One and Only

A journalist—and only child—investigates the choice to have just one kid

Should This Be the Last Generation?

Considering a philosophy of fewer children.

The New York Times recently ran an essay called "Should This Be the Last Generation?" by Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton. Singer posits a thought experiment, suggesting that we should consider if the best ethical choice for the planet-and thus for humankind-is to halt our reproduction, forcing human beings to die out, thus ending both human suffering and the violence we inflict upon the planet. The occasion for this thought experiment was the publication of South African philosopher David Benatar's book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. 

"To bring into existence someone who will suffer is to harm that person," Benatar argues a la Singer, "yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely." Singer applies this thinking to the issue of climate change in an unusually human-centric equation, pointing out that the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. Thus, "If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about." I get his point. And I admit, I feel emotionally wrecked by it. 

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Yet, when I pull back from the gutting aggressions of what we humans do to the earth and to each other, I take issue with the fact that we tend to only debate such bioethics in terms of thought experiments like Singer's, or Benatar's, or even in Alan Weisman's majestic best-seller, The World Without Us. This conversation exists in the culture as an occasional philosophical endgame, and one which is always inherently absurd: we are not going to willfully end the human race. We will not choose our own apocalypse. That is certain. And so the point Singer makes is simply a profoundly charged straw dog. It's easy to shrug off his points as the stuff of mere science fiction-albeit a narrative that leaves us with not a single possible protagonist.

Why can't we have this conversation in pragmatic terms? Instead of discussing wiping out the human race, why can't we consider what it would mean to have fewer kids? It's a topic that Weisman has told me is "the third rail of environmentalism," historically loaded with the eradication the most primal of human rights: to decide to have a child. From Hitler's early speeches on eliminating the "useless eaters," to India's massive forced sterilization campaigns, to even Margaret Sanger's own advocacy of eugenics (yes, a bitter irony, this from the founder of Planned Parenthood), the subject has never freed itself from the hyper-draconian.

Which I for one, consider to be a travesty. Common wisdom continues to preach that bigger families are better for us-as long as they're not Octomom big; then we condemn the too-big-and so parents who might have just one kid are scared into having more, for the sake of their child. If we can't figure how how to mainline the valid points for Singer's essay into a conversation that supports parents of only children-or parents who are ambivalent about having a second, or third-we've missed the point. It's not science fiction we're talking about; there is no experiment here. We don't need to choose apocalypse or eternal suffering. We just need to talk honestly about what it means to want to have more kids, what it means not to, and how to support people who make different choices. It would give us a far more ethical landscape than the one we inhabit now, and, as Singer would tell you, the one our kids are sure to inherit if we don't start a different discussion.

Lauren Sandler is the author of a new book about the freedom of having an only child, and the fulfillment of being one.

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