Monday, June 21, 2010

Is life worth living?

Philosopher Peter Singer, in his "Should this be the last generation" query, offers philosophical rambling of the sort that drives me up the wall, a prime example of one of the things our brains were definitely not designed to do. My bottom line is that I refuse to get excited about existential issues ("Is life worth living", etc.) beyond those I think my two abyssinian cats would find, shelter, a place to poop, and sex. I don't think the human overlay on top of that has shown much competence with  'the meaning of it all' questions. In this territory we are like the dog being asked to understand quantum physics. Singer starts by noting 19th century German philosopher Schopenhauer's pessimism:
...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 then goes on to note more recent arguments from philosopher David Benatar:
To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her...Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are....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.

...the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about....So why 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 does end on a more upbeat note:
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?


  1. Perhaps the question should be: "Is a philosopher's life worth living?"

  2. Benatar's argument (and Singer's summary) may be predicated on plain existential assumptions (e.g., that people are brought into existence through human agency), but the hedonic asymmetry at issue has little to do with lofty questions about "the meaning of of it all," or even life's subjective worthiness (at least for those already born). Benatar's argument is specifically concerned with suffering and its prevention. Whether you embrace or reject his view that bringing people into existence entails nontrivial harm, his argument is presented in coldly logical terms that do not reduce to metaphysical abstraction.