The ethics of human extinction

I recently finished reading Emile Torres‘ essay in Aeon magazine, “The ethics of human extinction,” a topic I have thought and written about much over the years. Torres doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion noting “that human extinction would be a mixed bag.” Nonetheless, Torres argues that “the horrors of Going Extinct in a global catastrophe are so enormous that we… should do everything in our power to reduce the likelihood of this happening.” Yet this results in the predicament that those who agree

… are left anticipatorily mourning all the suffering and sorrow, terrors and torments that await humanity on the road ahead, while simultaneously working to ensure our continued survival, since by far the most probable ways of dying out would involve horrific disasters with the highest body count possible.

Torres’ analysis is extraordinarily deep and thoughtful and the essay deserves a careful reading. But I’d like to share just a few “off the top of my head” reactions to the piece.

First I feel humble, ignorant, and perplexed. My mind simply isn’t up to the challenge of answering the “to be or not to be” question. Is it better for humans and the universe to exist or not to exist? Philosophers have answered the question variously. Schopenhauer answered in the negative, Spinoza in the positive. However, the late philosopher Paul Edwards concluded that there are no knock-down arguments either way. Regarding the “to be or not to be” question, he compared it to trying to prove that “coffee with cream is better than black coffee,” or “that love is better than hate.”[ix] 

So I just don’t know how to compare the value of existence to non-existence for an individual life, societal life, or even universal life. I’m often drawn to David Benatar’s anti-natalism, but then I see my grandchildren and I’m skeptical. Thus I’m humbled by my ignorance yet continually perplexed by the question of life’s value.

Furthermore, I feel impotent. This impotence stems both from my inability to resolve the issue intellectually as well as from being unable to do much about the issue even if I knew what I should do. Suppose for example that humanity’s extinction is the greatest evil there could be. What then am I supposed to do? Sure I can write about the issue or try to keep life going as best I can but let’s be honest. The effect that I could have here is minuscule. Now suppose I come to the opposite conclusion. We ought to go extinct to eliminate all future suffering. It’s not as if I could destroy the world by myself or convince everyone not to have children.

So not knowing the answer to my question reveals my ignorance and knowing the answer, if it were possible, reveals my impotence.

But there is more. I, like you dear reader, am one small lonely consciousness on a planet spinning on its axis, hurtling through space at unimaginable speed, separated from the cold, dark, inhospitableness of space—where my existence is impossible—by a sliver of atmosphere.

And I have no idea whether it would be better if humankind destroyed itself or not. Suppose I somehow, for the sake of argument, helped keep humanity alive and thereby was complicit in enabling a horrific future? Or suppose, again for the sake of argument, that I somehow helped destroy humanity and thereby prevented a glorious future? Either way, I would have done something monstrous.

The upshot of all this is that I don’t know the answer to such big questions and thus don’t know how to act in light of my ignorance. Pascal expressed my sentiments,

When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, now rather than then.

Yet, filled with such angst, my old friend David Hume comes to the rescue as he has many times in my life,

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

~ David Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

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8 thoughts on “The ethics of human extinction

  1. Here’s one way of considering the question “Is it better for humans to exist or not to exist?” The concept of good and bad, better or worse, is a strictly human concept. It has no basis in the world outside of humans. Since humans define the meaning of good ad bad, let them answer the question. I’m pretty sure that most would decide that they are indeed worthy of continued survival.

  2. Well. May we agree ethics is a human attribute? If any other life form is ethical or moral, that is sorta hard to pin down? On its’face, what Torres proposes on human extinction is anthropocentric. Insofar as we think we are the best it has ever got—will ever get, this follows, pretty closely, my contention about contextual reality , interests, motives and preferences… I also think Anthropocentrism must be tied, irreparably, to belief. Where does belief originate?
    Superstition! And, superstition ain’t the way. a blind man told us that.

  3. Thanks John! I could use some dinner, backgammon, and conversation with you. : )

    I think of the possibility of improving lives to great heights and can’t imagine wishing for it all to go extinct. It’s sometimes unbearably sad that I’m not living in such high times as I can imagine, but I do okay from time to time. And philosophers like you have helped me to work on accepting that.

  4. Went and found Mr. Torres essay on Aeon. He frames some possible views on Homo Sapien extinction in a manner that I would not have considered. Without reflection my response would have been ‘Of course that is terrible! How could one even debate it!?’ However, with some thought, I recognize my views are just about what I want—what seems “meet, right and salutary” to my values. What I consider to be “Good”.
    Somehow, I doubt that would suffice in any Logic 101 classes you probably taught.

    So, after some thought, I am still in the ‘extinction bad’ camp. (even though aspects of my thinking agreed with some long termism conclusions. Truly surprising/alarming as I consider their thinking exceptionally dangerous to ‘ The Good’)

    Even granting that the extinction of our species would mean the end of human suffering, it is hubris to assume such a decision for ourselves. Taken to a logical conclusion, mass euthanasia could then present itself as ‘humane’. I cannot find any way to square that circle.
    Stalin’s famous reference to ‘one death a tragedy, a million is a statistic’ was addressed by Timothy Snyder in either his book “Bloodlands” or “Black Earth” as thinking of “XX million premature deaths as XX million times one”. Every human…every living being…deserves their natural life. Which inevitably would mean their progeny. I see no way to still the turning of the wheel of life without unimaginable suffering.

    So, if rejecting that avoiding future suffering meets the standard for opposing extinction…even if in a managed way….what do I come up with for arguing that it is good to have future generations? Even if there will continue to be suffering?

    It is the precious rarity of life in general. The astonishingly almost non-existence of self-aware life that is the genus Homo (and perhaps a few others we don’t understand).
    All speculation aside, there is zero evidence of life anywhere else: let alone sentient, emotional, feeling life. This life may have existed elsewhere, and is now gone. It may currently exist elsewhere, but is so incomprehensibly distant that there will never be an exchange of information. At this point, and for any foreseeable future, “we” are it.
    To borrow from Carl Sagan, we are the “Candle in the Dark”.
    It is conceivable we are the current intelligence of the universe. In any event, the intelligence for this little corner of it.

    So. While the sun stays stable. Or until a better Homo evolves, we’re it. (sorry, mechanized replacements don’t count. our daughter much prefers her real kids over her childhood Teddy Ruxpin)

    Hopefully a good enough argument for the species.

  5. A few additional random thoughts to add to your post Dr. Messerly.

    I agree that any effects you (and your readers as well) can have regarding this issue are tiny. Even if we knew what actions/inactions were ‘best’. So as to most great questions, we muddle on. That being said, someone as yourself with both the training, and a lifetime of practice, in clear critical thinking probably brings more clarity to their muddling.

    I liked how you ended your essay. David Hume, feeling the weight of deep questions with no absolute answers, finds his emotional ease again by simply participating in life amongst others. A return to our ancient tribal clan roots.

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