Clemson prof wonders, 'Would human extinction be a tragedy?'

Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May penned an op-ed in the New York Times that posed the question, "Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy"?

"Our species possesses inherent value, but we are devastating the earth and causing unimaginable animal suffering," opines May.  The same might be said for the New York Times.  Does that make the case for the paper's extinction?

To get a bead on this question, let me distinguish it from a couple of other related questions.  I'm not asking whether the experience of humans coming to an end would be a bad thing.  (In these pages, Samuel Scheffler has given us an important reason to think that it would be.)  I am also not asking whether human beings as a species deserve to die out.  That is an important question, but would involve different considerations.  Those questions, and others like them, need to be addressed if we are to come to a full moral assessment of the prospect of our demise.  Yet what I am asking here is simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings.  And the answer I am going to give might seem puzzling at first.  I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing.

Spoken like a true philosophy professor.  I might gently point out that with no human beings on the planet to feel tragedy, it would be impossible for our extinction to be tragic.

But that's sophistry – something the professor specializes in.

To be sure, nature itself is hardly a Valhalla of peace and harmony.  Animals kill other animals regularly, often in ways that we (although not they) would consider cruel.  But there is no other creature in nature whose predatory behavior is remotely as deep or as widespread as the behavior we display toward what the philosopher Christine Korsgaard aptly calls "our fellow creatures" in a sensitive book of the same name.

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.  But there is more to the story.  Human beings bring things to the planet that other animals cannot.  For example, we bring an advanced level of reason that can experience wonder at the world in a way that is foreign to most if not all other animals.  We create art of various kinds: literature, music and painting among them.  We engage in sciences that seek to understand the universe and our place in it.  Were our species to go extinct, all of that would be lost.

I don't know.  Has this guy seen some of the "art" that modern professors think is of value?  Perhaps we should let just a bunch of these "artists" go extinct.  Leave the rest of us in peace.

May tries to address my point above about no one being around to feel the tragedy, and he abolishes reason and logic in the process.

One could press the objection here by saying that it would only be a loss from a human viewpoint, and that that viewpoint would no longer exist if we went extinct.  This is true.  But this entire set of reflections is taking place from a human viewpoint.  We cannot ask the questions we are asking here without situating them within the human practice of philosophy.  Even to ask the question of whether it would be a tragedy if humans were to disappear from the face of the planet requires a normative framework that is restricted to human beings.

Even animals with cognitive abilities like chimps, whales, and dolphins can't contemplate whether humans disappearing would be a good thing, so the question of whether it would be a tragedy can only be restricted to humans – despite the fact that there still wouldn't be anyone around who cares (especially about philosophy).

In the end – to no one's surprise – the good professor gives humanity a big thumbs down.

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.

"Richness of lives" of our fellow creatures?  When I slap a mosquito that's attacking me, I just don't think about the bug's kids, grandkids, and wife.  I know that makes me a heartless monster, and the fact that I support zapping these bugs with DDT probably places me beyond the pale.

Not once in these 1,500 sophomoric words did Professor May mention the one thing above all others that sets humans apart from all other creatures on this Earth: love.  That we can feel love, that love animates our actions, that it plays such an enormous role in our species – that it makes life itself worth living.  I don't know if animals have "souls," immortal or not.  But I know that even our companion animals don't feel "love" the same way humans do.

Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May penned an op-ed in the New York Times that posed the question, "Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy"?

"Our species possesses inherent value, but we are devastating the earth and causing unimaginable animal suffering," opines May.  The same might be said for the New York Times.  Does that make the case for the paper's extinction?

To get a bead on this question, let me distinguish it from a couple of other related questions.  I'm not asking whether the experience of humans coming to an end would be a bad thing.  (In these pages, Samuel Scheffler has given us an important reason to think that it would be.)  I am also not asking whether human beings as a species deserve to die out.  That is an important question, but would involve different considerations.  Those questions, and others like them, need to be addressed if we are to come to a full moral assessment of the prospect of our demise.  Yet what I am asking here is simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings.  And the answer I am going to give might seem puzzling at first.  I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing.

Spoken like a true philosophy professor.  I might gently point out that with no human beings on the planet to feel tragedy, it would be impossible for our extinction to be tragic.

But that's sophistry – something the professor specializes in.

To be sure, nature itself is hardly a Valhalla of peace and harmony.  Animals kill other animals regularly, often in ways that we (although not they) would consider cruel.  But there is no other creature in nature whose predatory behavior is remotely as deep or as widespread as the behavior we display toward what the philosopher Christine Korsgaard aptly calls "our fellow creatures" in a sensitive book of the same name.

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.  But there is more to the story.  Human beings bring things to the planet that other animals cannot.  For example, we bring an advanced level of reason that can experience wonder at the world in a way that is foreign to most if not all other animals.  We create art of various kinds: literature, music and painting among them.  We engage in sciences that seek to understand the universe and our place in it.  Were our species to go extinct, all of that would be lost.

I don't know.  Has this guy seen some of the "art" that modern professors think is of value?  Perhaps we should let just a bunch of these "artists" go extinct.  Leave the rest of us in peace.

May tries to address my point above about no one being around to feel the tragedy, and he abolishes reason and logic in the process.

One could press the objection here by saying that it would only be a loss from a human viewpoint, and that that viewpoint would no longer exist if we went extinct.  This is true.  But this entire set of reflections is taking place from a human viewpoint.  We cannot ask the questions we are asking here without situating them within the human practice of philosophy.  Even to ask the question of whether it would be a tragedy if humans were to disappear from the face of the planet requires a normative framework that is restricted to human beings.

Even animals with cognitive abilities like chimps, whales, and dolphins can't contemplate whether humans disappearing would be a good thing, so the question of whether it would be a tragedy can only be restricted to humans – despite the fact that there still wouldn't be anyone around who cares (especially about philosophy).

In the end – to no one's surprise – the good professor gives humanity a big thumbs down.

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.

"Richness of lives" of our fellow creatures?  When I slap a mosquito that's attacking me, I just don't think about the bug's kids, grandkids, and wife.  I know that makes me a heartless monster, and the fact that I support zapping these bugs with DDT probably places me beyond the pale.

Not once in these 1,500 sophomoric words did Professor May mention the one thing above all others that sets humans apart from all other creatures on this Earth: love.  That we can feel love, that love animates our actions, that it plays such an enormous role in our species – that it makes life itself worth living.  I don't know if animals have "souls," immortal or not.  But I know that even our companion animals don't feel "love" the same way humans do.