"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, June 07, 2010

Sing(er)ing the "real nitty-gritty"

In the late 60s, I believe it was, a pop song call "The Real Nitty-Gritty" achieved one-hit-wonder status. Several singers have done versions of it since, and I've always liked how it can apply to a variety of situations beyond the merely sexual. That song came to mind again as my agreggator offered up a blog post yesterday from the New York Times: "Should This Be the Last Generation?"

My first instinct was to assume that the intent of the question was only rhetorical, that it was designed to get us pondering the true extent of human depravity. If that's how it had been meant, I would have appreciated it, while still answering it in the negative. But then I saw that the post's author was Princeton philosopher Peter Singer—you know, the guy who sees nothing wrong with euthanasia or even infanticide, but admitted he couldn't bring himself to off his demented grandmother. So at once I inferred that the question was meant seriously by a man who is better than his principles. Those who know Singer's reputation will understand why I inferred as much, and reading the post confirms its title's earnest intent. To be fair to Singer, he affirms his belief that "life is worth living." But he does not take that belief as self-evident. He invites readers to ponder his question along with a bunch of others subsidiary to it. Yet I'm inclined to believe that raising such a question seriously bespeaks an attitude toward life that should be treated primarily as a symptom of spiritual disease rather than as suggesting a serious philosophical thesis.

Since the piece itself is rather short, I shall leave Singer's argument to the reader. I'd rather focus on the premise, plain throughout Singer's work, that makes it possible to raise his post's question: the premise, that is, that the principal good of life is the experience of pleasure and the principal evil of life is accordingly that of pain. Now it's possible to hold, as Singer does, that most people hitherto will have experienced more pain than pleasure in their lives; and if that's right, then a utility calculus could lead one to conclude that most people's lives at this stage of history haven't been worth living. That is what Singer appears to believe. That is what makes it possible to raise his question, which he answers in the negative only by projecting a degree of future human "progress" that will end up shifting the utility balance for most humans to the side of pleasure. But the premise is pretty much stuck on a brand of utilitarianism going back to John Stuart Mill. The arbitrariness and incoherence of Mill's utilitarianism is deftly exposed in a chapter of J. Budziszewski's recent book The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.

A basic problem with utilitarianism is epistemic: even in its most sophisticated varieties, it requires assessing things from a global, impersonal point of view that we do not and cannot have. (Theodicy in the strict sense of the term is impossible for the same reason, but that's another topic.) There's an additional problem with Mill's and Singer's closely interrelated brands of utilitarianism: the pleasure principle itself. It assumes that the unique and supreme criterion of goodness is undergoing subjectively pleasant experiences rather than doing something of which such experiences, when they occur, would be objectively fitting byproducts. The latter would be the life of love; the former could suffice simply as a life of sensation. But the superiority of the latter cannot be explained in Singer's philosophy. That shows that what we're dealing with is a spiritual disease, not just a philosophically flawed argument. Those who think the superiority of love to pleasant sensation is not evident, or those who think the value of love can be reduced to that of pleasant sensation, share the same disease.

But it's a common enough disease. As the birth rate plummets well below replacement level in much of the "developed" world, it seems many have concluded that no future is better than a present of voluntary sacrifice for the sake of continuing the intrinsic good of human life beyond the present. This, friends, is the real nitty-gritty for the developed world. The choice is between love, understood as holy sacrifice, and nihilism.

Cross-posted at What's Wrong with the World
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