The Last Generation on Earth?

Why don’t we just stop having children and become the last generation on earth? In a recent New York Times editorial piece, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer wonders whether, given the suffering we experience in this world, it is reasonable to bring more children into existence.

Singer quotes a book entitled “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence,” to defend that if we stopped having children we would not only avoid their potential suffering, but we would also not feel guilty about caring for the planet on behalf of future generations. We would reduce the suffering new children would fell while maximizing the careless joy of our own generation. From his point of view, we would be ethically right to avoid inflicting pain on innocent children, while enjoying the bonus pleasure of caring just for ourselves. So he proposes in jest, “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!”

I’m not sure if he really means these words. Singer looks like the kind of scholar who learned to dance according to the market’s tune, knowing that provocative statements will sell more newspaper copies than conscientious ones. But the question behind this article is an important question nonetheless, even it is framed with an almost Nazist logic: “How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world?” Singer believes in a kind of evolutionary improvement, which would reduce human suffering to minimum maybe one or two centuries from now. But in the meantime, his answer is a categorical negative: “If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.”

Curiously, I came across this article while my three-months-old son was having his milk breakfast in my arms. It was my turn to bottle-feed him early in the morning, so I went to his room, painted last week in blue, and Pietro welcomed me with a goofy smile. He laughed, waved his arms, and I took him to the living room to feed him.

After I finished Singer’s article, I looked to Pietro to see what was his reaction to it. He looked satisfied enough with his milk banquet. I tried to weight the amount of suffering he has had so far with the amount of joy he has experienced. I recognize he’s has had his share of pain – the agony of being born to a new world is just a primer – to the point that I think he started to curse. For some days he had this cough, and after he exerted all his effort to cough four or five times, loud and with no politeness to cover his mouth, he uttered an indignant complaint – ieoodadubaaaaa!!!! His’ may not be a mean curse, and it may not offend someone’s mother or family grave, but it sure sounds like a grumpy disapproval, protesting the careless way his parents took him outside in the evening without covering his ears.

But is his existence an overwhelming fountain of suffering and meaninglessness? No, of course not. He suffers, like we all do, but a meaningful life is not a life without pain. Suffering is part of life. We cannot evade it. To exclude suffering from our notion of an ideal, happy life is to remain with an artificial notion of happiness. It is to cage happiness in the realm of unreality, for suffering colors every day of our lives, and every happy moment too. To exclude suffering is to exclude life.

René Breuel


3 responses to “The Last Generation on Earth?

  1. Thanks for this, Rene. I think you’re right—Singer is holding human life up to an artificial notion of happiness, one that has never been a reality for human beings. I think it is selfishness masquerading as concern for others. It is making decisions for others based on one’s own conceptions of what makes a life “good” (not to mention, it is deciding in advance that the goods that come about through suffering—perhaps only through suffering?—are worth little). And as your story with your son (rightly and entirely appropriately) shows, no one evaluates human life “objectively.” We weren’t meant to.

    If you’re interested, I reflected on this same article shortly after it was published:

  2. Dear Ryan, great to hear your thoughts! You’re right, one can sound selfless even with the most selfish of motivations, eh?
    I realize you were quicker than me in interacting with Singer’s article! I really liked your conclusion, you summoned it up so well:
    “Whatever one makes of the preceding, I’m glad I don’t have to base my answer to these questions on some kind of a misguided suffering calculus. For me, the affirmation that it is good and worthwhile for our species to hang around a while longer, despite the suffering we cause and endure, is grounded in the twofold belief 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.”

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