December 8, 2021

A utilitarian’s Apocalypse?  

What if extinction is the best option on offer?

Gerard Butler sees extinction coming / 'Greenland' 

Australia’s most erudite columnist is probably Henry Ergas, an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. In a recent article, “It’s the end of the world as we know it – again”, he galloped through Western visions of the apocalypse – the Greeks’ myth of the eternal return, the Last Coming of Christ, Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Last Days of Humanity (a new one to me), H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (which predicted the A-bomb), and nowadays, environmental collapse.

His point was that the modern Western imagination is easily captured by visions of ultimate catastrophe – as in the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, or nuclear warfare. His premise was that extinction is obviously a bad thing.

But what if extinction is really not a bad option in the light of the alternative?

Writing in the Practical Ethics blog (republished from the New Statesman), philosopher Roger Crisp, of Oxford University, muses that immediate extinction would at least put an end to the collective pain of existence:

Perhaps one reason we think extinction would be so bad is that we have failed to recognize just how awful extreme agony is. Nevertheless, we have enough evidence, and imaginative capacity, to say that it is not unreasonable to see the pain of an hour of torture as something that can never be counter-balanced by any amount of positive value. And if this view is correct, then it suggests that the best outcome would be the immediate extinction that follows from allowing an asteroid to hit our planet….

The question of whether extinction would be good or bad overall is obviously very important, especially in the face of potential catastrophic events at the hinge of history. But this question is also very difficult to answer. Ultimately, I am not claiming that extinction would be good, only that, since it might be, we should devote a lot more attention to thinking about the value of extinction than we have to date.

Crisp is a utilitarian and the purpose and value of suffering poses a conundrum for those who balance pleasure against pain. It’s interesting to get a glimpse of utilitarian eschatology.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge  

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