind of language, but they are aware that the world they will grow up and chart their future in is not an entirely just or safe place.

And despite knowing all of these things as parents before we ever decide to have children, and knowing that our kids will also have to come to terms with these things, we still decide to bring new life to a planet full of death and pain and injustice and ambiguity and uncertainty.

Our planet also contains much that is good, to be sure, but is it enough?  Singer cites South African philosopher David Benatar, who has written a book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, and argues that even what we call a “good” life will contain enough suffering to make choosing to bring it about morally problematic.  No matter how good things are for us materially, we all live with unfulfilled desires, we all experience the decline of our physical and mental faculties, we all watch people we love make decisions that hurt themselves and others, etc.  According to Benatar, all of us tend to think our lives are better than they really are, and “if we could see our lives objectively (as Benatar is presumably able to do), we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.”

So, given the fact that we’re likely more miserable than we think (or admit) we are, and given that the prospects of future generations aren’t much brighter, Singer muses along the following lines:

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!

On one level, this sounds almost comical.  Party our way to extinction?  Really?!  But I’m actually inclined to give Singer’s arguments a bit of thought.  The world does contain a lot of suffering and every life will be characterized by varying forms of struggle and strain, pleasure and pain.  Maybe the assumption that existence is inherently good is worth pondering, even if our ponderings end up, as so many seem to, affirming the merits of existence.  Even Peter Singer ends up offering a fairly half-hearted affirmation of human life based, one presumes, on the hope that we will one day come to realize our relative unimportance in the grand scheme of things and that this realization will somehow ameliorate our suffering.

But the, perhaps the assumption that the “merits” of human existence are best evaluated according to a bare suffering calculus is worth questioning.  Is the simple presence or absence of suffering really the best criterion by which to determine whether or not we should hang around the planet?  Is all suffering “bad?”  Many people down through the ages have affirmed that there are some things that can only be learned through suffering—that some suffering can purify our souls and draw us closer to God.   And what counts as “suffering” anyway?  Who determines what it means and how much of it is too much to justify existence?  Is it relatively healthy, well-educated. affluent moral philosophers?  Is it those who live with disabilities of various kinds?  Is it not more than a little presumptuous (not to mention dangerous!) to decide on behalf of those who face various challenges that their lives are too difficult to justify preserving?

From a Christian perspective, an affirmation of the ongoing existence of human life requires that we neither celebrate nor minimize human suffering. For Christians, the affirmation that it is good and worthwhile for our species to hang around a while longer, despite the suffering that we cause and endure, is grounded in the twofold conviction that nothing good is ultimately lost in God’s world and that grace and redemption are deeper and more lasting realities than whatever suffering I, my children, or future generations could ever face.

Ryan Dueck

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6 responses to “The Last Generation?

  1. Thanks Ryan for a thought provoking piece. A question it raises for me is how do we decide what suffering is – it’s not always clear. What’s suffering for someone in the prosperous west is just “normal” elsewhere. The proposal that the only life worth living is one of “health and wealth” as defined by the most healthy and affluent section of humanity that has ever existed seems seems to stem from a somewhat inflated sense of one’s own ability to understand life. The phrase “life in all it’s fullness” comes to mind – whatever Jesus of Nazareth meant by that, I doubt he meant the pain-free, worry-free existence that so many of us have set our hearts on

    • Yes, I think you are absolutely right, Sean. I’ve had conversations with people navigating the challenges of physical and mental disabilities. These people often exhibit a contentedness and a joy that is not as readily discernible in the lives of those not facing these challenges. These people would, quite rightly, resent people like Peter Singer telling them that the quality of their lives isn’t sufficient to “justify” existence!

      (What an extraordinary position to presume to take—pronouncing upon whether or not someones life is “good enough” to be worth preserving!)

      Indeed, even among the richest and healthiest there seems to be an alarming rate of dependence upon anti-depressants, not to mention all kinds of other addictions. Clearly, a lack of suffering isn’t in and of itself a guarantor of “life to the full.”

  2. I find the author’s views interesting. I get the impression that if the average person said the same thing as Singer did, he would be labeled a nut or laughed at, even if he was reasonable. Same with his views on charity: if someone said we should be giving a substantial amount of money to the poor, then it would be labeled merely as common sense. Un-followed common sense, but common sense none the less. Only my thoughts, but I suspect I’m right!

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