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The article can be found here.

It deals with many issues, but what I would really like to see a response to is the following paragraph:

[W]hy 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!

What, if anything, would be wrong with "partying our way into extinction"?

EDIT: At Joe's suggestion, I would like to clarify the question. To phrase it in the opposite way of Singer:

When, if ever, does the 'goodness' of a potential child's life make it morally imperative for us to give birth to that child?

If we say "always", we might run into the repugnant conclusion as well as the uncomfortable feeling that having children should be mandatory. If we say "never", we would run into extinction.

So any potential response must be more cautious than Singer's flippant "life is worth living" at the end of the article.

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    Wow, does this mean that not everyone has dismissed Peter Singer as a complete nutjob yet? I'll have to actually think about this... – Cody Gray Jun 15 '11 at 7:32
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    Because it wouldn't work, because the less people there are the less production there is, and the last millions would have to live on stone-age economic level, and not being used to that we would rather starve ourselves into extinction instead of partying. It's just one of Singers stupid ideas full of holes that he uses to "illuminate" his confused views on moral issues. Ignore him. – Lennart Regebro Jun 15 '11 at 11:09
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    @Cody, @Lennart: If you have sources saying "The argument is bollocks because ___" those are of course acceptable answers - please post them as such! – Xodarap Jun 15 '11 at 13:01
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    Singer ignores the suffering of the last generation due to evolutionary and cultural longing for children and lack of caretakers, and he ignores the general problematic assumptions. It would be much more to the point to ask if it would not be ethical to forbid philosophy because this kind of ruminating because it is a high risk factor for depression. – Phira Jun 15 '11 at 15:02
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    I also disagree with Joe. This is a reasonable question, and can be objectively answered either by pointing to the arguments made by Singer's critics, or even making a logical argument of one's own against his claims, along the same lines as thei did in his comment. This is specific enough about the philosophy of a particular thinker that I think it qualifies as a reasonable question – Cody Gray Jun 16 '11 at 3:52
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Singer outlines his claim in a little more depth in the next paragraph:

Of course, it would be impossible to get agreement on universal sterilization, but just imagine that we could. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? Even if we take a less pessimistic view of human existence than Benatar, we could still defend it, because it makes us better off — for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations — and it doesn’t make anyone worse off, because there won’t be anyone else to be worse off.

My sense is that this is mainly a rhetorical flourish to provoke thought as he ends up arguing life is indeed worth living after all in his conclusion:

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am 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. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?

  • On a subjective note, I personally think this sort of question isn't really that interesting; after all it is impossible to evaluate the value of life in the abstract like this. Honestly I'm not sure what it is he's trying to provoke us into thinking about -- voluntary castration? I'm probably being uncharitable to Singer, however. – Joseph Weissman Jun 15 '11 at 1:21
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    Thanks Joe. His answer in this essay leaves something to be desired though, like: am I unethical for not having kids? (Surely if people in general are better off existing, then specifically my kids would be better of existing.) It is details like these that I was hoping someone had remarked on. – Xodarap Jun 15 '11 at 2:09
  • @Xodarap, you may want to reformulate your question to clarify your particular concerns. – Joseph Weissman Jun 15 '11 at 2:11
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    I have tried to clarify. Singer is very well aware of the repugnant conclusion, so if this were an article in a philosophical journal I'm fairly confident he would've given a more nuanced answer than "life is worth living." – Xodarap Jun 15 '11 at 15:44
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Interestingly, a friend and I struggled with the opposite conundrum from what concerns Singer. We were both married to women who did not wish to have more children. My friend commented to me that submitting to sterilization would be like killing his unborn and unconceived children. As soon as he said it, I understood my own grief. How could anyone choose between the idea that conceiving children brings more suffering into the world and the idea that not conceiving children denies them the benefits of existence?

(I should note in passing that we have both resolved our conundrum: his wife suddenly desired children and is now a wonderful mother, and I learned to sacrifice my desires for the needs of my wife and be content with our only son.)

As far as I see, the only way to chose would be to have a detailed accounting of the value of existence versus nonexistence and compare it to the negative value of suffering. And there are a few other unobtainable figures you would need to be anything like accurate. When you start to think of it in this way, it fails the smell test.

Singer seems to couch is argument as if it's a relatively new idea that arises from global climate change or the population explosion or whatever apocalypse is of the moment. (I made the mistake of glancing at the comments of the original article. What a cynical bunch! I may be ashamed of my own generation.) But it's not new at all. One of our oldest texts is dedicated to the question:

 After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. And Job said:

“Let the day perish on which I was born,
   and the night that said,
  ‘A man is conceived.’
 Let that day be darkness!
   May God above not seek it,
   nor light shine upon it.
 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
   Let clouds dwell upon it;
   let the blackness of the day terrify it.
 ... ”

Job goes on like this for a while and explores the horror of existence with his friend for many pages. And here is the answer they arrive at:

 And the Lord said to Job:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
   He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

And I think that's as good an answer as exists. Whatever or whoever brought us into existence did so on its own terms and who are we to argue?


Xodarap asked in the comments:

But surely we do argue with God - every time we choose to have or not have sex, we're taking a stance on this issue, no?

In a word: no. You have it all wrong. That would be like suggesting that every time we take a journey or stay at home, we are taking a stance on the issue of Immaterialism. Or perhaps more to the point, we can reject or accept Immaterialism completely independent of how we chose to spend our time. Accepting it might slightly bias us toward staying at home (I imagine), but we wouldn't be rejecting our ideals by traveling to a distant country.

Having struggled with the question of physical reproduction, I would further suggest that anyone who includes Singer's suggestion as a factor in their decision is a fool and deserves their own fate. I don't have any real argument for that, however.


Tangentially, the value of existence over nonexistence is a critical premise in the ontological argument for God. As far as I can see, rejecting the premise is the simplest possible objection to the argument since it completely sidesteps the more difficult problem of whether the argument is itself valid.

  • this is a great answer. The value of life literally cannot be estimated. – Joseph Weissman Jun 17 '11 at 0:57
  • @Joe, @Jon: But surely we do argue with God - every time we choose to have or not have sex, we're taking a stance on this issue, no? – Xodarap Jun 17 '11 at 2:18
  • @Xodarap: I just noticed that I didn't warn you that I've addressed your comments in my answer. I'm curious if it satisfies your question, if I'm missing your point, or if we just disagree. Thanks. – Jon Ericson Jun 20 '11 at 22:35
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    Thanks, I didn't see it. My premise (which you might not share) is that when I do X, I am implicitly saying "X is good." So yes, I do think that when we choose to travel, we are saying that traveling gives us something staying at home does not, which is counter to some immaterialist arguments. – Xodarap Jun 21 '11 at 5:00
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I am not aware of canonical answers, but a few strong ones spring to mind (Springer's comments not among them):

(1) If we have any obligation to future generations at all, making them non-existent is, if we are wrong that we should do so, the biggest and most permanent mistake that it is possible to make. Things would have to be so radically different from how they are now in order for us to be adequately convinced that ending humanity was the right thing to do, that we cannot reason about it. For the foreseeable future, the risk of making an unrecoverable mistake is unacceptably high.

(2) We, along with other living organisms, are built (by evolutionary processes) to create and safeguard future generations. That we exist at all is because of this; that we have morality at all (or goals and desires at all) is because of this. Intentionally terminating our existence means that we are fundamentally broken, and robs us of any sort of justification for using our goals and desires to guide our actions.

(3) Our ancestors didn't create us so that we could party to extinction. We cannot repay them except by creating another generation, so we are obligated to create another generation.

The last one only applies to partying--if we're all in agony and wished that our ancestors had not created us, then we have no obligation to return their favor. The first two apply regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant we find our situation.

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People aren't serious. We suck as a species, and if you would but THINK, and not shunt responsibility to your genes (genetic fallacy?) you would realise our spurious reasons for filling this floating slaughterhouse make it a moral imperative to NOT breed.

Who has kids for the benefit of the kid? Read ecclesiastes, what does all man's labor under the sun benefit him? Is it rational to speak of benefit to a bubble? A shadow? A reflection in a mirror, with as much persistence? The cost, the 'fatigues of the journey' is all that is certain. An 18th c suicide note reads, all this buttoning and unbuttoning. Truth. I'm depressed, but I still love reading, which my body interrupts with its maintenance chores. Further, since I don't want 'interventions' from beings as hopeless as myself, I have to keep up a basic social interactivity. I know that someone will suggest a vacation, or getting laid. Still more work. After all that maintenace bull(human)isht, why is existence, mere existence, so intolerable and in need of supplementation? And these things don't just fall into your lap, as it were.

Simply, no-one says life is all pain, but no-one says pain gives life meaning (except mealy mouth-ed buddhist like Calvin's dad and 'building character'....pick some peanuts out mah shhhhhiiiii@@@@t). However, Joy, which is just about all that gives life meaning, is both not guaranteed, and guaranteed to be fleeting. COntrast this to NOT being chained to the need/desire wheel.

I would like to call out Jon Ericson specifically ; "And I think that's as good an answer as exists. Whatever or whoever brought us into existence did so on its own terms and who are we to argue?" Others expressed similar sentiments but alluding more to the inertia of motion embedded in our genes, passing off chemical biases as philosophical insights. This I will mention merely to dismiss because most people smart enough to think in materialistic terms, soon grasp the philosophical lameplications of being digestive tracts that manage to replicate. Some of them even go on to read Peter Zappfer, who lived to be 90, but never had kids. Good thinking, Peter.

BUt the willfully irrational like JE get up my spleen. This mindless conformism to an agenda we cannot grasp, internalise or adopt as our own merely because we quake in uncomprehending awe is the worst sort of response to clear and present overbearing preponderance, such as GOd has over us. This nuremberg following of orders is the reason JE doesn't need a cerebrum, a brainstem would suffice, as Einstein said of the Nazis. Yes, I went Godwin on your ass, for two reasons: i) holocaust aside, every Generation is a Genocide. We are all killed by death, picture a woman giving birth over a grave, and if this is repugnant, ask yourself if you are among the thousand men strikimg at the branches of evil, for every one striking the root. Not that I am blaming the Jews for birthing slaughtered offspring, but if they had peacefully died of old age like most wwii vets by now, it would still be as tragic and pointless, and if you stop sorting by cause the numbers become even more pertinent.

ii) Your postulate is Might makes Right therefore God WINS, even though he is an overbearing azzhoul who created us on a whim, because he can't sit quietly in a room by himself. And we know he's nuts because he looked at the world ,"and saw it was good'. REALLY? I hope I won't have to explain how 'original sin' is 'blaming the victim', a tithe-producing jedi mind trick.

It is immoral to reproduce. We owe god nothing, we owe the universe nothing, we owe our potential kids 30 seconds of rational, compassionate contemplation. we have no need to need, or cause needless needs in others. Our highest selves, the part that yearns for god, that wispy illusion of individuality, objective rationality, compassion, well it doesn't have much heft, but it has class. It has this: That it will not participate in this sordid waste of organic material. No obligation to take anyone or anything out of its/your misery, but to cold-bloodedly (or worse, senitmentally) consign someone else to this?? Gott verbot, Himmel Verbot!!!

Sorry to necro this post, but I think these concerns are valid as long as humanity is a going concern, also I was impressed by the lucidity you all demand of each other. WHich made it so hard to watch simple-minded red herrings form the axioms of what was so lucidly postulated.

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The specific statement "When, if ever, does the 'goodness' of a potential child's life make it morally imperative for us to give birth to that child?" can be reduced to a general "Do we have a moral imperative to do hard things that are good for society?" and then answered from that perspective.

Do note that for survival of our species it's not really needed for everyone to procreate, as long as some reasonable proportion does that.

You may say that the sole fact that the result is good and neccessary ("someone needs to do it!") makes it a moral imperative.

You may say that it is a nice thing to do, but it's a recommended choice instead of imperative. Of course, such situations often lead to a 'tragedy of the commons' scenario if the society doesn't organize itself to change that.

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