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Time for Human Extinction?

As an aspiring ethicist, I find it troubling to know the influence of ethicists such as Peter Singer. Not only are his ideas influencing academia, but academia trickles down to daily life and the thoughts of the “average” citizen. The Princeton professor of bioethics promotes a startlingly low view of human dignity. In his most recent debacle of an article, Singer proposes that our generation ought to be the last.

In his New York Times opinion piece titled, “Should This Be the Last Generation?” Singer begins by asking questions that I have recently considered in my own study of bioethics. Questions surrounding procreation (or the common and undesirable term “reproduction”) are important and pertinent. Yet, his solution to the question of whether and why to bring children into the world misses the point and value of life. Life is not ours to create and take at our own will. In fact, the tendency to refer to creation of new life as “reproduction” rather than “procreation” implies that babies are primarily ours for the making, rather than gifts of infinite value.

Dr. Gene Fant, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Union University, has an excellent piece at First Things explaining the travesty of Singer’s logic on human life. In a follow-up piece, Joe Carter offers further insight into Singer's dangerous ethics. Please take the time to look at these pieces. Human life is too valuable to be treated as if we have the right to determine its intrinsic worth or worthlessness.


Comments:

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Ben, you wrote: "LQ: Singer purportedly gives >30% of his income to charity. This is far above average for Christians (also, most Christians give their money to the church, little of which goes to charity)."

It took me far too long to see what you're driving at here; my apologies.

The problem with establishing some percentage of income as the desired goal is twofold: one, it reduces giving to a number instead of a vision for changing the world. Two, it allows humans to compare themselves to each other, and to either feel superior or inferior as if all situations were identical at all times.

Consider the "widow's mite" in Mark 12:41-44. If we go by percentages, then anything less than 100% is inadequate. This (and other passages) seem to condemn making one's giving public. What's more, there are those who might feel satisfied with 30% for whom 45% might be more appropriate. (I've known people who could give 45%.)

The bottom line for me is that how much to give is truly a private matter, although we should certainly encourage each other to do better in giving just as in everything else. At the same time, we must beware the leaven of the Phrarisees who turn giving into a point of pride, and who thereby turn houses of prayer into dens of thieves.

So along with "Pray." and "Tell." I'd add "Read Scripture and ponder it." even though it breaks the single-word symmetry.

And since we know that Peter Singer is not motivated by Scripture, I and others have every right to be wary of whatever he says. This is far less so with Lewis. Does that make sense to you, my friend?
"Not only does he have the courage to take on a whole passel of conservatives single-handedly (rather like, say, Roberto signing the PFM employee agreement), he's doing it in multiple threads simultaneously!! "

Quite. Well said.
And lest I be neglectful,
Steve, I wanted to add a hearty "Hear! Hear!" to your encouragement to Ben. Not only does he have the courage to take on a whole passel of conservatives single-handedly (rather like, say, Roberto signing the PFM employee agreement), he's doing it in multiple threads simultaneously!! In my mind I'm hearing a Michael Jackson ballad from my youth that began "Ben, you're always running here and there,...". OK, it was the theme song to a silly horror movie, so the analogy breaks down. Hmmm, or maybe not - I never saw it, but I'm told the movie included some "human extinction", too... :-)
Pray. Tell.
Ben, you wrote: "And how, pray tell, do you personally tell when "God is leading" you to give more? How do you distinguish between a tugging on your heart when reading Singer versus reading Lewis?"

These seem to me to be two separate questions, but I'll treat them as one (as it appears you intended them to be, my friend). As my Subject line indicates, I ask God, and I discuss with others. I'd add "it's kind of a church thing, y'know", but that might come across as patronizing instead of the wry with-a-wink, between-friends humor I intend.

And I believe that God could speak to me via Singer every bit as much as via Lewis. Lots of Biblical examples of God using unbelievers to rebuke believers.

But because I talk both with God and with people, I know what both Singer and Lewis believe. (And I've read some of the writings of each, of course.) I can look at the results of each - even though Singer's still alive while Lewis, regrettably, is not. God gave me a brain to think about what's being said. So I do. As a fallible human being, I could be wrong. Even so, I'd rather be careful. Maybe 30% of your income is effectively disposable, Ben, and could be frittered away on a cause that turns out to be a sham. I'm not in that position.

Oh, and good catch that "church" and "charity" may not be the same. But IIRC here at The Point the bloggers have from time to time indicated the efficiency of Christian giving versus secular charities. If you define "charity" as "redistributing wealth to people living in America" then you may have a valid point. If you define it as "providing various forms of aid, primarily non-cash, and especially time and relationships" then I think you're on fairly weak ground - IM(alas)NSHO.
Ben,
Good job bringing up this thread again! :)

Sallying forth,
I believe I was engaging in hypothetical thought experiments in regard to quality of life, a child's enjoyment, procreation and sterilization when I suggested the worst would be people concluding that the ethical position is to force others to not have children because "the ethicists" think the resulting offspring would be burdensome. This hypothetical reasoning flows quite naturally from Singer's thinking. He didn't just want us to imagine everyone stop reproducing. He wanted us to think about reasons to stop reproducing specifically because of the affects on us and future generations. Also, forced sterilization has actually happened in the past.

Re: "It's a common misconception of atheists that they have no basis for their morality".
I do understand this reasoning. I've thought about it a lot. Unfortunately, the "weight" of the atheist's morality has no... gravity.
Essentially, as I alluded previously, we can engage in endless hypotheticals for atheist morality and come no nearer to anything that must or should or ought to be done. The exciting part is each atheist gets to define for herself what holds moral "weight". Sadly, the atheist and her baggage of hypothetical morals are on a weightless journey to the nihilistic black hole.
"It's a common misconception of atheists that they have no basis for their morality (although, yes, their basis is not of the same weight as Christians'). If you're only seeking your own benefit, it will still be in your favor to abide by the Golden Rule much of the time, and if you're looking to the good of the species, the more everyone abides by it, the better"

If you're looking for the good of the species you are deciding in favor of morality on moral criteria which doesn't make any sense. If you are only seeking your own interest, you are not abiding by the Golden Rule. That is commerce not morality and commerce is all very well but not the same thing.
It's not over until..
Steve: Right. "Non-subjective less procreation" would be wrong, but I don't think it's what Singer's advocating, since he pointed out that he was engaging in a very hypothetical thought experiment where everyone voluntarily stopped reproducing. It'd not happen in real life.

It's a common misconception of atheists that they have no basis for their morality (although, yes, their basis is not of the same weight as Christians'). If you're only seeking your own benefit, it will still be in your favor to abide by the Golden Rule much of the time, and if you're looking to the good of the species, the more everyone abides by it, the better. And although I can't say what response Singer would give, I know that the simple state of having empathy provides motivation to give happiness to others.

LQ: Singer purportedly gives >30% of his income to charity. This is far above average for Christians (also, most Christians give their money to the church, little of which goes to charity).

If you've read his article, you can tell that Singer is not telling you *where* to give your charity, but that you probably should be giving more. And how, pray tell, do you personally tell when "God is leading" you to give more? How do you distinguish between a tugging on your heart when reading Singer versus reading Lewis?

I touched on Jesus, Mary, and the perfume, but I can summarize the points again as thus: the important thing was that Mary was giving, and this was the only case in the Gospels where Christ's generosity was *not* directed towards the poor or weary.
Waaa-WAAAA-wa-WAAAAAAA!
And, Gina, I doubt you'll ever see Singer's name again without that song at least briefly springing to mind.

Which, of course, was my idea - for you, me, and everyone else.
In any event, I've now got "Hey, Big Spender" firmly lodged in my brain. :-)
Should be "A man of EXtinction,..."
I guess that key sequence means "hit the Submit key". Touch-typing on a small keyboard in the dark is not a good fit for me, I guess.
man of distinction a real big spender
BW> Instead of addressing his argument, you attempt to judge Singer instead - but can you really see his heart?

Thanks for your reply, Ben. So to you, the person can be separated from the argument? Excellent.

BW> Take another look at what Singer said. It's not about guilt - he was talking about what we *do*, not how we feel.

Quoting from what Singer said: "If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about." (I suppose someone could argue that this was a hypothetical, rather than Singer's own view.)

I Googled "UNICEF corruption" and "Oxfam corruption" and got interesting results. So I think the comparison to Judas, who advocated for charity instead of luxury but who actually had ulterior motives, may potentially have some merit. At the very least, it makes me wonder a bit if Singer's promotion of those two charities are indeed as Christian as they appear.

But to your main point, should Christians spend less on luxury and more on charity? Certainly. Note, though, that here at The Point there have been articles showing how Christians already out-give many others, particularly those who are atheists like Singer.

What disturbs me the most, though, is the implication that Singer's conviction should be everyone's conviction. I've been disturbed to discover that charities promoted through my previous workplaces were often not all that charitable. I've even discovered that some Christian "charities" - including, ahem, some creationists - were corrupt. I don't want anyone - including Singer - telling me where I should give. Or for that matter, how much; God loves a *cheerful* giver. (Seems to me Singer is conflicted on guilt; in one case we should avoid guilt by not procreating, while in the other case we should feel guilt for not giving as Singer does.) I refuse to be swayed by human argument, or human emotional manipulation, having fallen victim to those traps before. I want to give as God leads me to give. I might even feel, sometimes, like prisoner's children have higher priority than poor children...

As an aside, I'm delighted to see you arguing from Scripture, particularly James. How about Jesus, though? He praised the expensive gift of perfume as a beautiful thing. Evidently we're not too competent to determine what is beautiful and what isn't without God's guidance. So trying to determine what is good and what is not good, as Singer does, cannot result in agape, and probably not authentic phileo or storge, either.

I'm glad that Singer ends his article on a hopeful note, but I'm extremely disturbed that his hope is simply based on an optimistic outlook. Without a firmer foundation, how can that optimism stand?

(Aside to Rolley: I started with Internet-style quoting in a Ben reply, and ended with 486 words; pbthbhthtbbhth.)
Time permitting...
Sorry for dropping in and out of this conversation. A lot has been discussed, but I'll try to keep this brief, mostly in dialogue with Ben.

First, I believe I meant, by "non-subjective less procreation", the idea that someone can objectively measure something and use that to enforce what they believe is an ethical solution. It's a little worrisome that a few (both measurements and people) can wield immense power. What that means, I believe, is that people should never be treated 'en masse'. (e.g., simplistically, "we the elite have determined everyone whose genome has issue X must be sterilized" oe "we the elder of this Church believe everyone in X community is worthy of condemnation").

In regard to Beethoven (because I love Beethoven), whatever Benatar/singer might be saying (and I don't think it's altogether clear), it appears they are saying life would have been better for Beethoven had he never been born because he suffered so greatly. Am I right in thinking that? Would they say that, say, music which has increased the life of millions is separate from the life of the person who created it? But, it seems very strange to me that Beethoven appears to contradict them (as LeeQuod pointed to). Has anyone better or more deeply expressed the raw joy he has experienced in life?
Does anyone not deserve this chance?

Moving on, Ben said: "[Singer's] argument is simply this: for each $200 you spend on luxury, you could have saved a child's life. So is spending this money on luxuries immoral?"

This is a good question. Though, I'm not certain whether the word should be 'immoral' or 'unethical' (via Singer). Each person should wrestle with that question - without letting it become too legalistic. Are you wise with your money? Do your possessions own you? I know I struggle with this issue (when I'm thinking about it).

I also struggle with taking ethical or moral advice from Singer, who appears to have no foundation to his utilitarianism. Why should we care about the lives of poor children again? Because "most of us" will agree? It's in our genes? "It's the right thing to do"? It doesn't really matter? We unplanned planners occassionally think about these things? Singer has a degree? Pain hurts?
His atheism implies we ought to do precisely nothing. Sure most of us will do things to minimize harm/pain/suffering to ourselves, and maybe others (because we're afraid of still others' power). I don't see (and haven't seen) a way around this, given atheism, and atheism is the foundational premise that Singer's arguments are based on (if he's an atheist).

In a sense, the $200 dollar question is like Jesus asking about the Denarius and then saying "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's". There is no legalistic solution in a life of grace. The only problem is that, for Singer, he can only say "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's".
Actually, LQ..
As I understand it, Catholic women are allowed some family planning (using NFP and abstinence) but aren't simply encouraged to reproduce as much as possible.


Your reply to Singer's solution is interesting. Instead of addressing his argument, you attempt to judge Singer instead - but can you really see his heart? I personally agree with Singer on the rights of young unborn children, but I think you'd at least hesitate before saying that I do not 'agape' others. In any case, Singer's solution should stand on its own merits, not based on who said it. Judge his argument, instead.

Take another look at what Singer said. It's not about guilt - he was talking about what we *do*, not how we feel. Nor does it really relate to money spent anointing Jesus' feet (most Westerners spend enough money on frivolity that even if we exclude money given to the Church, Singer's argument still stands).

His argument is simply this: for each $200 you spend on luxury, you could have saved a child's life. So is spending this money on luxuries immoral?


My introduction to Singer began with that scenario from "The Singer Solution to World Poverty". If you notice me defending him at times, it's because I have a lot of respect for someone willing to preach (and hopefully follow through) on a Christ-like attitude towards the poor. Although he's an atheist, he takes a stronger approach towards charity than 99% of Christians.

Interestingly, while Paul says that "If I give all I possess to the poor, but have not love, I gain nothing", CS Lewis implies that doing charity, even when we don't want to, works to build charitable love. For me, the act of giving itself is the act of love. After all, if you see a brother or sister lacking in clothing and daily food, and part with them saying "God bless you", but don't give them what they need, what good is that? And with today's technology, we know that our siblings in Christ in other countries are struggling to survive, and we have the means to help them, as Singer points out.


Of course, I also defend Singer when I see people misreading him. Although he said that he'd prefer this not be the last generation, people may still take his article as meaning that he believes "humans should become extinct". Indeed, in the linked article he suggests we consider the idea that everyone voluntarily quit reproducing. Would it be worth it, he wonders? He continues:

"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."

Plainly, he's not arguing for humankind's extinction.
Jason, I've taken Singer's advice
...left the human race, and joined the Houyhnhnms. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houyhnhnm )

Stopped using "Yahoo!" as a search engine a long time ago; this just makes it official. Besides, it's hard to type with hooves. But Id like it if everyone would stop saying "Hey!"; makes me hungry.
So, Richard Dawkins rides a horse into the ground and then flogs it after it is dead, Lee? Does he then complete his equestrian feats by riding his horse-corpse through an underground tunnel while still continuing to apply an unfashionable method of corporeal punishment to it? After that does he bring it out of the ground and then resurrect his dead horse.

Richard Dawkins missed his calling. A rider who can do such things should be a jockey. How much do you want to bet on him, Lee?
Ben W, you wrote: "Following the fallacy to its extreme, women should be pregnant as much as possible, to do their best to help the next Beethoven come about."

Hmmm - I'm none too knowledgeable about Papal pronouncements, but I thought this was what the Popes have been saying for centuries.

But regarding Singer's solution to world poverty, I recall that Judas criticized the breaking of an alabaster jar of fine perfume on the grounds that it could have been sold and given to the poor. His real motive was to skim some of the donation for himself, of course, and as far as we know Singer is not getting kickbacks from advertising for UNICEF or Oxfam. The main issue is that to claim that anyone who enjoys something should instead feel guilty about someone else is to say that goodness should be evenly distributed until the very term "goodness" is meaningless (being indistinguishable from the norm).

But I'm really intrigued by 1 Cor. 13:3, which says "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." Peter Singer clearly does not love (agape, phileo, or storge, in the Greek, although he may eros) people, even though he calls for everyone else to love (agape) them. Paul says that the kind of sacrifice that Singer expects is meaningless unless you're also willing to relate to people in a sacrificial way. Saying "humans should become extinct" is saying "human relationships are worthless", which is exactly why Paul says that giving to the poor without valuing them as people is false charity.

Similarly giving to PFM while not visiting prisoners, but if I say that... Hey, I have to not just look at this face in the mirror briefly every morning, but *shave* it, looking intently, too, y'know. I'd much rather everyone *else* felt convicted.
/Ben goes and looks up the Beethoven fallacy, which goes like this:

"About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was
syphilitic, the mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first
was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also
tuberculous. What would you have done?

I would have terminated the pregnancy.

Then you would have killed Beethoven."


Presumably, it's a fallacy because it makes an argument against abortion based on the future achievements of the unborn. But the argument works just as well if you only encouraged Beethoven's parents to use protection on the night of Beethoven's conception (result: no Beethoven!) or if they happened to have sex the previous day instead, or.. you get the idea. Following the fallacy to its extreme, women should be pregnant as much as possible, to do their best to help the next Beethoven come about.


But let's go back to something a bit more Singerian, another hypothetical situation:

"In his 1996 book, Living High and Letting Die, the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like UNICEF or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old —offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America. [http://supportunicef.org/ for Unicef and http://www.oxfam.org/ for Oxfam."

From "The Singer Solution to World Poverty". What do you think?

PS - no, I don't despise IAWL. Not crazy about it either, but it's not a *bad* movie.
I thought I detected a few symphonic echoes there myself, at first. :-)

I think it's Christopher who hates IAWL, not Ben.
Yeah, just speaking for myself, but I'd rather not follow that line of discussion. I'm sure there's people who've given it a lot of thought, though, and you can probably find some answers through some (careful) google searching.
Owed To Joy
WWII? Up until that point, Ben, I thought you were going to beat on the so-called "Great Beethoven Fallacy", a steed ridden into the ground by Richard Dawkins. This surprised me, as you generally avoid the flagellation of deceased equines.

What is extremely striking, though, is how humans (myself included!) are so thoroughly ready to impute omniscience to themselves (either individually, or collectively) such that they feel capable of passing judgement on the value of a person. I believe you've already expressed revulsion at The Point over the supposed treacle of the Christmastime movie "It's A Wonderful Life", but to me it stresses that without divine perspective, we're incapable of valuing someone else - or even (as in the movie) ourselves.

"O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
und freudenvollere." (Symphony #9 in D Minor, Opus 125 "Choral", Fourth Movement)
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