Last week, I came across two articles that have lodged themselves quite firmly within my mind. The articles contain two very different worldviews, but as such, they ironically parallel and dovetail with each other — at least, in my mind they do.
The first article was by controversial philosopher/ethicist Peter Singer. Titled “Should This Be the Last Generation?,” it’s a response to Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, a book by South African philosopher David Benatar. Singer writes:
Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
Here is a thought experiment to test our attitudes to this view. Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. Some stop eating meat, or flying abroad on vacation, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. But the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about.
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!
Singer ultimately rejects Benatar’s position, saying that he’s “enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for 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 provides more response in this follow-up article.) Nevertheless, I found Singer’s article distressing: the thought that ideas such as these exist and are passionately propounded and defended by many (i.e., antinatalists) is one that I find unsettling, to say the least.
While still mulling over Singer’s article, I read “Hearing the Melody,” the latest from one of my favorite critics and bloggers, Andy Whitman. Whitman writes of his younger sister, who is currently dying from cancer, the paths of their lives, and his wrestling with death and suffering.
This is the oldest theological conundrum in the world, of course, the boundless love of God and the horrific prospect of untimely death; as ancient as the story of Job, as contemporary as my 14-year-old niece, newly minted as a misunderstood adolescent Goth, confused and angry and utterly unprepared to face the world without a mother. These are the kind of juxtapositions that can leave one wide awake and staring at the ceiling at 3:00 a.m.
I don’t pretend to have an answer to that conundrum. I’ve never had an answer, and the well-intentioned answers I’ve encountered in the past have always struck me as nicely, coolly reasonable and utterly insufficient to deal with the realities of the disinfectant smell of a hospice room and morphine drips and pain so searing that the strongest medications in the world have no impact at all.
But I do have a hope. I have a hope that senselessness is not the end, that love has the final word. I have a faith that I will see Libby again, that we will walk down another path where the footprints never diverge. And I have a prayer, a classic old melody that Christians have been riffing off of for a couple millennia now: Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. It’s a tune that never gets old. It’s a good one to come back to after the improvised screams. It’s okay. But no, it’s not okay.
If this world is characterized by overwhelming suffering, and there’s little hope that man will evolve to alleviate much of that suffering — an idea that history certainly seems to support, contrary to Singer’s optimism — then sterilization and partying into oblivion make perfect sense. Indeed, oblivion is the only sane and logical response to such a predicament.
But if there is something above and beyond this world — admittedly something that we may only get brief, momentary glimpses of through life, love, relationships, art, etc. — then our existence here and now is not senseless. There is reason for bringing children into this world and there is no reason for letting despair win out in the death of a loved one.