Related Nick Bostrom, Longtermism, and the Eternal Return of Eugenics

If you think we’re in the End Times, that humanity might be writing the final paragraphs of its autobiography, you’re not alone. A 2015 survey of the general public found that 54% of people in the U.S., UK, Canada and Australia “rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater.” Another survey found that “four in 10 Americans think the odds that global warming will cause humans to become extinct are 50% or higher.” And a recent poll out from Monmouth University reveals that 55% of Americans are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that “artificial intelligence could eventually pose a threat to the existence of the human race.”

It’s not just the public that’s nervous about the future. Many notable scholars have expressed the same “existential mood,” as I like to call it. For example, shortly before his death in 2018, Stephen Hawking declared that “we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.” In 2022, Noam Chomsky told the New Statesman that “we’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history,” since “we are now facing the prospect of destruction of organized human life on Earth.” That same year, the World Economic Forum asked hundreds of global experts the question: “How do you feel about the outlook for the world?” A whopping 84% said they were “worried” or “concerned,” with a measly 12% saying they feel “positive” and another 3.6% claiming to be “optimistic.”

The current existential mood that things are bad and getting worse is perhaps best captured by the Doomsday Clock, which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets every January based on an expert panel’s estimate of humanity’s nearness to the ultimate precipice. In 1991, after the Cold War ended, the clock was wound back to a full 17 minutes before midnight. Since then, the minute hand has steadily crept forward, and is now set to a mere 90 seconds before midnight — the closest it has ever been since the clock’s creation in 1947. 

So, the picture is pretty bleak. The climate crisis is worsening by the day, Russia’s war on Ukraine could go nuclear at any time, and according to a growing crowd of “AI doomers,” companies like OpenAI could inadvertently kill humanity within the next 10 years by creating “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI.

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But there’s another question we could ask aside from “How f*cked are we?” This question is: “How bad would it be if the most extreme predictions came true and our species were to destroy itself?” To answer this question, it’s important to distinguish between two different aspects of human extinction. First, there’s the process or event of Going Extinct. Second, there’s the subsequent state or condition of Being Extinct. You can think of this in terms of individual death. On the one hand, you might fear death because of the pain that dying might involve; on the other hand, you might fear it because of the resulting state of no longer existing. If you fear the latter, then you’ll be afraid of death even if the process of dying is totally painless, though if you don’t suffer from death-related FOMO, then a painless death is nothing to worry about.

Just about everyone can agree that if Going Extinct were to involve a worldwide catastrophe — causing lots of misery, suffering, agony, and death, as would happen in a global nuclear war — then our extinction would be very bad. Perhaps if you’re a deranged sadist or ghoul you’ll disagree, because you like it when people suffer and die. But this isn’t a common view, and holding it might indicate some sort of psychopathology. 

However, philosophers have all sorts of different opinions about Being Extinct. Some think it wouldn’t be bad, since Being Extinct means there aren’t any people around anymore, and if there isn’t anyone around, Being Extinct doesn’t actually harm anyone. Others see Being Extinct as a moral tragedy of cosmic proportions. The ideology of “longtermism,” which I have criticized harshly in a series of articles for Truthdig, provides one example. Longtermists imagine an enormous, utopian future in which our descendants become a superior race of “posthumans,” colonize the universe, subjugate nature, maximize economic productivity, build planet-sized computers that run virtual-reality worlds full of trillions of “digital people,” and ultimately create “astronomical” amounts of value. Since Being Extinct would prevent all of these things from happening, our extinction would be extremely terrible independent of how it comes about.

It’s worth hearing what different philosophers have to say about extinction, if only to ensure the debate isn’t monopolized by the longtermists.

Over the past decade, longtermism has become an immensely influential ideology, with literally billions of dollars in funding, governing institutes like the United Nations adopting it, and tech billionaires like Elon Musk calling it “a close match for my philosophy.” Consequently, its account of the badness of extinction has become arguably the most widely held view today. This is one reason so many Silicon Valley elites are building bunkers to survive the apocalypse: not just to save their own skin, but to repopulate the planet after everyone else has perished, so that our descendants can fulfill its grand destiny among the stars. (It also helps that many of these people believe they have superior genes, and hence that the new human population would exemplify the best characteristics of humanity: ambition, success, and “intelligence.”) 

However, historically speaking, the longtermists are philosophical outliers. Most philosophers who’ve discussed our extinction over the past two centuries have held a quite different view. I think it’s worth hearing what they have to say, if only to ensure the debate isn’t monopolized by the longtermists. Indeed, for those who are sensitive to the suffering in life — and I know many people like this — alternative perspectives on extinction can provide an odd sort of solace in the face of unprecedented dangers. One might say, “Yes, of course a catastrophic end to humanity would be absolutely awful — a disaster beyond all words. But perhaps there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud, a reason not to be overwhelmed by sorrow at the thought that everything might disappear.”

* * * 

In his 2006 book, “Better Never to Have Been,” the contemporary South African philosopher David Benatar paints a horrifying picture of how awash our world is with suffering. Updating his numbers, because some are obsolete, he notes that every single day, some 25,000 people die of starvation. About 854 million people around the world are undernourished; roughly 1.2 billion people live in urban poverty. Around 650,000 people have died of HIV-related illnesses since 2021, while infectious diseases in general kill more than 17 million each year. The National Cancer Institute estimates that over 609,000 people died of cancer in the U.S. alone last year; another 1.3 million lose their lives every year in car accidents. So far, in 2023, nearly 16 million people have perished, with approximately 156,000 happening just today. 

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Pause for a moment on that number: 156,000 people took their last breath today. Many will have died peacefully, surrounded by family, while others no doubt passed away violently or in great pain. 

Even this is just the tip of the iceberg of human suffering. According to R. J. Rummel, up to 260 million people died in mass killings prior to the 20th century, and “the first 88 years of the 20th century saw 170 million (and possibly as many as 360 million) people ‘shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, [hanged], bombed or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners.’” In the 20th century alone, nearly 110 million people were killed in wars. In the past year, upwards of “1 billion children aged 2-17 years, have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence or neglect.” Turning to natural rather than anthropogenic suffering, “approximately 45,000 people globally died from natural disasters each year,” a number likely to increase significantly as the climate crisis worsens.

None of this, by the way, accounts for all of the heartbreak, treachery and loneliness that people experience daily; the crying and sadness, the despair, the tragedy, the depression, anxiety, panic attacks, frustration, itches, twitches and boredom that we must endure; all the stress, feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness that pervades our existence as individuals and groups. For many people — borrowing a phrase from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — the experience of life is nothing more than “sickness unto death.”

Sure, there are moments of happiness and joy that lighten the load. But Benatar argues that if humanity were to no longer exist, the absence of this happiness and joy wouldn’t hurt anyone because no one would exist to be hurt. On the other hand, the nonexistence of all the agony and anguish, terror and torments, suffering and sorrow that would otherwise exist if humanity survived would be a very good thing.

Here one might respond in a couple of ways. You could argue that, despite all the bad stuff mentioned above, the world as a whole is still pretty good, and this fact is what makes Being Extinct something to bemoan. But I think that a careful look at the world, at the least, complicates this view. Just consider the following quote from William MacAskill, a longtermist who believes our extinction would be an enormous tragedy, and try to make sense of the pro-existence view. “Imagine,” he says,

you’re travelling through a foreign country. During a long bus ride, there’s an explosion and the bus overturns. When you come to, you find yourself in a conflict zone. Your travel companion is trapped under the bus, looking into your eyes and begging for help. A few meters away, a bloody child screams in pain. At the same time, you hear the ticking of another explosive. In the distance, gunshots fire. That is the state of the world. We have just a horrific set of choices in front of us, so it feels virtuous, and morally appropriate, to vomit, or scream or cry.

This appraisal is from someone who thinks we should do everything possible to avoid Being Extinct, and has actually encouraged people to have more children. I’d call him an “optimist.” Yet even he acknowledges the world is a horror show, and its main stage something akin to a torture chamber. Does anyone really think that all the good stuff that exists can somehow counterbalance people being trapped under buses, or bloody children screaming in pain? Philosophers like Benatar — and the long list of “philosophical pessimists” going back to the 19th century — would say “No!”

Second, you might argue that, even if things have been bad in the past and are pretty awful right now, the world is getting better. The popular writer Steven Pinker, who many longtermists adore, is an advocate of this view. Hence, if we extrapolate these upward trends into the future, we should expect life to get better and better, which thus gives us reason to mourn human extinction.

Arthur Schopenhauer believed that an honest look at the world justifies the conclusion that it would have been better if Earth had remained as lifeless as the moon. 

But will the future be better? The evidence overwhelmingly implies that the climate catastrophe will inflict untold suffering on billions. Scientists predict a constellation of world-shattering effects, such as huge hurricanes, megadroughts, devastating famines, massive wildfires, lethal heatwaves, large migrations of desperate climate refugees, the collapse of ecosystems, social upheaval, political instability, disastrous wars and even more apocalyptic terrorism. The effects of climate change are, furthermore, expected to linger not for decades or centuries, but for the next 10 millennia — a longer period of time than “civilization” has so far existed. In the midst of all this, studies suggest that humanity will need to produce more food in the coming 100 years than it has throughout all of history, and fights over dwindling resources could significantly increase the probability of a nuclear exchange.

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That’s just climate change. The potential for even worse suffering is foregrounded by the possibility of advanced technologies. Oppressive governments could potentially read our minds, control our thoughts, implement invasive mass surveillance systems and even develop life-extension technologies that enable them to keep torture victims alive and screaming for hundreds or thousands of years. The future here on Earth isn’t a pretty sight, which is why some people envision colonizing other planets like Mars. Yet, as Daniel Deudney shows in his book “Dark Skies,” the result of this could be even worse catastrophes, as Earth and its Martian colonies would likely engage in power struggles that could precipitate yet more untold suffering.

Benatar himself doesn’t make these future-oriented arguments, but a Benatarian (someone who accepts his view) definitely could. Benatar is far from the first to claim that life is very bad and the world is hell. This idea goes back at least to Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th century German philosopher who once believed that an honest look at the world justifies the conclusion that it would have been better if Earth had remained as lifeless as the moon. In fact, Schopenhauer’s pessimism has inspired generations of philosophers. Another German philosopher named Eduard von Hartmann contended that not only would Being Extinct be better than existence, but that we should eventually bring about our total extinction. He never said how we should do this, instead arguing that as culture continues to develop, a means would eventually be discovered.

Like just about every other pessimist, Hartmann was not in favor of what scholars would now call “omnicide,” whereby someone, or some group, takes it upon themselves to kill everyone else. These pessimists would see this as an abomination — as something truly evil. After all, causing everyone to die would probably entail enormous suffering, and suffering is precisely what they don’t want! For Hartmann, an appropriate means would gradually come into view, while for Benatar, the only morally permissible route from our present state of existence to the “blessed calm of nothingness” (in Schopenhauer’s words) is refusing to have children. Any other way of precipitating our extinction would be completely unacceptable.

Yet another philosopher who Schopenhauer inspired is Peter Wessel Zapffe. In his poetic article “The Last Messiah,” published in 1933, Zapffe argued that humanity is kind of like the Irish elk. At the time, some people speculated that the Irish elk evolved a set of antlers that became too heavy for it to hold its head up, and consequently went extinct. In other words, it became “over-evolved.” Zapffe thought that the same has happened to humanity with respect to our consciousness. While all animals “know angst, under the roll of thunder and the claw of the lion,” human beings are unique in that we experience “angst for life itself — indeed, for [our] own being.” He writes: “When one is depressed and anxious, the human mind is like such antlers, which in all their magnificent glory, crush their bearer slowly to the ground.” The result is a feeling of “cosmic panic” that he illustrates with a deeply poignant (albeit rather outdated) description of someone coming face-to-face with this panic, the realization that life is a prison cell whose only door is death:

One night in times long since vanished, man awoke and saw himself. He saw that he was naked under the cosmos, homeless in his own body. Everything opened up before his searching thoughts, wonder upon wonder, terror upon terror, all blossomed in his mind.

Then woman awoke, too, and said that it was time to go out and kill something. And man took up his bow, fruit of the union between the soul and the hand, and went out under the stars. But when the animals came to their waterhole, where he out of habit waited for them, he no longer knew the spring of the tiger in his blood, but a great psalm to the brotherhood of suffering shared by all that lives.

That day he came home with empty hands, and when they found him again by the rising of the new moon, he sat dead by the waterhole.

Zapffe argues that we hold this cosmic panic at bay through various defense mechanisms, such as “isolation” and “diversion.” The first involves hiding from others, and from ourselves, our true thoughts about the terror of being alive. We simply don’t allow ourselves to speak honestly about the predicament of life. We keep this concealed, and so do others, with the unspoken norm of answering “Yes, I’m fine” when someone asks, “How are you doing?” The second is more obvious, and increasingly pervasive in our world of Twitter, TikTok and TV: we distract ourselves from the reality of existence. If our eyes are fixated on the screen, we cannot be looking into the void. What happened to the fictional protagonist found dead by the waterhole is that such mechanisms broke down and the man succumbed to the crushing weight of his consciousness. In Zapffe’s view, we are always teetering on the edge of this state, incessantly and desperately isolating and distracting. These mechanisms are, indeed, the only reason that humanity was “not wiped out long ago in great, raging epidemics of insanity.” 

The solution, Zapffe argues, is the same reached by Benatar: “Know thyselves,” he writes, “be unfruitful and let there be peace on Earth after thy passing.” Practicing what he preached, Zapffe chose to be childless for his 90 years on this planet.

The same conclusions could be arrived at from a rather different angle: environmentalism. There is no denying that Homo sapiens, which somewhat ironically means “wise human,” is responsible for an enormous amount of harm to our fellow creatures on Earth. We have razed forests, obliterated ecosystems and pushed many species out of existence. We are a rampaging juggernaut of destruction, single-handedly initiating the sixth major mass extinction event in the 3.8-billion-year history of life on this planet (the last one being the extinction of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago). Our impact has been so immense that if alien intelligences were to discover our planet in 5 million years (assuming that we no longer exist), they would see a marked decrease in biodiversity within the geological record beginning around the Industrial Revolution. Alarmed by this finding, their scientists would conclude that something terrible had happened — something on par with a giant asteroid slamming into Earth, which is how the dinosaurs died out. This is why some environmentalists, such as Les U. Knight, have argued that we should phase out the human species by collectively refusing to procreate. In 1993, Knight founded a community called the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement,” or “VHEMT,” to promote this idea, and continues his activism up to the present.

Related Eugenics on Repeat

The probability that most people around the world will voluntarily stop having kids, though, is approximately zero. Far more likely is that humanity will succumb to a horrendous catastrophe of its own creation: a nuclear war, global pandemic involving designer pathogens, or perhaps even an AGI takeover, if the AI doomers are right. Such an event would be truly terrible — as, once again, everyone above would agree. Yet these philosophers would also rush to reassure us that this wouldn’t be all bad: the resulting outcome of there being no more humans would mean no more human suffering, and no more human-caused evils in the world. At long last, the flood of hurt in which so many people are treading water would subside, and surely that would be better — or so they’d argue.

This is the odd sort of solace that one might take in the thought of annihilation, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the fist-pounding of longtermists that Being Extinct would constitute the greatest tragedy imaginable. Just as the thought of nothingness might comfort someone in horrible pain because of a terminal illness, so too might the idea that “If our extinction does happen, at least this would put an end to the worst things that would otherwise have happened: wars, torture, genocide, child abuse and so on.” There is no reason to believe that such things won’t happen in the future, just as they have in the past. The world is messy, and the promise of Utopia that many longtermists discuss is an illusion. Those who believe that continuing to exist would be better than Being Extinct are thus in the awkward position of saying that the worst things listed above are worth risking for future happiness to exist. Some philosophers would say that this is a very difficult position to defend.

When I reflect on the views of Benatar, Hartmann, Zapffe and Knight, my thinking tends to follow a certain course. First, I imagine the universe without us, a thought that hits me in the gut as a great tragedy. There would be no more laughter, friendship, love, poetry, music or philosophical contemplation. There would be no more people to gaze up at the firmament at night and marvel at the heavens in wonder and awe, enraptured by the beauty of it all. Humanity is this little gem in the infinite darkness of space, and to lose that gem would be to deprive the universe of perhaps the most unique thing that it envelops. I feel the pull of this sentiment — not just intellectually, but viscerally. Being extinct would be incredibly sad.

“Be unfruitful and let there be peace on Earth after thy passing,” advised the 20th century philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe.

But if I shift the focus to how much suffering the future will almost certainly contain, I am immediately hit by a profound sense of horror. As the influential philosopher Bernard Williams wrote, “if for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of” the mountains of misery in our world, “then surely we would annihilate the planet, if we could.” While I strongly disagree that anyone should ever try to “annihilate the planet”— that would be omnicide, an unspeakable evil — the sentiment behind Williams’ statement rings true. What lies ahead is a vast ocean of pain, anguish, trauma and misery, all of which being extinct would erase before the hands of time have a chance to draw it. I can understand why someone would find a smidgen of comfort in this thought, just as someone in extreme pain from a terminal illness might look forward to no longer existing. My guess is that even optimists like MacAskill can make sense of this perspective: an honest look at what dots the road ahead is enough to make one want “to vomit, or scream or cry.”

The vast majority of us are passive spectators in this world. We can’t abolish the nuclear arsenals, force the fossil fuel companies to stop extracting oil from the ground, or make companies like OpenAI put the brakes on building AI. Some philosophers, though, would say, “Take heart, if the worst comes to pass, take heart that the light of human consciousness also casts a dark shadow. Without the light, there is no shadow, and a world without shadows might just be best.”

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