Suffering and Optimism

A couple of days ago, over at the NYT, Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, asked, “Should This Be the Last Generation?

If you’re familiar with Singer’s defense of infanticide and euthanasia, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this essay takes a utilitarian view, one that omits any discussion of the nature of Man or of any purpose for his existence.

It seems that the only thing Singer—and the South African philosopher David Benatar, whose book is under discussion– considers in answering the is-life-worth-living question – Singer answers affirmatively, by the way– is whether life includes suffering. Deciding that a world with people is, after all, better than one without them, Singer concludes:

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.

Four quick thoughts:

First, teaching—like procreation—is an optimistic enterprise. We don’t look at our students who are suffering a lot or a little and consider their lives as being without value. We don’t wonder if the world would be a better place without them. We don’t value them less if they have special physical or mental needs. Quite the opposite— we optimistically help them reach their full potential, often a potential that exceeds expectations. We value their lives.

Second, is it just me, or does the idea that we can create a world—in a “century or two”– without much human suffering awfully naive?

Third, Singer surely has no understanding of the part suffering plays—not always for ill—in human existence.

Last, suffering is never defined in the essay. Considering Singer’s writings on what counts as a good life, we can only guess.

Discussion here, here and here.


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