Ideas in philosophy on human extinction are toxic seeds that must be dealt with

Suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition but can serve useful purposes

South African philosopher David Benatar believes humans have a moral obligation not to procreate. Photograph: iStock

South African philosopher David Benatar believes humans have a moral obligation not to procreate. Photograph: iStock

 

We live in an age of unprecedented possibilities for the extinction of human life, whether from runaway global warming, deadly global pandemics, global nuclear war, collision of Earth with an asteroid, and so on. Although none of these possibilities is likely, each is possible, which spurs philosophers to ponder human extinction. Some philosophers, I regret to say, see merit in human extinction.

South African philosopher David Benatar believes we have a moral obligation not to procreate. He argues (Better Never To Have Been – Oxford University Press, 2008) that bringing children into the world generates both pain (bad) and pleasure (good).

Not having children generates neither consequence, where the absence of pain is good but absence of pleasure is not bad since non-existent children cannot be deprived of pleasure. Benatar believes human life is intrinsically meaningless and full of suffering and, since procreation produces net suffering, non-procreation is the ethical choice.

When we suffer we learn to have compassion and empathy for ourselves and this teaches us compassion and empathy for others

But he is wrong in many ways. For example, research across cultures shows that people are not dominated by suffering.

The latest philosophical musings on human extinction come from Roger Crisp in the New Statesman. Crisp advises that if global human suffering exceeds pleasure, human extinction could be a good option. Crisp doesn’t claim extinction would be a good idea – only that, since it might, we should cogitate more on the value of extinction.

Crisp quotes philosopher Bernard Williams: “If for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of [the suffering in the world] . . . and we really guided our actions by it, then surely we would annihilate the planet if we could.” This could be effected, for example, by deliberately taking no action to deflect a killer asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

Suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition. For example, we all suffer when loved ones die. We suffer when we grow old, contemplating our own death. Few of us go through life disease-free and illness causes suffering. And some suffer simply because they find life unsatisfactory.

These ordinary sufferings serve useful purposes, helping us to become better people. When we suffer we learn to have compassion and empathy for ourselves and this teaches us compassion and empathy for others. Suffering also makes us more resilient, better able to endure setbacks.

The world also harbours extreme suffering that has no redeeming properties for the great majority. The 20th century witnessed two calamitous world wars. But since 1945, the end of the second World War, things have markedly improved. The main motivation behind the European Union was to prevent another catastrophic war. Of course, another world war may break out but I think the chances were never better that it won’t.

The Big Bang

Have philosophers who propose extinction of human life no idea of the wonderful story of the development of our world? Everything, including time, began 13.8 billion years ago in the Big Bang. There are 92 natural elements in the world, two of which, hydrogen and helium, were made in the big bang.

Clouds of hydrogen and helium condensed tightly under gravity and stars were born. The remaining 90 elements were forged in stars. Planets formed when gas and dust debris remaining after star formation condensed. Our solar system formed 4.6 billion years ago.

Life began on Earth 3.5 billion years ago when chemicals spontaneously segregated themselves into the first living cells. Biological evolution then took over to produce the profusion of life forms that inhabit the Earth today. Self-conscious human life arose from ape-like ancestors about 300,000 years ago.

Seeing meaning in life doesn’t require religious convictions. Scientific understanding of the evolving natural world strongly hints at underlying meanin

This entire story, from simple hydrogen and helium atoms in the beginning to the human brain today, unfolded automatically. There is something deeply mysterious in this step-by-step unfolding of complexity and organisation. Why is the basic fabric of the universe so fruitful? Where is it all going? We are part of an incredible ongoing natural creation, the only part aware of what is happening.

Philosophers who propose that humanity should walk away from this fantastic adventure when the going seems tough believe human life is meaningless and full of suffering. But handling the ordinary jagged edges of life makes us strong and doesn’t require heroism. And seeing meaning in life doesn’t require religious convictions. Scientific understanding of the evolving natural world strongly hints at underlying meaning.

At present, very few people pay attention to extinction philosophers. But their ideas are toxic seeds that could germinate in the future as traditional reverence for innate human dignity wanes further. Best to deal with these ideas now.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.