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Singer's Societal Suicide Suggestion

Singer's Societal Suicide Suggestion


Yesterday’s most-viewed New York Times article was by purported philosopher Peter Singer, who asks whether it might be ethical for us to all stop having children, and in effect commit societal suicide.  He wonders whether life contains too much suffering to make it worthwhile.  Ultimately, he concludes that life is actually worth it, but only because he is optimistic about humanity’s prospects for learning from our past mistakes.

But there is something deeply troubling about resting a valuation of life on how much pleasure it contains.  Studies show that no matter how healthy or prosperous, or unfortunate and impoverished, most humans return to a baseline level of satisfaction set by genetic factors or upbringing.  Chasing pleasure therefore is a fool's errand and certainly should not be the cornerstone of any ethical philosophy.

Moreover, the conflation of "pleasure" and "benefit" is a purely arbitrary decision on Singer’s part.  If the promotion of life itself is chosen as the route by which we can best understand "benefit," the "deep issues" raised by Singer melt away.  Using the promotion of life as our basic ethical measuring stick, we can derive the importance of quality of life and health, while at the same time shedding ourselves of the ludicrous suggestion that we have an ethical imperative to commit societal suicide.

If the process of descent with modification granted us our ethical sensibilities, then those sensibilities are simply an outgrowth of successful individual and collective behaviors.  The only criterion by which the "success" of a rule governing behavior can be measured is the tendency of the rule to promote survival.

In this context, asking a question such as "Is a world with people better than one with no sentient beings" misunderstands the nature of ethics.  The intuitive sense of ethics against which philosophers often check their work exists only in the context of a society of biological organisms.  No ethical inquiry can be external to biology.  Therefore, life must be our foundational value, to the extent that any value can be said to exist.

It's impossible to rate the value of life along some external scale -- life is not valuable because it is beautiful, happy, healthy or sentient.  Life inherently valuable to biological organisms because our primary evolutionary motivation is the continuation of life.  "Is life worth living?" is a meaningless question.   As humans, we lack the ability to contravene our evolutionary imperatives.  We WILL continue to strive as hard as we can to continue our species, and those of us who don't will simply die off.

As living beings, we are programmed to enjoy being alive.  As a living being myself, I am of the opinion that having awareness (among my many other uniquely life-enabled qualities) makes me incredibly lucky.  Biased by my metabolic giftedness, I believe that I am better-off than quadrillions of inert particles in the universe.  I would rather live a life of suffering than never live. 

The worst off that anyone could be is to not be alive, according the the only ethics that actually exist, which are those instilled in humans by our historical struggle for survival.  What we fight for is life; what we fight against is death.



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