Scapegoating Humanity?

The NYT posted an interesting essay from Todd May, a professor of philosophy at Clemson University.  The essay is entitled, “Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?” and May explains:

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…..I am also not asking whether human beings as a species deserve to die out…..Yet what I am asking here is simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings.

and he defines tragedy as follows:

It is humanity that is committing a wrong, a wrong whose elimination would likely require the elimination of the species, but with whom we might be sympathetic nonetheless

May then goes on to explain the harm that humanity is doing:

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.

But then balances it with the good:

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.

He concludes his essay as follows:

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.

There is one more tragic aspect to all of this. In many dramatic tragedies, the suffering of the protagonist is brought about through his or her own actions. It is Oedipus’s killing of his father that starts the train of events that leads to his tragic realization; and it is Lear’s highhandedness toward his daughter Cordelia that leads to his demise. It may also turn out that it is through our own actions that we human beings bring about our extinction, or at least something near it, contributing through our practices to our own tragic end.

I’d like to more thoroughly comment on his essay when I get the time, as May is coming at this issue from the a purely secular perspective.  What I want to draw attention to is the way May tap dances around the most obvious of realities –

the good that he cites is what is responsible for the harm that he cites.

Put simply, it is our advanced level of reason and sciences that “are destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it.”  Human beings without such advanced level of reason and sciences could not accomplish such things.  It is our advanced level of reason and sciences that have brought about climate change, overpopulation, and factory farming.  Why doesn’t May bring this point to the forefront?

I don’t bring this up because I am anti-reason and anti-science.  I am not.  Not at all.  But then again, I’m not forced to view everything from an atheistic perspective.  So I am just bringing up an aspect of reality that May neglects, an aspect that makes his entire dilemma even more perplexing.  When May notes, “It may also turn out that it is through our own actions that we human beings bring about our extinction,” I’d say that is already baked into the cake and ironically, our “own actions” have been the pursuit of advanced levels of reason and science.   Thus, all the reasoning behind pondering whether or not human extinction would be a good thing just as easily applies to pondering whether or not the elimination of advanced levels of reason and science would be a good thing.  Maybe that is why May doesn’t want to draw attention to the obvious connection.  Better to scapegoat all of humanity than sacrifice your own profession.

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3 Responses to Scapegoating Humanity?

  1. nsr says:

    This is the very question I have never once seen an atheist able to answer. In the absence of God, what is it that makes human beings objectively special? What gives us more objective worth than any other animate or inanimate object? Why put our species at the moral centre of the universe?

    If extraterrestrial creatures from a distant world, with a greater command of science and reason than that of humanity, invaded Earth tomorrow and began wiping us out (as we do to rats or cockroaches), experimenting on us (as we do to rabbits or mice) or farming us as livestock (as we do to cows and sheep), on what basis could we condemn their actions as evil?

  2. grodrigues says:

    The obvious question is: if the author really thinks humanity should or ought to disappear, why doesn’t he set the example, instead of haranguing us lowly ignoramuses from the lofty heights of his enlightened view? And if he does not want to set the example, why doesn’t he shut up? I would hazard a guess that an example speaks much more loudly than mere empty, hypocritical words.

    P.S.: for anyone out there dim enough that complains about the crudity of my suggestion, it is supposed to work as a reductio.

  3. Dhay says:

    > “It may also turn out that it is through our own actions that we human beings bring about our extinction”

    That idea’s not at all novel, it’s been around since nuclear weapons, it was reinvigorated by man-made climate change and even children who have been at school just a few years can tell you that and will, so it’s an old and tired cliche. PhD+? No.

    As regards the ‘on the one hand cons, but on the other pros’ mentions — well, they are cursory mentions rather than considered philosophy; and the ideas are so blindingly obvious and basic, there must be many still at school who have given thought to it all. PhD+? No.

    The article is disappointing: the author doesn’t seem to know his purpose for writing it * and nor do I.

    ( * Presumably it’s his fee as author. And I suppose the NYT appears more heavyweight if it includes articles by — gosh — professors, this one a professor of philosophy no less.)

    Were I presented with this level of non-stimulus on a university course — presumably he is actually presenting such or similar to his students — I would be bored and angry very quickly.

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