Coincidentally, on the day i wrote about birthdays, Peter Singer wrote about giving birth to new generations on the NYT’s new online column on philosophy, The Stone. Ever since reading it, i’ve been thinking about the issues raised, but even after eleven days of contemplation, i’m left with far more questions than answers.
Disregarding some of the red herrings in the essay, what i take to be the underlying critical questions are,
1) Is life worth living?
2) Is it ethical to have children without having an objective answer to the first question?
For some perspective, the following are my favorite of however many of the 1258 (and still counting) comments on Singer’s post that i read that address either the first question or Singer’s main question of whether it is ethical to have children knowing that they will have to endure the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of life.
There is the positive perception of human existence:
It’s the striving, not the fulfilment, that brings satisfaction, at least for mankind. –Phil (Comment #255)
And the negative:
Those of us who have not shot ourselves in the head are either delusional or cowards. I am a coward who wonders is everyone else really so delusional? Or are we just telling each other that life is worth living when we all know we remain alive because nature has selected for those who fear death the most, and nobody wants to look scared. To me it seems like saying “I meant to do that….” after a gross error or pretending to enjoy the flogging you are recieving for appearances sake. Does the flogged man live for the spaces between the lash? Or does he live for when the lashing is done and he can finally crawl away and die knowing he made a good show of bravery? Either way the whole thing was just torture. –Todd (Comment #54)
There are the arguments for having children:
And I think children can be a worthwhile contribution. Not just because, as noted above, they can provide continuity to those things that are good in humanity, but also because they present a completely unforeseeable possibility for good. Having children is the ultimate expression of optimism. –AHS (Comment #117)
My own conclusion was “Why take the risk?” especially with my own kids — if the natural instinct of parents is to prevent the harm and promote the good of their offspring, why would I even contemplate bringing my kids into a rickety planet to be raised by imperfect parents.
I love my kids so much that I didn’t have them. –MClass (Comment #499)
I’m sorry, MClass, but you’re just taking the easy way out. You’re avoiding the potential failure of not being a good parent by not having any children to begin with. Simply put, you’re a coward! And in response to the argument that even if one could be a good parent, other factors would inevitably bring some amount of pain into his/her children’s lives—the decision to not have a child means preventing the birth of an individual who has the potential to better the world. But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether being born is good for the born individual’s sake.
I think there is only one definitive answer to these questions, and that is the argument that we could not answer either question, given our ontological structure:
Pleasure and pain, suffering and joy are illusions — perceptions. They operate on a lower order of importance than the intrinsic questions of existence. Using any consequentialist rubric, we cannot know whether it is to exist or to not exist. For all we know, nonexistence is so torturous when experienced subjectively that even extreme pain on Earth is better.
We do not know whether existence is more or less pleasurable than nonexistence. Whether someone is happy or sad, joyous or in pain gives you know information as to whether they should be alive or not alive. –PeteBDawg (Comment #178)
So what are we to do? How could we calculate the ethics of having children, then? I don’t think we can answer that question without bringing in the notion of free will. We do not choose to be born, and for this reason, the idea of procreation and the nature of childhood have always baffled me. Sometimes my mom would say to me on my birthday that i should give her a gift, because she gave me the gift of life. I wonder when she will realize that my answer will always be the same: “Did i ask to be born?” As a child, i absolutely hated adults. As i saw it, they were all out to restrain us children’s freedom. I did not enjoy being at the mercy of their whims one bit. And in times of teenage angst, i used to think it was quite unfair that we couldn’t choose our parents. Consider Beauvoir’s comment on childhood:
Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child. And indeed the unfortunate choices which most men make can only be explained by the fact that they have taken place on the basis of childhood. The child’s situation is characterized by his finding himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, and which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit. In his eyes, human inventions, words, customs, and values are given facts, as inevitable as the sky and the trees. This means that the world in which he lives is a serious world, since the characteristic of the spirit of seriousness is to consider values as ready-made things. (Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p.35)
It is not only the child who experiences the world in this way. We feel this way at any age, because no matter how much we age, nothing changes the fact that the world as i know it was pre-established before my birth. Does this mean that life itself affords no free will? After all, how could one be free if its birth wasn’t a free choice to begin with? That is one question that will never cease to tease me, i’m afraid.
To sum up: We are born into someone else’s ready-made world, and we bore new individuals into our own ready-made world. Whether or not we like our world depends on our individual circumstances, and whether or not we base our decision to procreate on this perception is up to us. But what right do we have to give life to a thinking thing, who requires just as much freedom as we do? Do we have the right to bring someone into this world when that “someone” does not have a say in the matter? Or is this not a question of ethics at all? Is it simply the business of being the animals that we are, reproducing and keeping our species going, the way nature intended? Should such natural behaviors not be muddied with arguments of morality? Are some things meant to be taken for granted?
At this point, i’m at a loss.
FYI: Singer wrote a follow-up post to point out where some readers went wrong in interpreting his essay, and why they were dumb to do so, and while it is a well-written account of what doing philosophy is about, it does not add anything new to his arguments—because it wasn’t supposed to—so i am not going to comment further on it here. However, it is well worth a read, and it reports some interesting statistics on the types of responses commenters gave.