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Would Extinction be so Bad?

by Roger Crisp

In recent decades, it has often been said that we are living at the ‘hinge of history’, an unprecedented period during which some catastrophic event such as rapid climate change, a nuclear war, or the release of a synthesized pathogen may bring an end to human and perhaps all sentient life on the planet.

Most people think that such extinction would be bad, in fact one of the worst things that could happen. It’s plausible that the process leading to various forms of extinction, and extinction itself, would be bad for many of us, given that our lives are overall good for us and that, other things equal, the longer they are the better. But it’s also plausible that extinction would be good for some individuals – those in the final stages of an agonizing terminal illness, for example, whose pain can no longer be controlled by drugs. This means one key factor in judging the overall value of non-extinction will involve weighing these disparate interests against each other.

How might we do that? Let’s focus on sudden extinction. Imagine that some huge asteroid is heading to earth, which if it hits will remove any possibility of life on earth. If you have the power to deflect it, should you do so, from the moral point of view? If extinction would be bad for all sentient beings, both now and in the future, the answer ‘Yes’ seems hard to argue with. But, as we just saw, that’s not the case.

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 now 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, and they describe this estimate 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.

How can we make comparisons like these? C.I. Lewis, a leading Harvard philosopher in the mid-twentieth-century, offered an intriguing thought-experiment. To judge the value of some outcome, you have to imagine yourself going through the relevant experiences. Usually when we think about extinction, because we are not in great pain, we focus on the good things we’ll miss. But if God were to offer you the choice of living through all the painful and pleasurable experiences that will ever occur without extinction, would you jump at the opportunity? I have to say I wouldn’t.

There are of course many other ways of measuring value, more technical and precise than Lewis’s thought-experiment. Most of them assume that values can be compared against one another on a continuous scale. Imagine that you want the pleasure of being admired on the beach for your impressive tattoo. But getting it will hurt. So you balance the pleasure against the pain, and decide to go ahead only if the first outweighs the second.

But perhaps there are discontinuities in value. John Stuart Mill, for example, used to claim that some pleasures – such as enjoying some great work of art – are “higher” than others, in the sense that no amount of “lower” pleasure – such as that of eating peanuts – could equal the higher pleasure in overall value. Likewise, some pains might seem discontinuous in value with others. Imagine that the Devil offers you a choice between a year of the most appalling agony imaginable, and some period with a barely perceptible headache. Some would take the second option, however long the headache lasted, perhaps even if it were to last for eternity.

Since we are considering whether extinction might be better than continuing to exist, the question arises whether some pains could be so great that they outweigh any number of pleasures and other goods. To avoid the worries that arise from imagining large numbers, consider just one kind of pain, undoubtedly among the worst that any sentient being could experience: that of torture by electric shock.

One recent victim of such torture described it as “like they are breaking every bone of every joint in your body at the same time.” Along with the sheer physical agony of such torture go many emotional horrors: dread, terror, panic, humiliation, degradation, and despair.

Now consider some relatively short period of such torture – an hour, say – and return to C.I. Lewis’s thought-experiment. Imagine a choice between, on the one hand, the non-existence of immediate extinction, and, on the other, an hour of electric shock torture followed by some period of pleasure and other goods. What would you choose?

Not (I hope) having been tortured, you might want to ask one of its victims just how bad it is. Unfortunately, it is common for such victims to say that it is impossible to convey this badness. Jacobo Timerman, for example, who was tortured in Argentina, says: “In the long months of confinement, I often thought of how to transmit the pain that a tortured person undergoes. And always I concluded that it was impossible. It is a pain without points of reference, revelatory symbols, or clues to serve as indicators.”

Another problem is that it appears to be hard to remember the true nature of agony. Harriet Martineau, who suffered terribly throughout her life from a uterine tumour, once said during a period of remission: “Where are these pains now? — Not only gone, but annihilated. They are destroyed so utterly, that even memory can lay no hold upon them.”

Perhaps one reason we think extinction would be so bad is that we have failed to recognize 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 counter-balanced 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.

Of course, allowing an asteroid to hit the earth would probably be bad for you and those close to you. But given what’s at stake, it may well be that you should pay these costs to prevent all the suffering. As Bernard Williams once said: “[I]f 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.”

The question of whether extinction would be good or bad overall is obviously very important, especially in the face of potential catastrophic events at the hinge of history. But this question is also very difficult to answer. Ultimately, 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.


(This blog was originally published in the New Statesman on 10 August 2021, in its Agora series. I am grateful to the editor of the series, Aaron Wendland, and Lola Seaton at the New Statesmen for permission to cross-post here.)

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