Should Humanity Call It Quits?

June 10, 2010

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.”
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