Monday, June 7, 2010

On the Perpetuation of Species

Spanning the gamut of online wisdom, advice columnist Carolyn Hax and philosopher Peter Singer weigh in on the advisability of adding to the sum total of humanity. I've long been curious about the ways in which people choose (when they do have a choice, which they usually do) whether or not to have children.

Hax, responding to a letter-writer who asks if her anxiety disorder may be too severe for her to attempt parenthood, replies, in effect, that wanting to be a parent is no justification for becoming one. She advises the inquirer to consider, in light of her own knowledge of what it is to be a child, whether she would want herself as a parent. How drastically different human history would be if this were a precept that were followed with any consistency! Isn't the presumption of fitness for parenthood pretty much wired into the human organism? Indeed, it may be only the seriously depressed or demoralized, like the letter-writer in this instance, who even consciously consider the matter (which isn't to say that most people who choose not to have children do so for reasons of pathology).

Singer reminds us that creating a child is, of course, a portentous act of either good or ill. He alludes to recent philosophical writing that argues that, well, life often isn't the unqualified good we take it to be (I envision The Onion article: "Philosophers discover that life isn't worth living."). And all joking aside, one does occasionally encounter lives that are so chock full of misery and degradation that, really, not only the moral universe as a whole, but also the possessors of the lives in question, would seem to have been better without them.

Half tongue-in-cheek, Singer wonders whether it would be reprehensible for the species to decide that we will in fact be the final generation. After all, there is no categorical duty to procreate; we do not hold the childless to be guilty of some existential failure or infraction. We cannot be held to have a responsibility for vague beings of the future who may or may not exist; we have duties toward the living, that is all. And could argue that the presumption of a future for humanity, even if one does not have biological children oneself, is so deeply ingrained in the human organism that the horror of apocalypse far exceeds one's own demise. The future of humanity is not an obligation, but it is a hope, or perhaps a faith.

If one were to genuinely doubt the chance for a worthwhile life of one's offspring, then one would implicitly have to question one's own as well. I am surprised that Singer didn't mention The Children of Men, the movie a few years back that showed the depression and desperation of a world without reproduction. Arguably the final generation, whenever its grim day may come, whether in years or in millenia, will be the saddest one of all.


Anonymous said...

'If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?'

Yes. I don't think any moral or religious justification can weigh in to counter this absolute affirmative and still claim to have anything to do with humanity. But what constitutes 'full of pain and suffering'? Is 60% pure suffering and 40% relative happiness/non-suffering a justifiable existence according to this logic?

'If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?'

It's a good motivation, but not a sufficient reason (especially if it comes at the expense of someone else's health and happiness)-- It's like reasoning: 'Oh that wine made me so deliriously happy and presumably healthier (antioxidents) therefore I'm justified in drinking another glass'...ummm, not really!

Sentient beings just add ontological variation to the planet. They don't make the world 'better' as such. Just other shades of black really...that will eventually fade into non-existence.

Is a world with no philosophy better than one with? A world without philosophy cannot judge itself to be better; thus even if it is in itself better, it would never know it.

The Alienist said...

When I was in college, I remember an acquaintance of mine arguing for the use of abortion to prevent pain and misery in children. He said that if his wife were one day to be pregnant with a child with spina bifida, he would urge her to abort it to spare the child a lifetime of misery. Just then, a voice rose from behind him. A wheelchair-bound young college woman with spina bifida politely let him know that her life is a mixture of pain and pleasure and that the pleasure outweighs any pain and disability she experiences.

I tell this story only as a warning against philosophy that requires that we predict the future for others. Those we hope to spare from a dismal future may be more resourseful than us, more resilient than us, and may be able to find joy and happiness in areas we too easily overlook.

Thanks for this very thought-provoking post.

Novalis said...

Yes, there is no celebration of consciousness or of Homo sapiens and its dubious works that is not logically circular. "Better never to have been..." Better for whom?

And yes, it's hard to imagine anything more personal or logically incontestable than one's "reason for living" or "meaning of life," clumsy terms that try but fail to capture the persistence of subjectivity. The choice to have children (or not), an extension of that subjectivity, is just about as personal.