Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, July 2, 2010

Peter Singer's utilitarianism increases human suffering

They told you life is hard, Misery from the start, It's dull, it's slow, it's painful. But I tell you life is sweet In spite of the misery There's so much more, be grateful. -Natalie Merchant
Peter Singer recently published a New York Times blog post seriously posing the question of whether the human race should allow itself to go extinct. Most of the post is built around the arguments of philosophy professor David Benatar, author of the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Singer writes:
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.
There is a simple riposte, of course, to anyone seriously claiming we should not exist: one simply need note that no rational being is capable of posing such a claim, for once he believes it, if he is fully consistent in his conclusions and convictions, he should immediately kill himself, and so never have the opportunity to communicate the argument. Of course, I’m not suggesting that extreme utilitarian philosophers should kill themselves (though one could consider their existence as a special sort of suffering), and the fact that they don’t do so should be the first indication that something is amiss in their arguments. They live, like the rest of us, based on the notion that their lives are worth living, even though they are uniquely incapable of understanding that they are and why.

Even the most hardcore of evolutionary psychologists can agree with the notion that an organism that has lost the will and drive to continue its own existence is deeply sick — indeed, not just sick, but suffering from sickness. And it is a sickness of the highest degree, overwhelming as it does the most fundamental imperative of any organism or rational being: to exist, to maintain the prior condition for any state of goodness, joy, or wellbeing. We consider this true for animals so ill they have ceased to eat; and we consider it even truer for human beings who are suicidal: over and above whatever suffering has caused their state, we understand the state of not wanting to live to be itself a profound form of suffering — literally, the deepest form of existential despair.

Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So, also, he who has no why to live cannot bear with almost any how. Walker Percy claims that postmodern man “has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and ... finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.” Singer et al. turn this problem into the explicit question of why we shouldn’t, and when it exposes the gaping vortex of nihilism at the center of their philosophy, they attempt to divert our gaze with posturing of bold discovery and heroic honesty.

What we risk suffering from most deeply is not the physical anguish that concerns the utilitarians, but the very existential despair they so eagerly prescribe. By defining the value of our lives as simply the absence of physical suffering, philosophers like Singer may actually markedly increase human suffering. Not only does their philosophy provide an active reason for people to be suicidal, but it commits extreme utilitarians to arguing that the profound suffering of being suicidal is itself good reason for the suicidal to go ahead and commit suicide. (Notably, I know of no utilitarian philosophers who have had sufficient confidence in their convictions to openly advance such an argument.)

It is indeed a profound loathing for most of human existence that undergirds Singer’s philosophy. At the end of his post, he poses the question to the readers, “Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?” Though Singer allows, both here and in the conclusion to his post, that life is under the right circumstances worth living — presumably, under circumstances similar to his own — it is apparently taken for granted in this question that life is not worth living for people in undeveloped nations. And it must be even more taken for granted that life was not worth living for the thousands of generations of ancestors to whom we owe our own (at last potentially worthwhile) existences. Posterity, then — the accumulated infliction of the suffering of existence by each generation on the next — must be an injustice of unthinkable proportions.

It is in this understanding of the meaning of posterity, of course, that Singer most profoundly misses the worth of life, as available to today’s poor and to our impoverished ancestors as it is to affluent college professors. As a commenter on the Singer post, Pierce Moffett, puts it:
Maybe most normal people enjoy their lives to a greater extent than the typical philosopher does. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I have unfulfilled desires, but I have also had a great deal of enjoyment. I experience a few minutes of profound joy every morning when my 5 year old gets out of bed, comes to my office, and crawls up into my lap for a still-sleepy hug — and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself someday if she has a child of her own. This sort of utilitarian, weigh-everything-on-the-scales approach is the worst sort of academic pseudo-philosophical nonsense.

As a philosopher, Dr. Singer is surely aware that the notion that [the] world is getting worse every year has been around among philosophers for a very long time. But out in the real world, people do the millions of things they like to do — from roller skating to playing computer games to solving differential equations to flying hang-gliders ... and many of these things we love to do involve our children.


  1. "If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone." This strikes me as the basis of Singer's interest in Benatar's argument, and as a view it is utterly incoherent. It posits a human view of the whole which then concludes that for the good of the whole there ought to be no humans (to view the whole). I think this view should be contrasted to the wisdom of the Silenus, which according to N is the heart of Greek tragedy. The latter denies to man the capacity to know and judge the whole, to see the necessity of particular suffering. This view is a serious position.

  2. First things first... Singer and Benatar are two separate persons. Sounds obvious, but why then is it implied that Singer agrees with Benatar on antinatalism when he very clearly does not and says so in the quoted article?

    Asking questions is what philosophers do, it is their job. Talking about somebody elses views does in no way imply that one endorses these views. That is why I must seriously object to the claim that Singer is "prescribing" anything on anybody. He discusses a question Benatar asks. He rejects Benatars answer. He asks his readers to think about it. If we only talk about nice and easy things we already agree with, where should any progress come from? Of course one could consider it a legitimate position to only discuss things based on how positive or beneficial they are, and to ignore things which one considers to be neither. But that is not science, and it is most certainly not philosophy.

    The author does not seem to have read Benatars book, of any other relevant contribution to the topic, otherwise he would not have fallen into the trap of equating the antinatalist view with pro-suicide views. Benatar and others have explained at length that one does not necessarily follow from the other, indeed, this distinction is at the very heart of the matter. A living person has goals, preferences and wishes which would not be furthered by suicide. Also he is subject to biological constraints over which he has no control. One who does not exist yet has no goals, preferences and wishes, which is precisely why coming into existence can be no benefit for him.

    And it is not Mr Singer who "profoundly misses the worth of life", but Mr Moffett, who misses the point of the antinatalist argument, when he says "and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself someday if she has a child of her own.". That point is, that his daughter did not have any need for this joy, before she existed. (Also he has made it possible for her to have any of the suffering that I won't enumerate here, as anybody knows the bad things that can happen in life, esp. to women). In order for Mr Moffetts argument to make sense it would need to be shown why the creation of potential happiness is any good in itself. Why it is good to create beneficiaries of happiness, where there were none, i.e. why it is good, that needs can be satisfied when one has to create agents who feel the need in the first place. Maybe that is possible. But I have not yet seen a convincing argument for it.

    Btw, Benatar dislikes antinatalism himself, and wishes he would be proven wrong, as he explicitley states at the end of his book. This shows us that he understands that philosophy is not just about believing what is nice and benficial, but also about truth. To reject the logic of the antinatalist argument based on the opinion that it causes more harm than good would IMHO be a sign of intellectual dishonesty. Something which Benatar and Singer are not guilty of, as far as I can see.


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