from the world's big
Human extinction! Don't panic; think about it like a philosopher.
Most people think human extinction would be bad. These people aren't philosophers.
- A new opinion piece in The New York Times argues that humanity is so horrible to other forms of life that our extinction wouldn't be all that bad, morally speaking.
- The author, Dr. Todd May, is a philosopher who is known for advising the writers of The Good Place.
- The idea of human extinction is a big one, with lots of disagreement on its moral value.
Humans could go extinct. The idea has been floating around science fiction since 1826, it dominated diplomatic thinking during the Cold War, and it fills the existentially inclined with dread. We've had some difficult times in the past, but today the only real threat to humanity is suicide.
While most people would think humans going extinct would be an obviously bad thing, these people aren't philosophers. This strange breed of human looks at the problem from many perspectives and often comes to conclusions that might shock you.
A tragedy, but not a bad thing.
Knowing how confusing that sentence was, he explains the idea by looking to tragic heroes in literature. Characters like Oedipus and King Lear do bad things yet invoke our sympathy. The idea is that humanity is doing bad things that could only be stopped with the extinction of humanity, but that we still have every reason to feel sympathetic for humanity despite this.
The "bad things" Dr. May refers to in this case are the suffering we cause to animals and the damage we cause to the environment. He makes specific reference to the vast numbers of animals we breed into existence, cram into factory farms to live unpleasant lives getting fat, then eat them, as one example. He mentions how human-caused climate change will alter Yellowstone National Park as another. Our often wanton destruction of the environment is unmatched by any other creature.
"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."
Is this opinion popular? Should I be concerned?
The idea that it would be for the best if humanity died off is held by more people than you might imagine. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (yes, it is real) encourages its supporters to not have children in hopes that humanity will peacefully die off.
The perpetually depressed Schopenhauer was an anti-natalist, one who thinks having children is morally wrong, because he thought most people would be doomed to live lives dominated by suffering. Several other thinkers, most notably David Benatar, agree with him. If these arguments were carried to their logical extreme, there wouldn't be any humans left after a few decades.
Others, including Benatar and the extinction movement people, agree with Dr. May that creating more humans causes more environmental trouble than is morally justifiable and that we should stop reproducing now.
Now, none of these groups or people advocate suicide or murder. They argue only that we shouldn't create more people. There is a, generally accepted, moral difference between people who are alive and people who could exist. While saying we shouldn't have more kids doesn't cause harm, since people who never existed can't be harmed, killing people currently alive does harm people. So you needn't worry about armies of philosophical Unabombers cropping up anytime soon.
What about the side for human life? Who is on that side?
Dr. May does refer to stances one could take that would cause you to disagree with them. One such position would be to assume there is a "profound moral gap" between animals and humans. If you did this, the suffering we cause animals to feel could be dismissed off hand because the animals have no moral standing.
Plenty of philosophers have argued for this exact thing. Most famous among them was Immanuel Kant, who argued that we should be kind to animals as practice for being nice to people but considered them things without moral rights. He would probably find the idea that we should drive ourselves to extinction for the sake of those animals to be absurd. Christine Korsgaard, a modern Kantian theorist, disagrees and argues that animals are worthy of some moral consideration while admitting that our capacity for reflective, normative thinking is a unique feature that may have moral weight.There is also a more moderate route other thinkers take. Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and noted autism spokesperson, argues that raising animals for the sole purpose of eating them is ethical but that we should assure them a decent life with a minimum of pain. Her stance would both allow humans to continue existing and using animals for our benefit while improving life for those animals; no extinctions required.
Even Peter Singer, a philosopher who has been known to stake out a controversial stance now and then, argues that we should give animals moral consideration but has yet to say that we ought to die off for their sake. Instead, he has argued that we ought to stop needlessly causing them harm and perhaps take up vegetarianism.
Would the world be better off without humanity?
It is also possible to take issue with the claim that the environment would be that much better off without humans or that the effect of humanity on the environment is so awful that we ought to die off. Nature can be sickeningly cruel without any human intervention. Animals can cause as much deforestation and environmental degradation as humanity does at the local scale. Plants, as well as humans, have caused climate catastrophes by changing the composition of the atmosphere.
There were two dozen mass extinction events before the evolution of modern humans. One of these, the Permian–Triassic extinction event, saw 96% of all marine and 70% of all land-dwelling vertebrate life die. The famous Cretaceous extinction event featured the death of the dinosaurs and almost every land animal that weighed more than 55 pounds as the result of a giant asteroid hitting the earth, as they often have done and will do again. Humans have yet to do anything with nearly the kind of impact on the environment as these random events had.
While our destroying the environment is not made acceptable by the fact a random occurrence might do the same thing, it does make the argument that humans should die off for the sake of the environment lose a bit of its punch. After all, if another mass extinction event is inevitable, which many people think is the case, then getting rid of humans doesn't actually accomplish much in the way of protecting the environment over the long run.
It would only serve to assure that, after that next cataclysm, both the environment and human-made wonders like the works of Shakespeare are obliterated. Since Dr. May does suggest that the works of art humanity creates have value and that there is something to be said for our being the only animal that can truly contemplate beauty, a world where we are gone and nature takes it course seems to be the worst one of all.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.