It has been pointed out that death and taxes are the only sure things in this life. While this may be true, I think there are a few more things we could safely add to the list of “sure things.” For instance, it is a sure thing that any newscast of the Gulf oil spill will include a picture of an oil-soaked pelican. It is also a sure thing that putting your best defender on the floor to guard Kobe Bryant will only cause him to score more points. And it is also a sure thing that any time Peter Singer says or writes anything, it is going to produce controversy.
Who’s Peter Singer, you ask? Why, he’s only “one of the most reprehensible intellectual forces alive today,” according to Southern Seminary president, Al Mohler.1 If that doesn’t catch your interest, how about this: “Some refer to [Singer] as ‘Professor Death.’ Others have gone as far as to liken him to Josef Mengele. Troy McClure, an advocate for the disabled, calls him ‘the most dangerous man in the world today.’”2 Pretty powerful words for a little-old college professor. Essentially, Peter Singer is the voice of reason for the radical environmentalist movement. He is the one that is willing to say what most earth-worshipers only secretly think. As a tenured professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer can pretty much say what he wants to without having to worry about any of the negative consequences (professionally anyway) that keep most rational people quiet. Singer is a pot-stirrer, a lightning rod, a fly in the ointment, a crazy uncle; yet he also happens to have the academic credentials that we demand our “experts” to possess. Even those who tend to agree with him, also tend to maintain a safe distance from him. Quoting Peter Singer approvingly to make your point may get your point noticed, but it will just as quickly get you blacklisted.
With this brief introduction out of the way, it should come as no surprise that when Peter Singer talks, people listen. When Singer recently wrote a short piece for the New York Times blog, entitled “Should This Be the Last Generation,” it generated a substantial amount of responses. The article itself was nothing new for Singer, but it put a different spin on his usual demonizing of human beings as a scourge to the precious environment of Planet Earth. Aside from his usual self-congratulatory remarks (e.g. “Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change.”), Singer revealed a side of himself that seldom gets press—his inexplicable optimism. After spending the better part of the post questioning modern motivations for having children, Singer ends his piece with this paragraph:
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe [by this he means one without human beings]. 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?
This is a fascinating paragraph for several reasons. First, it reveals that Singer’s nature worship has its limits. Second, it shows that despite his best efforts, he just can’t shake his optimistic belief that the world as it currently exists is not the end of the story. And finally, it is most interesting because it puts Singer at odds with the logical conclusions of his own naturalistic worldview. This ending to his article is most unexpected because earlier in the article, Singer praises a recent book by David Benatar, in which Benatar concludes that continued human reproduction will only extend human suffering and benefit no one. Anyone familiar with Singer’s past writings would be excused for assuming that Singer would be all too willing to embrace Benatar as a brother in arms. Perhaps Singer is only able to see the ramifications of his own beliefs when they are written in someone else’s prose. Singer summarizes Benatar’s views in this way:
Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
These are wry and stinging words, but they are relatively tame compared to ones that Singer himself has written over the years. Benatar is doing little more than rewording what Singer has already said in his own books and lectures. Singer has been known to be abrasive and coldly logical in his efforts to make his students understand that humans are no more special than lab rats in an evolutionary world of chance and chaos. In 1975, Singer wrote: “The belief that human life, and only human life, is sacrosanct is a form of speciesism.”3 Speciesism, like racism or sexism, is elevating one animal species over another. Since Singer believes that man is also an animal, his views leave no room for viewing man as created in the image of God. Singer claims to believe, like Carl Sagan, that the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever shall be; put another way, Singer believes that matter is the only thing that matters. Now, however, Singer shows that he harbors a bit of his own “pollyannaism” by refusing to accept Benatar’s pessimistic prognosis for future generations.
It should be noted that Singer’s “optimism” is a religious belief. If Singer really believed that “matter is all that matters,” he would have no grounds for disagreeing with Benatar. Human history, not to mention personal experience, does not bear out the idea that humans learn from their mistakes. Singer admits that Benatar is correct in that every human life will include at least a bit of suffering, yet he still holds on to the irrational (to his position anyway) belief that life is worth living. Faced with the prospect of Hamlet’s famous question—”to be or not to be?”—Singer shows that answering “not to be” is not as easy as one might think. Singer has spent his life trying to draw attention to the issue of alleviating suffering, yet when another academic comes along and proposes that non-existence would solve the problem quite handily, Singer can’t bring himself to agree. Perhaps suffering serves a purpose after all.
This is precisely why moral problems cannot be solved by ivory tower academics. Although Benatar’s thesis that not bringing children into the world will guarantee that they won’t suffer is logically coherent and fits consistently with a matter-only worldview, Singer would rather be irrational than live with the logical implications of his beliefs. In this sense, Singer’s eschatology (his belief about the future) trumps his anthropology (his view of man). That is, Singer’s unproven beliefs about man (that we will learn from our mistakes; that there will be less suffering in the world in the future) override his present observations of man. Without even realizing it, Singer stumbles on to a fact of life that Christians have known all along: Man cannot live without hope. Having hope (not to mention God’s promise) that tomorrow is a new day is what keeps most humans from giving in to the despair of the present—as Benatar appear to have done. It is always assumed that suffering is a bad thing, but even Peter Singer has given a glimmer of understanding that this may not be the case. Yes, humans (and animals) suffer, but this observation tells us very little about the purpose of suffering. Job was well acquainted with suffering, yet despite all signs to the contrary, Job endured. Humans have a great capacity for not only living with pain and anguish, but also being able to inflict it on others. This is no secret to the Christian, the Bible makes this point over and over again. But, the Bible is just as clear that this is not the end of the story. And if Singer’s short article teaches us anything, it should be that even the “most dangerous man in the world today” is capable of understanding this simple truth.
 Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” as found in James E. White, Contemporary Moral Problems (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1985), 275.
- Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” as found in James E. White, Contemporary Moral Problems (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1985), 275.(↩)