Belmont Club

The Singer Not the Song

Peter Singer, writing in the New York Times, asks whether a world without people wouldn’t be a better place. His argument is simple. If nobody is alive then nobody’s human rights can be violated. “Have you ever thought about whether to have a child? … But very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself.”

The ultimate act of altruism, he argues, may be a conscious choice to be the last generation on earth. In that way there would be no one left to suffer the depredations of capitalism such as climate change. “Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. … But 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.”  As a society we are terminally guilty, irrevocably condemned. And since we cannot help living, then the solution is to do away with ourselves. By far the best way to prevent anyone from feeling guilty is for no one to feel guilt. “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!”  The only way you’re going to eat that can of beans is you agree to off yourself after dinner.

But his philosophy cannot base itself on anything as shallow as environmental economics, however lofty that might be. His deepest argument — which he seems to think constitutes profundity — is to ask whether consciousness is worth a damn anyway. And the answer to his rhetorical question is: only if it is a certain kind of consciousness. Only on those terms is consciousness permissible. If this planet is going to be inhabited by say, Tea Party activists, then it might as well be a steaming pile of rocks. If life isn’t of the approved kind, then it isn’t any better than the Age of Dinosaurs.

Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

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?

The fundamental problem with his argument is that there is nowhere to get a hold of it. For example, why would it be wrong to choose a non-sentient universe? That judgment requires an exercise of sentience — a privileged perspective because it is an appeal to a logic only sentience could apprehend. You couldn’t make this argument to a rock, only to a human being. But if consciousness itself is bad then its own fruits would be equally worthless. Corrupt sentience cannot be allowed to pass judgment on itself. Like the Cretan paradox in which a Cretan argued that all Cretans were liars, you could not admit the validity of the argument without admitting it is being put before a condemned jury.

But if you can’t settle it logically, why not settle it practically? Here again we run into difficulties. From a practical point of view, why should like people like Singer decide who lives and dies? Suppose a terrorist put a gun to Singer’s head and gave him ten seconds to explain why he shouldn’t pull the trigger. What answer would he give? If we believe, as Singer does, that only a world possessed of a certain kind of consciousness is worth living in, then he ought to tell the terrorist to turn the gun on himself. “Abdullah, do me a favor and kill yourself.” After all, if Singer’s consciousness is of the worthwhile sort, then he who would destroy it would be the wrong sort.  That means Abdullah should eat the bullet.

The only problem is that Abdullah might have other ideas. Or better yet, he may choose not to exercise sentience and pull the trigger because he feels like it, or throw dice to determine whether he will or he won’t or twitch the little tongue of metal because his finger itches. Bang. And then there’s no more sentience in the world. At least not according to some lights. And will it be a better world? How profound will Singer’s argument be in an 8th century world, with no awareness of climate change and no guilt? And no human rights to be violated because none are  recognized. How is this an improvement?

Perhaps the last stage of nihilism is the rejection of life itself. A world from which all transcendence is banished will eventually find that it cannot define life in terms that are worthwhile. Having abolished every measure of value it will find that even its own achievements are equally worthless. If that were all then nihilism would simply destroy itself and everyone else could carry on. But that is not all. In order to complete the vision a complete Nihilist must convince everyone else that they too should follow to oblivion. The end, being desirable, should be universal; the finale must always be a gotterdammerung.  And is that the kind of consciousness worth preserving? That exquisite, sophisticated self-referential, self-hating consciousness? That way madness lies.

Sentience is not a curse but a gift which allows us to see things that are good in themselves, and see past them. CS Lewis put it this way, “these things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” But the doorway to that far country is always through the small things around us. The saddest thing about Singer’s essay is that it contemplates a world where no one can hear music or feel hope; a world where all doors to the far country are shut. Tolkien understood the meaning of being in that closed room in which there was only a wheel of darkness within the darkness.

Sam: Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields. Eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?

Frodo: No, Sam. I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass.

Sam: Then let us be rid of it! Once and for all!

Rid not of life, but of pride.