New York Times Opinion Columnist Poses Serious Question: ‘Would Human Extinction Be A Tragedy?’

A New York Times opinion column published Monday openly ponders the question of whether or not “human extinction” would “be a tragedy.”

The column, by Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May, discusses the “prospect of human extinction” in light of climate change’s “increasingly threatening predations.”

“In reflecting on this question,” May opines, “I want to suggest an answer to a single question, one that hardly covers the whole philosophical territory but is an important aspect of it. Would human extinction be a tragedy?”

May specifies that he isn’t asking if “the experience of humans coming to an end would be a bad thing” or even “whether human beings as a species deserve to die out.” Though he believes those questions should be addressed, the question presented in the column is “simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings.”

“I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing,” wrote the Clemson professor.

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.

Humanity, then, is the source of devastation of the lives of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.

The rest of the column is essentially a philosophical back-and-forth between the case for innate human worth and an earth without humans altogether, finally seeming to lean toward the latter as the better solution. May offers “preventing future humans from existing” as a more charitable alternative to “currently existing humans” ending their lives. (RELATED: ‘Embarrassing’: Climate Expert Explains What’s Wrong With The White House’s New Climate Report)

One might ask here whether, given this view, it would also be a good thing for those of us who are currently here to end our lives in order to prevent further animal suffering. Although I do not have a final answer to this question, we should recognize that the case of future humans is very different from the case of currently existing humans. To demand of currently existing humans that they should end their lives would introduce significant suffering among those who have much to lose by dying. In contrast, preventing future humans from existing does not introduce such suffering, since those human beings will not exist and therefore not have lives to sacrifice. The two situations, then, are not analogous.

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.

Follow Scott on Twitter