At a time when humans are threatening the extinction of so many other species, it may not seem so surprising that some people think that the extinction of our own species would be a good thing. Take, for example, the Movement for Voluntary Human Extinction, whose founder believes that our extinction would put an end to the damage we inflict on each other and to ecosystems more generally.
Or there’s the South African philosopher David Benatar, who argues that bringing people into existence always hurts them. He recommends ceasing to procreate and gradually leaving the Earth. But humans aren’t the only beings who feel pain. Non-human animals would continue to suffer without us. Hence, driven by the desire to completely eliminate suffering, some people have scandalously claimed to take the rest of nature with us. They recommend actively abolishing the world, rather than simply abandoning it.
This disturbing and extremist position surprisingly goes back a long way in history.
About 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine suggested that humans stop procreating. He approved of this, however, because he wanted to hasten the final judgment and eternity of joy thereafter.
If you don’t believe in the afterlife, this becomes a less attractive option. You should be motivated solely by removing suffering from nature, with no promise of supernatural rewards. Probably the first person to advocate human extinction in this way was Arthur Schopenhauer. He did it 200 years ago, in 1819, urging them to “spare” the “burden of existence” for “future generations”. Schopenhauer saw existence as pain, so he believed that we should stop bringing human beings into existence. And it was clear about the result if everyone obeyed: “The human race would die.”
But what about the pain of non-human animals? Schopenhauer had an answer, but it was not convincing. He was a philosophical idealist, believing that the existence of external nature depends on our self-awareness of it. Thus, with the abolition of the human brain, even the sufferings of the less self-aware animals would “vanish” as they ceased to exist without our perceiving them.
Even under the same conditions as Schopenhauer, there is a problem. What if there were other intelligent, self-conscious beings? Maybe on other planets? Surely, therefore, our sacrifice would mean nothing; the existence and painful perception of it would continue. It fell to Schopenhauer’s disciple, Eduard von Hartmann, to propose a more complete solution.
Hartmann, born in Berlin in 1842, wrote a pessimistic system of philosophy almost as long as his massive beard. Notorious in his day, but completely forgotten in ours, Hartmann proposed an incredibly radical vision.
Writing in 1869, Hartmann reproached Schopenhauer for thinking of the problem of suffering only in a local and temporary sense. His predecessor’s view of human extinction “by sexual continence” would not suffice. Hartmann was convinced that, after a few eons, another self-conscious species would re-evolve on Earth. This would simply “perpetuate the misery of existence”.
Hartmann also believed that life existed on other planets. Given his belief that most were probably unintelligent, the suffering of such beings would be powerless. They wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
So rather than just destroying our own species, Hartmann thought that, as intelligent beings, we are obligated to find a way to eliminate suffering, permanently and universally. He believed that it is up to humanity to “annihilate” the universe: it is our duty, he wrote, to “make the entire kosmos disappear”.
Hartmann hoped that if humanity did not prove up to this task, some planets could evolve beings that would, long after our sun froze. But he didn’t think this meant we could be complacent. He noted the strictness of the conditions necessary for a planet to be habitable (not to mention the evolution of creatures with complex brains) and concluded that the task could fall exclusively on humans, here and now.
Hartmann was convinced that this was the purpose of creation: that our universe exists to evolve beings that are compassionate and intelligent enough to decide to abolish existence itself. He envisioned this final moment as a shockwave of deadly euthanasia rippling outward from the Earth, obliterating the “existence of this cosmos” until “all of its world lenses and nebulae are been abolished “.
It was not clear how exactly this goal would be achieved. Speaking vaguely of humanity’s growing global unification and spiritual disillusionment, he hinted at future scientific and technological breakthroughs. Fortunately he was a metaphysician, not a physicist.
Hartmann’s philosophy is fascinating. It is also unimaginably wrong. This is because he confuses the eradication of suffering with the eradication of the sick. Confusing this distinction leads to insane visions of omnicide. To get rid of suffering, it is not necessary to get rid of the sufferer – you may instead try to remove the causes of the pain. We should eliminate the suffering, not the sick.
Indeed, as long as there are intelligent beings around, there is at least the opportunity for a radical removal of suffering. Philosophers like David Pearce even argue that, in the future, technologies such as genetic engineering will be able to eliminate it completely, abolishing pain from the Earth. With the right interventions, Pearce argues, humans and non-humans could conceivably be driven by “gradients of bliss,” not deprivation and pain.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a Brave New World, populated by ecstatic and amazed beings – conceivably, people could still be highly motivated, simply pursuing a range of sublime joys, rather than avoiding negative feelings. Pearce also argues that, in the distant future, our descendants may be able to effect the same change on other biospheres, throughout the observable universe.
So even if you think removing suffering is our top priority, there is an astronomical value in us that remains. Perhaps we owe it to the sick in general.
Taken from: Thomas Moynihan, Researcher, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford