Should Humanity Call It Quits?

Peter Singer, the controversial chair of bioethics at Princeton University, wrote an online feature for the New York Times, where he ponders, considering the multitude of suffering in life, whether it is not more moral to abstain altogether from procreation, knowing full well that that means that within one life span, there would be no more humans on earth. As he emphasizes, this is not a serious proposal, but a thought experiment in order to investigate the morality of bringing children into the world, the parents knowing full well that the child will suffer. On a different level, it is an investigation into the question whether life is worth living.

At first sight, this echoes a long lasting discussion between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai:

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it were more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.
They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions.
(Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 13b)

ת”ר שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה הללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא והללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו (עירובין יג:)

Does Peter Singer have a point, or is he fundamentally misunderstanding what life is all about?

After quoting some excerpts of his article, I present an analysis of the Jewish sources on the matter, in the hope that, when asked “what is the meaning of life,” we will give a better answer than “42.”

Peter Singer, Excerpted

(read his full write up here)

Have you ever thought about whether to have a child? If so, what factors entered into your decision? Was it whether having children would be good for you, your partner and others close to the possible child, such as children you may already have, or perhaps your parents? For most people contemplating reproduction, those are the dominant questions. Some may also think about the desirability of adding to the strain that the nearly seven billion people already here are putting on our planet’s environment. But very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself.

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?

Here is a thought experiment to test our attitudes to this view. Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. Some stop eating meat, or flying abroad on vacation, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. 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.

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!

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 Talmudic Disagreement, in Light of Peter Singer

The thrust of Singer’s article is that life may not be worth living, since it entails much suffering. The Houses of Hillel and Shammai similarly argue about whether or not life is worth living, and conclude it isn’t! For Singer (who ultimately posits that life is worth living), if life is not better than remaining unborn, it would follow that the right thing would be to abstain from procreation and to allow the human race to extinguish itself.

Is Singer’s analysis valid in the eyes of the Talmud? Should the consequence of the Talmud’s vindication of the pessimist attitude to life compel us to a life of procreative abstinence? And if not, why not?

Neither the House of Hillel nor that of Shammai are comparing non-existence to existence. They are, instead, positing a preexistent soul, which exists and “lives” in a celestial realm, until it is called upon to inhabit a developing foetus.

The dilemma being explored is best expressed in terms of 16th Century Lurianic Kabbalah. Prior to inhabiting a body, the souls have never had the opportunity to have any benefit whatsoever, and thus exist by Divine fiat and beneficence. Lurianists call that nahama dekhissufa, the bread of shame, underscoring that we generally are quite embarrassed to get benefits we didn’t earn. By being born into a body, the soul, together with the body, earn some merit, even though they forever are indebted to G”d’s goodness, both for having created them and for being merciful and forgiving of sin.

The dilemma the Talmud explores is whether the initial total unworthiness of the soul is reason enough to come to life and earn some merit, despite the overwhelming likelihood that we will sin, as well, or whether the likelihood of sin is an even greater source of shame and discomfort for the soul, than the shame of total indebtedness.

Thus Talmud’s argument differs in two important ways from Peter Singer’s thought. First of all, the discussion is entirely theoretical and is devoid of the kind of practical consequences Singer would advocate. Whatever the merit of life may be, does not impact one’s obligation to procreate, as can be seen in the following passage:

For so it says, In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet, son of Amoz, came to him and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die and not live etc. (II Kings 2; Isaiah 38 )

What is the meaning of ‘thou shalt die and not live’? Thou shalt die in this world and not live in the world to come. He said to him: Why so bad? He replied: Because you did not try to have children. He said: The reason was because I saw by the holy spirit that the children issuing from me would not be virtuous. He said to him: What have you to do with the secrets of the All-Merciful? You should have done what you were commanded, and let the Holy One, blessed be He, do that which pleases Him. He said to him: Then give me now your daughter; perhaps through your merit and mine combined virtuous children will issue from me. He replied: The doom has already been decreed. Said the other: Son of Amoz, finish your prophecy and go. This tradition I have from the house of my ancestor: Even if a sharp sword rests upon a man’s neck he should not desist from prayer. This saying is also recorded in the names of R. Johanan and R. Ele’azar: Even if a sharp sword rests on a man’s neck, he should not desist from prayer, as it says, Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 10a)

(מלכים ב כ; ישעיהו לח) בימים ההם חלה חזקיהו למות ויבא אליו ישעיהו בן אמוץ הנביא ויאמר אליו כה אמר ה’ <צבאות> צו לביתך כי מת אתה ולא תחיה וגו’

מאי כי מת אתה ולא תחיה מת אתה בעולם הזה ולא תחיה לעולם הבא אמר ליה מאי כולי האי אמר ליה משום דלא עסקת בפריה ורביה א”ל משום דחזאי לי ברוח הקדש דנפקי מינאי בנין דלא מעלו א”ל בהדי כבשי דרחמנא למה לך מאי דמפקדת איבעי לך למעבד ומה דניחא קמיה קודשא בריך הוא לעביד אמר ליה השתא הב לי ברתך אפשר דגרמא זכותא דידי ודידך ונפקי מנאי בנין דמעלו א”ל כבר נגזרה עליך גזירה א”ל בן אמוץ כלה נבואתך וצא כך מקובלני מבית אבי אבא אפי’ חרב חדה מונחת על צוארו של אדם אל ימנע עצמו מן הרחמים (ברכות י.)

Secondly, nowhere does the Talmud indicate that the soul’s shame or discomfort should be the deciding factor in establishing whether a soul ought to be born. In fact, the initial investigation is termed whether or not it is “more pleasant for man” to have been created, i.e., this is not an investigation into the duty to participate in life, but about what the egotistical choice of the soul would be.

However, as it happens, our purpose is not to life egotistical life, but to be part of history’s grand plan. To quote the Mishna in Avot (4:22):

He [R’ Eli’ezer haKappar] used to say: the born [are destined] to die, the dead to once be brought again to life, and the living to be judged; [therefore for all] to know and to make known, so that it become known, that He is God, the Fashioner, the Creator, the Discerner, the Judge, the Witness, the Prosecutor, and that He, blessed be He, will judge, before Whom there is no unrighteousness, nor forgetting, nor respect of persons, nor taking of bribes, for all is His.And know that all is according to the reckoning. And let not thy [evil] inclination assure thee that the grave is a place of refuge for thee; for without thy will wast thou fashioned, without thy will wast thou born, without thy will livest thou, without thy will wilt thou die, and without thy will art thou of a certainty to give an account and reckoning before the King of the kings of kings, blessed be He.

הוא היה אומר: הילודים למות; והמתים להחיות; והחיים לידון,
לידע להודיע ולהודע שהוא אל, הוא היוצר, הוא הבורא,
הוא המבין, הוא הדיין, הוא עד, הוא בעל דין, והוא עתיד לדון.
ברוך הוא, שאין לפניו לא עולה ולא שכחה ולא משוא פנים ולא מקח שוחד, שהכל שלו.  ודע שהכל לפי החשבון.
ואל יבטיחך יצרך שהשאול בית מנוס לך,  שעל כרחך אתה נוצר;  ועל כרחך אתה נולד;  ועל כרחך אתה חי;  ועל כרחך אתה מת;  ועל כרחך אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא:

The purpose of life is for man to facilitate the dissemination of people’s knowledge and appreciation of G”d, and in His Image, to seek to create a just and spiritual society.

Not only does the above differ markedly from Singer’s utilitarianism, in that the coming about of life is disconnected from any speculations about what the soul would personally find more pleasant, but as it turns out, but keeping the unborn unborn, we are depriving them of the ultimate pleasure: to join with G”d in perfecting the world.

Some Insightful Reactions to Singer’s Piece

pierce.mofett from Portland reacted as follows:

Maybe most normal people enjoy their lives to a greater extent than the typical philosopher does. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I have unfulfilled desires, but I have also had a great deal of enjoyment. I experience a few minutes of profound joy every morning when my 5 year old gets out of bed, comes to my office, and crawls up into my lap for a still-sleepy hug — and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself some day if she has a child of her own.

Given the overwhelmingly secular nature of the audience of the New York Times web site, the following, by commenter SidArtfoil, can be said to nicely capture, in secular terms, what the Talmud really conveyed:

Life for anyone is, in large measure, what WE MAKE IT. Life is worth living IF we make that life worth living. I stipulate that much in life is either completely beyond our control, or only somewhat within our control. But I believe that enough of life in within our control that its worth is significantly up to us.

Refusing to have children (as a general rule) denies them the chance to create a life-worth-living.

Ultimately, Singer’s doubts come from his purely utilitarianist philosophy. Some people are so stuck in the here and now that they numb themselves to the point of now any more perceiving the light brushes from eternity we are touched by repeatedly. Upon reflection, it becomes readily apparent that the greatest fulfilment in life does not come from what we amass in material goods and hedonist experiences, but from what we do with our lives, how we made ourselves fit in the greater scheme of things, how we became the ultimate creative human powers, those who become partners with G”d in making His world a more G”d-aware, inspired, better world.

One Response to Should Humanity Call It Quits?

  1. micha says:

    I added around 2/3 of this post to an Avodah discussion of Singer’s article. See here once the Avodah Digest vol 27 #129 is filled and sent out.


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