Should We All Get Sterilized?


Arguments about reproductive choice don’t usually consider the option of sterilizing the entire human race. So that makes this latest argument special.

Sterilization is the option floated in a Times Op-Ed by Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton who has drawn fire before for his views on such topics as euthanasia. But now he advances the argument that human life might be too shitty to confer it upon anyone. His arguments are so depressing that I laughed out loud:

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer held that even the best life possible for humans is one in which we strive for ends that, once achieved, bring only fleeting satisfaction. New desires then lead us on to further futile struggle and the cycle repeats itself.

He also paraphrases fellow philosopher David Benatar:

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.

Well, if you put it that way! After setting forth this slings-and-arrows view of life, Singer points out that we spend a lot of time worrying about the effects of our actions — such as carbon emissions — on our children and our children’s children. Solution:

[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!

Singer’s careful to say that this is merely a thought experiment — he knows that the population of the world would never agree to mass sterilization, and he’s not advocating sterilizing people by force (the tipster who told us that Singer’s editorial was an example of the supposedly eugenics-promoting policies of the Obama administration is barking up the wrong tree). What he is saying is that we should seriously consider whether human life is good enough to pass on to future generations. Of course, some people do choose not to reproduce because they don’t want to bring children into a flawed world, while others make the choice to do their part against overpopulation. But few would argue that all human reproduction should simply stop. In fact, Singer’s questioning a basic precept that we tend to take for granted whichever side of the reproductive rights debate we fall on: that human lives have intrinsic value.

Somewhat surprisingly, after all that stuff about “futile struggle” and “prolonged negative states,” he decides maybe we shouldn’t get our tubes tied after all: “In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living.” Then he offers some questions to think about (or just be depressed over): “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?” Really, though, a more appropriate question might be, “should we bother analyzing the drive to reproduce?” Philosophers and ethicists consider all aspects of human life, but the decision to have children seems particularly ill-suited to their study. This decision is rarely rational — while parents sometimes think their child will add to the world, this isn’t usually why they choose to give birth. And while it’s possible to examine the moral ramifications of this choice, people are going to continue making it at a more basic and visceral level than almost any other. However we feel about other people’s reproductive decisions, all we can really do is ensure they have the freedom to make them.

Should This Be The Last Generation? [NYT]

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