We hear endlessly about how life is some sort of Beautiful Precious Gift, something for which we should be grateful, something that our getting somehow makes up for all the suffering in life. Forced Birthers certainly love this idea: the more prominent it is in the culture the more they can represent their attempts to make abortion criminal (and increasingly, attack contraception as well). Something like the idea that life is a Beautiful Precious Gift underlies all the adulation aimed at someone like Mother Tebow. But the idea that life is some sort of Beautiful Precious Gift is hardly the sole property of unseemly religious fanatics: you can find plenty of notions that are similar among secular people, even among outright atheists.
It’s not so of course, and we can point to many things to show why it’s not so, beginning with all the suffering we can find in the world. That should be enough, but just to try to add some persuasion here again the Beautiful Precious Gift view of life I’ll add this: holding this view undermines any claims we might otherwise make against rotten institutions and practices.
I’ll try to illustrate this claim with a story about our many, many possible dystopian futures.
it is 2070, and the plutocracy has won. Neither Occupy Wall Street nor anything else succeeded in checking the forward march of society’s top 0.1% to vast, indeed obscene, amounts of wealth while everyone else sank into comparative poverty. But there are at least some people in the bottom 99.9% who’ve found a way of making a living, at least for a while. Fertile young women with “good genes,” that is, genes likely to produce sexually attractive (or otherwise talented) offspring, can rent themselves out to be artificially inseminated with sperm from men who similarly have “good genes.” Upon giving birth their babies are spirited away without ever been seen by their birth mothers — a practice familiar from the bad old days before legal abortion. Where the babies are spirited away to are institutions that combine aspects of the orphanage and the bordello, where they are raised to become obedient and skillful slaves: living sex toys mostly, although some of the boys who show signs of musical talent will be given extensive singing lessons and then castrated — thus reviving an ancient and refined musical tradition for the pleasure of the elite. There are specialized corporations which manage the entire process from recruitment of wombs through insemination, training, and assignment to high-paying clients. The practice taken as a whole is called the Peculiar Institution.
In 2070 there is no legal basis for opposition to the Peculiar Institution. Renting out one’s womb and surrendering one’s offspring for money is a Capitalist Act Between Consenting Adults, and thus sacrosanct. Old people remember that there was once a Thirteenth Amendment that prohibited something called “slavery,” which certainly appears to be the condition of children created through this method. But early in the century Evangelical Christians read their Bibles and took careful note of the fact (repeatedly and helpfully emphasized by New Atheists like Sam Harris) the the Bible clearly condones slavery (see, e.g. Ephesians 6:5) and, using their rigorous powers of deduction, came to understand clearly that the Thirteenth Amendment was therefore an un-Biblical, Satanic piece of liberal secular humanism and repealed it as soon as they could get the votes together to do so. For the most part, people resigned themselves to the existence of the institution or justified it on the grounds that impregnated women out to be grateful to their Galtian Overlords for giving them a chance to earn a living.
One argument above all, though, was thought to silence all criticism of the Peculiar Institution, and it was this. Were it not for the Peculiar Institution, the children who were its “victims” would not exist at all! Iron logic shows this to be the case. No Peculiar Institution, no impregnation contracts. No contracts, no impregnations. No impregnations, no children. But if there were no children, then how could they get the Beautiful Precious Gift that is life? Sure, maybe it’s not fun to be castrated or to be used for…well, maybe best not to think too much about that. But you slaves surely wouldn’t reject your own lives, would you? You got the Beautiful Precious Gift! So stop your whining and get on with…whatever it is the Randian Supermen order you to do.
This tale from a dystopian future sounds like satire and obviously it is, partly. But not entirely. Mostly the purpose is not to satirize but to remove the notion of life as a Beautiful Precious Gift to an unfamiliar context so that we can see its folly. But we do the notion that life is a Beautiful Precious Gift employed in contemporary, real-world contexts in an attempt to silence complaints about wickedness and injustice. Forced Birthers that it is fine — indeed, more than fine — to force women pregnant as a result of rape to carry the rapist’s child to term because the life so begun is a Beautiful Precious Gift. What an amazing silencing of the complaint of the rape survivor! Political commentator Patrick Buchanan seems to think that current African-Americans ought to be grateful to whites that their ancestors were brought to America in chains, because now they get the Beautiful Precious Gift of existence (plus they get to be Americans and converted to Christianity!). Bryan Caplan claims that can’t regret anything that has ever happened to him because had anything gone differently he would have different children than the ones he has now — those children would never have gotten the Beautiful Precious Gift of had Caplan so much as one crossed his legs differently at some point in his life. (And you had better care about that, lowly reader, because these are the children of Bryan Caplan, the Most Important Person In the World.)
Seeing life as a Beautiful Precious Gift is an acid that consumes are ability to think at all about injustice. It is at once a daft and corrupt view, and one we are better off without.