A few years ago I was attending an academic conference in New Hampshire. At one of the dinners my pride overcame me: I told the attendees at my table that my wife had just recently given birth to our fourth child. He was an unexpected blessing—and I was beaming with happiness about it.
One of the attendees was apparently not so happy. “How many kids do you have?” he asked. “This is our fourth.” He rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you heard of something called ‘abortion’?” he laughed. “Excuse me?” I said, taken aback. He continued: “Don’t you think there are enough people on this planet already?” I was, as the Scots say, gobsmacked. “If you really think that,” I said, gesturing to the Atlantic ocean, which was visible from where we were sitting in the restaurant, “there’s the ocean; go throw yourself in it.”
He laughed awkwardly, but my stare indicated to him—and, I fear, to the other people at the table—that I was not kidding. And indeed I wasn’t. It was not just the egregiously bad taste in saying something like that to a brand new parent. Even worse was the posture of claiming that because lots of people have done something he doesn’t like, therefore I need to atone for it.
That is not part of my moral code. I am not “people,” or “mankind,” or “the species”; I am me and me alone. I take responsibility for my actions, and I take those responsibilities seriously; others should take responsibility for their actions. There is no collective “we” that acts, no leviathan of humanity that is collectively responsible for things that all humanity does.
That does not mean that the results of lots of people’s individual actions cannot lead to results that no one of them intended. That indeed is the central insight behind Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor: individuals pursuing mostly their own, localized self-interest are led, by the dynamics of markets, to pursue activities that turn out to benefit others as well. We all benefit, Smith argued, from the existence of markets, even those of us who disdain or misunderstand markets.
So Peter Singer argues recently that we should consider being the “last generation” of humans on earth. I remember—it does not seem so long ago—when Singer’s claim that the argument for abortion should be extended to license selective infanticide seemed outrageous. Then Singer made some ripples when he discussed with approval “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” between humans and non-human animals—so long, of course (of course!), as there is no cruelty toward the animal.
Now Singer wonders whether we might not have some obligation to sterilize ourselves to ensure that there is no future generation of humans. And why? Singer is worried about the number of humans on the planet already and the ‘stresses’ this creates. These stresses may well bear on other animals, but he’s primarily interested in future humans.
“Most thoughtful people,” Singer writes, “are extremely concerned about climate change,” and since the effects of our carbon production today will bear primarily on future generations, perhaps one way to avoid harming our progeny is not to have any progeny. If harming a child is wrong, then perhaps bringing a child into a world in which it is likely he or she will be harmed is wrong too. “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?”
Put aside for the moment that Singer leaves out of his discussion any mention of God or of any of the obligations that the world’s major religions believe their billions of faithful have to be fruitful and multiply. Also put aside the projections of many demographers that world population will peak and plateau during this century, as well as the fact that many countries—including most of Europe, for example—are not reproducing themselves at all and thus might not survive this century; so this is probably a non-issue already.
Consider instead Singer’s lack of intellectual humility. He uses words like “likely” and even “certainly,” but let’s be honest: He has no way whatsoever of knowing. This is crucially important because this lack of knowledge is not peculiar to him: It applies to almost everyone else regarding almost everyone else’s children. I don’t know what kind of life your child will have, and neither does Singer; even you can only make guesses—and if you have children, you know just how bad our guesses about how our children will turn out can be.
The scenarios Singer poses involving decisions of whether to sterilize ourselves to prevent the creation of future generations also assume collective decision-making and collective responsibility. But you and I do not decide how many children “we” should have, and you and I are not jointly responsible for the children “we” have. Instead, I make my decisions, you yours; I am responsible for mine, you yours. If each of us tries to take these responsibilities for his or her own decisions seriously, then, the worrisome aggregate effects that Singer highlights diminish dramatically.
So although it may be true that the continuance of our species will bring suffering to some future human beings, it is also true that it will bring tremendous joy and happiness as well. Since no one of us can tip the global balance in either direction, the prudent thing to do is to examine our own situations and make decisions for ourselves. If there are cases in which some potential parents ought, all things considered, not to have children, then there are similarly some in which some potential parents ought, all things considered, to have children.
This latter camp is the one I believe my family and I are in, and thus another reason why Singer and I seem to occupy different moral universes.
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