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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

To breed or not to breed?

Princeton's notorious Peter Singer turns his sights on human reproduction

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

"Should This Be the Last Generation?" asks the headline of a recent New York Times column. The author is Peter Singer-always a reliable source for provocative questions.

Singer (no stranger to many WORLD readers) was an ethics professor of middling reputation when Animal Liberation made him an icon of the animal rights movement in 1975. His central argument was that our standard of value should not be based on intelligence but on sentience, or the ability to experience life through senses and emotions. Since animals clearly experience pain as humans do, their value is equivalent to ours and thus eating a cow is verging on cannibalism.

Practical Ethics was his next major work, a broader application of his views to the human species. Practical Ethics serves up Singer's version of utilitarianism, in which the ultimate good is "happiness." Anything that deprives an individual of a reasonable degree of comfort and satisfaction is therefore not good. The thing that deprives is often life itself: If physical or social circumstances are likely to doom a child to pain and suffering, it's immoral to insist that he live. Abortion can be merciful, but Singer went further: Infanticide can also be merciful, if in the first months of life it becomes evident that the child will be severely limited. And if an adult reaches a state of non-sentience and is no longer self-aware, the kindest act for everyone concerned might be to ease him gently into that good night.

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Vaulted to notoriety, Singer became the focus of worldwide protests, especially when named the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton in 1999. But the fury subsided. He pursues an enviable academic career in peace, jetting between Princeton and Melbourne Universities, contributing a double tithe to hunger relief, and cranking out the occasional hair-raising thesis (like his meditation on bestiality a few years ago).

The Times article is apparently inspired by philosopher David Benatar's latest book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Benatar's premise is not that life's negatives outweigh the positives, but that there really is no positive. As Singer puts it, "[W]e 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 the child into existence." In other words, if the child doesn't exist, what has he or she missed? What, exactly, is the case for life? "Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on earth?"

He concludes with a form of bait-and-switch: "In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living." Not exactly a full-throated affirmation, but a partial survey of the 1,155 responses indicates that most readers didn't even get that far. Taking about one-tenth of the comments as a sample, slightly over half agreed, more or less, with Benatar: The world would be better off without people.

Might God have some interest in the question? I recall a few rather glib paragraphs in Practical Ethics that established (for the author at least) God's non-existence. And even if He exists, lack of consensus about Him makes an unreliable standard for ethics. But here's the catch: When man devalues God, he eventually comes to devalue man, as well as the animating factor we call life.

Think back to the beginning, when the Spirit hovered over the uncreated deep (Genesis 1:2). The KJV translates the verb as "brooding"; both versions suggest . . . hesitation. As if God were asking, "Do We go through with this?" Knowing the terrible consequences and the terrible remedy, knowing the disease and exploitation and injustice and the oceans of blood that must be paid for, do We continue?

Obviously, for the One who paid most, creation was worth its cost. And that is our answer: If life is worth creating, it's surely worth living.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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