Bioethics Blogs

Would it be bad if humanity were to become extinct?

That’s (roughly) the topic of a panel held at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. It is a topical question, in this age of potentially catastrophic climate change. There is no realistic risk that climate change threatens life on this planet, after all,  but it could threaten human existence (not directly, but by triggering widespread conflicts over scarce resources). The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has dubbed this our final century, envisaging other means whereby human existence could end. So: would it matter?

The question seems to parallel the question concerning the badness of personal death. Epicurus famously argued that death was nothing to be feared because where we are, death is not, and where death is, we are not. Roughly, the idea seems to be that death is not something that can matter for us, because for something to matter for us, we have to be around. So death – rather than dying – is not something to be feared. However, many philosophers think we are harmed by death: for instance, by the complete cessation of our capacities to achieve our goals.

I think that reflecting on the end of humanity gives some support to views according to which it is not death itself that matters; rather it is the cessation of some kind of ongoing project. Compare two different scenarios in which humanity comes to an end. In scenario 1, humanity comes to an end in 300 years time when a large asteroid collides with the Earth, causing immediate devastation and a long winter in which the remnants of humanity die off.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.