Culture & Ethics
Physics, Earth & Space
Bioethicists Okay Human Extinction to Eliminate Suffering
These days, anti-humanism is as thick as molasses among the intelligentsia. That includes an ongoing conversation in bioethics about whether — all things considered — human extinction would be a fine thing because of the suffering that never coming into existence would avoid.
Example: A few months ago, Oxford professor Roger Crisp opined that we might not want to stop a huge asteroid from hitting the Earth. From “Would extinction be so bad?”:
Consider the huge amount of suffering that continuing existence will bring with it, not only for humans, and perhaps even for “post-humans”, but also for sentient non-humans, who vastly outnumber us and almost certainly would continue to do so. As far as humans alone are concerned, Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill at the University of Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute estimate that there could be one quadrillion (1015) people to come — an estimate they describe as conservative.
These numbers, and the scale of suffering to be put into the balance alongside the good elements in individuals’ lives, are difficult to fathom and so large that it’s not obvious that you should deflect the asteroid. In fact, there seem to be some reasons to think you shouldn’t….
Perhaps one reason we think extinction would be so bad is that we have failed to recognise just how awful extreme agony is. Nevertheless, we have enough evidence, and imaginative capacity, to say that it is not unreasonable to see the pain of an hour of torture as something that can never be counterbalanced by any amount of positive value. And if this view is correct, then it suggests that the best outcome would be the immediate extinction that follows from allowing an asteroid to hit our planet.
Crisp equivocates a bit at the end, writing, “I am not claiming that extinction would be good; only that, since it might be, we should devote a lot more attention to thinking about the value of extinction than we have to date.” Good grief. Is the issue really debatable?
Not to Be Outdone
Meanwhile, writing in response to Crisp in the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog, University of Calgary professor Walter Glannon shrugs his big brain at the prospect of us being gone. From “A world without us”:
We cannot predict the sort of lives future people would have because we do not know the sort of world they would inhabit. But the circumstances described above make it difficult to be optimistic. Regardless of the hypothetical value or disvalue of these lives, possible people are not deprived of anything if they do not come into existence.
We have an obligation to collectively act to prevent or reduce the suffering that present and future humans will actually experience. This depends on controlling natural habitats, deforestation, carbon emissions and other processes. Future actual people have the same rights and interests in avoiding suffering as present actual people. The extent of suffering may provide a pro tanto reason to prevent them from existing. Even if there is no such reason, merely possible people do not have these rights and interests because they do not and will not exist. If we become extinct, then the world will go on without us and will be good or bad for no one.
Why It Matters
Why do ivory-tower discussions like this matter? Because these nihilists are teaching the society leaders of tomorrow, those who will exert tremendous influence over future public policies and cultural attitudes. With our supposedly best minds suggesting that human extinction could be desirable, is it any wonder that so many of our young people seem to be despairing?
Moreover, the utter terror of suffering is pathological and leads directly to evil and/or terribly wrongheaded utilitarian policies such as eugenics and social Darwinism. It is also the moving force behind the euthanasia movement, which seeks to eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer. Avoiding suffering is also the central philosophical core of the transhumanism quasi-religion, which seeks to create a corporeal immortality by instilling a new eugenics with very sharp teeth.
So, what should be our attitude toward suffering? It should not be utopian scheming. Nor, to be sure, should it be indifference. Rather, we have a human duty to mitigate each other’s suffering, to love and “suffer with” each other — which is the root meaning of compassion. And we can harness our own suffering to grow and become better individuals.
In this regard, for my Humanize podcast, I recently interviewed the quadriplegic Christian evangelist and disability rights activists Joni Eareckson Tada, who unexpectedly took a deep dive into this very issue, and in a very intimate and personal way. Regardless of faith issues, her attitude toward — and personal response to — her own deep suffering is much healthier than the nihilism that has grown so dark within utilitarian bioethics that some don’t reject the prospect of human extinction out of hand.
Cross-posted at The Corner.