On Monday, The New York Times printed an op-ed from Clemson philosophy professor Todd May. Its cheery, holiday-themed title: “Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?” Yes, he answers – but only because we’ve done it to ourselves. In terms of the loss to the world, probably not.
May begins by acknowledging that the experience of “humans coming to an end would be a bad thing” – or at least it would cause some pain. He is agnostic on the question of whether “human begins as a species deserve to die out.” The question May wonders about is whether it would be a “tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings.” His conclusion: “it would be a tragedy and that it might be a good thing.”
You first, dude.
May’s reasoning is fascinatingly nihilistic. He argues that human extinction would be tragic because we have a tragic flaw – our shortsighted use of the environment – which would be recitified by our extinction. “Humanity,” he says, “is the source of devastation of the lives of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.” And while he recognizes that “nature itself is hardly a Valhalla of peace and harmony,” humans are uniquely cruel (in our defense, we don’t have a generalized habit of cannibalizing our mates, as some species do). He explains that we’re wrecking the world:
To make that case, let me start with a claim that I think will be at once depressing and, upon reflection, uncontroversial. Human beings are destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it. This is happening through at least three means. First, human contribution to climate change is devastating ecosystems, as the recent article on Yellowstone Park in The Times exemplifies. Second, increasing human population is encroaching on ecosystems that would otherwise be intact. Third, factory farming fosters the creation of millions upon millions of animals for whom it offers nothing but suffering and misery before slaughtering them in often barbaric ways. There is no reason to think that those practices are going to diminish any time soon. Quite the opposite. Humanity, then, is the source of devastation of the lives of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. ... If this were all to the story there would be no tragedy. The elimination of the human species would be a good thing, full stop.
In other words, May doesn’t actually treat people as members of the animal community – he treats us as independent of the animal community, which is an odd position to take if you’re going to analyze human interests as equivalent to that of animals. But May continues by stating that human beings bring “an advanced level of reason that can experience wonder,” as well as our creation of “literature, music, and painting,” among other fringe benefits of humanity’s existence. This is philosophically incoherent – if a mass murderer wrote symphonies, he’d still be worth doing away with. Furthermore, if there were no humans, there would be no one to enjoy science, literature, music and painting. May tries to shy off this criticism by stating that we “appreciate and often participate in such practices … because we find them to be worthwhile.” Thus, “it would be a loss to the world if those practices and experiences ceased to exist.” But this assumes some objective value to practices outside of subjective enjoyment – a position that does not survive human-animal equation in the first place, for if it did, then humans also enjoy meat-eating and living in air conditioned homes. May, indeed, is forced to admit that.
In the end, there is no real way to justify humanity’s murderous existence under May’s human-animal equivalence.
And that’s the conclusion at which May arrives, in the end. He states:
So, then, how much suffering and death of nonhuman life would we be willing to countenance to save Shakespeare, our sciences and so forth? Unless we believe there is such a profound moral gap between the status of human and nonhuman animals, whatever reasonable answer we come up with will be well surpassed by the harm and suffering we inflict upon animals. There is just too much torment wreaked upon too many animals and too certain a prospect that this is going to continue and probably increase; it would overwhelm anything we might place on the other side of the ledger. Moreover, those among us who believe that there is such a gap should perhaps become more familiar with the richness of lives of many of our conscious fellow creatures. Our own science is revealing that richness to us, ironically giving us a reason to eliminate it along with our own continued existence.
This leads him to the rather uncomfortable position that he might have to kill himself for the sake of the planet, or at least favor mass abortion. This is not a joke.
One might ask here whether, given this view, it would also be a good thing for those of us who are currently here to end our lives in order to prevent further animal suffering. Although I do not have a final answer to this question, we should recognize that the case of future humans is very different from the case of currently existing humans. To demand of currently existing humans that they should end their lives would introduce significant suffering among those who have much to lose by dying. In contrast, preventing future humans from existing does not introduce such suffering, since those human beings will not exist and therefore not have lives to sacrifice. The two situations, then, are not analogous. It may well be, then, that the extinction of humanity would make the world better off and yet would be a tragedy. I don’t want to say this for sure, since the issue is quite complex. But it certainly seems a live possibility, and that by itself disturbs me.
Here’s the bottom line: philosophy based on the innate value of human beings can survive. Philosophy based on the equation of humans and animals is doomed to implosion – or at least hilarious self-owns in the pages of The New York Times.