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The Ethics of Reproduction

This summer I'm traveling, working, trying to get caught up on things that were left to fester over the winter. As a result, I'm a little slower writing getting the MNK articles online. Still, I hope you are all enjoying a wonderful summer and I promise I will be back on track in the fall.

Anyway, this week a reader sent me a very interesting op ed. article by Princeton professor of Bioethics, Peter Singer. He asks some very interesting questions: "Is having children ethical or unethical? Is a world with people in it better than one without? 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?"

Intense questions all, but ones I realize I've thought about since I was a kid. A case in point: I once observed some neighborhood kids brutally murdering a nest of baby mice. My parents were as kind to animals as they possibly could be, living in the clipped and manicured suburbs, and I ran home to my mother to complain in shock about the violent act I'd witnessed.

My mother ran over to the neighbor's house to confront the mother of the murderers and was told that the household had been suffering from a mouse infestation and the mother had instructed her kids to kill any they found outdoors. My mother lectured the woman on the wisdom of teaching her kids to enjoy killing animals but was met with deaf ears.

It was obvious to me at that point: when choosing between the comfort of humans and the existence of other animals, humans will always win out, and will always find a way to justify atrocities inflicted on other animals with notions of god-given human superiority and entitlement.

Singer asks specifically, "Is a world with people in it better than one without?" Yet, interestingly, Singer sets aside the question of the pain we inflict on other species and on the planet. He examines the question from a purely ethical angle. Is the world better or worse off with or without people?

If found Singer's stance refreshing. It removes the burden of guilt. As a child-free person, I'm overly familiar with parents who consider my choice to not have kids somehow unethical. But, from Singer's point of view, that stance is clouded with notions of religion doctrine and "illusions of Pollyannaism." People are always optimistic that human existence gets better with time - each generation improves on the last. Religion supports this commanding us to "Go forth and multiply."

Singer suggests, when we put religion aside, that it would not be unethical at all if humans decided, for one generation, to not reproduce any offspring. The universe wouldn't be loosing anything. No damage would be inflicted on the earth if we lost a generation, in fact, much could be gained as our overpopulated presence places severe stress on the planet.

Singer suggests, conversely, that by choosing to have children, humans are participating in an unethical act. He asks, "Is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?"

Again, Singer strikes a chord with this statement. I realize I've been thinking along the same lines since I was a kid, although I didn't articulate my thoughts. But, I'm a worrier. When considering whether or not to reproduce, I always worried that I'd bring a new being into the world that might suffer in some way - become ill, or injured, or unhappy.

When I was on the fence about having kids, in the back of mind I couldn't justify bringing a new being into the world that might suffer when there are so many beings already here that are definitely suffering. Wouldn't it make more sense, be more ethical, to care for the beings that are already here, can't help being here, and are already suffering? By not having kids and dedicating time to help others, we can reduce the overall amount of suffering in the world rather than contributing to it.

I had that idea in my mind in a general, vague kind of way when I was a kid, and later met Buddhist friends that had learned to articulate a highly developed, sophisticated form of a similar philosophy. Still, I realize I'm susceptible to the idea that somehow I did something unethical by not reproducing my genes - mainly because of the sadness my decision caused some of my relatives. But, at the core, I really do believe having fewer people on the planet is better for the collective all. I think, in reading Singer's article, I've finally reached a place of conviction and peace-of-mind in my child-free existence.




"Should This Be the Last Generation?"
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/

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