Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Peter Singer, the rather notorious Princeton ethicist, published a provocative essay in the New York Times blog “Opinionator” proposing that we should consider making this generation the last of the human species.  He pondered what would be wrong with universal sterilization throughout the planet, a planned extinction of the entire race.  Here’s a sample of his musings for the standard of choice for intentional reproduction:

“How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem?”

In all fairness, the essay does conclude with a tepid off-shrugging of the notion, even as it unfolds with great seriousness.

Perhaps I’m too much of an armchair psychologist, but I have a sense that many public intellectuals think that they are looking through a window when they see the world but are mistaken and are instead looking into a mirror.  What I mean is that when they think that they see something in the world at-large, what they really are seeing is their own life magnified and projected in a way that overshadows reality.

Singer’s essay is really a commentary on or extension of the thoughts of David Benatar, a South African philosopher whose book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence,” is, I suppose , the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism (the idea that the self is the only thing knowable or real in the universe).  Check out Singer’s summary of 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.

Methinks I see a mirror, not a window. 

Ironically, David Benatar seems to be extending a punitive line of thought to one of Pat Benatar’s hit records from the early 80’s, “Hell Is for Children” (if you follow the link, beware the language in the comments).  The world is filled with suffering and abuse so let’s just kill off the entire species, sort of a communal form of capital punishment.

I am amazed at how commonly the larger culture keeps wanting to rework Eden.  “Avatar” certainly does this in 3-D cinematic detail.  Most of the cultural conflicts we see played out in the media are rooted in a desire to re-work the effects of the opening chapters of Genesis.  What Singer ponders is really a kind of rhetorical question: What if God had created a garden and then decided not to have peopled it with Adam and his progeny?  I suppose, the thinking goes, that the Fall would not have happened and everything would be a utopian park where the lion and the lamb would sing Kumbaya around a primeval campfire. 

This discounts, of course, the reality that Nature is thoroughly red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson reminded us, and even if we were no longer a part of this world, death and suffering would still reign supreme.  The Fall explains the violent chaos of this world with precision.

Amazing, isn’t it, how even the most secular among us wants to return to Eden?   Even if we have to sacrifice the entire species to accomplish it.

The really cool part about Eden is that grace trumps even the so-called innocence of paradise.  Grace did not result from the Fall, but rather the Fall, in ways that are unfathomable to our finite minds, was a part of the plan that was set in motion before the foundations of the earth (see Ephesians 1:4, 1 Peter 1:20, and several other passages).  Christians don’t want to go back to Eden; we want to live in Jerusalem Celestial, where grace finds its embodiment in the One who, as Isaiah 53:8 prophesied, really would have no descendants of His corporeal body, only adopted children of His blood.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles