Response to Roger Crisp, RE: The Value of Human Extinction and Associated Moral Imperatives
In a recent article by Roger Crisp in the New Statesman titled Would extinction be so bad? the academic philosopher ostensibly attempts to make the case for human extinction not necessarily being a bad thing, in and of itself. It is my conclusion that Crisp is not incorrect per se, but that he misses the mark by improperly framing the question and examining it through the wrong lens.
Crisp largely relies on examples of suffering endured by the already living to conclude that “it’s also plausible that extinction would be good for some individuals”. He cites those with painful terminal illnesses as an example. However, where this analysis fails is that Crisp appears to be proposing that the suffering experienced by any number of currently living individuals means that it would not necessarily be a net negative for all currently living humans to be killed off entirely. This seems a rather tortured argument to make on its face, but Crisp indeed goes on to explore events that would lead to “sudden extinction”, such as a giant asteroid impacting Earth, and whether or not there is a moral imperative to stop the asteroid if one is able, given the presence of current and future suffering. Crisp will soon after brush with Antinatalism when he mentions the potential number of future humans and the suffering that may be endured by those coming generations, but again sails past a much more valuable and ethically defensible point by circling back around to the asteroid example and his discourse over the value of forced human extinction.
Crisp additionally waxes on about torture and agony, all legitimate points to bring up in terms of the ethics of creating intelligent life, but here again is the main problem with Crisp’s proposition – his failure to analyze the problem through the proper lens. The suffering experienced by the living – whether of physical or mental origin – is the primary focus of Antinatalism, which seeks to reduce suffering through the willful (and willing) cessation of procreation. Antinatalism proposes that willfully procreating is unethical, given that creating new life also creates new potential for suffering, while not creating new life creates no new potential for suffering while not materially depriving any given individual. Where Crisp misses the mark - or at least makes an omittance - is in failing to consider the ethical implications of forced extinction, which removes the element of choice and supersedes individual autonomy and will.
Further, examining the problem of suffering through an Antinatalist lens reveals that the problem which should be discussed in this instance is not whether life is worth continuing or ending, but whether it is worth starting. If the lives of Crisp’s tortured and ill were never started, they could not have experienced such agonies in the first place. Crisp’s focus however is on the former two issues, which are largely a matter of personal choice and – this author argues – should be left that way in nearly all instances, lest we begin to suggest for example that summary execution of the sick and dying against their will is an acceptable practice.
While I do understand and appreciate Crisp’s willingness to explore a controversial issue such as the value of extinction, I cannot agree with his analysis of the subject. I also believe that Crisp has ultimately harmed the discourse around the ethical problems with creating and continuing life by, in my opinion, rather irresponsibly failing to qualify his work as what it most likely is – a boundary pushing thought exercise typical of rigorous philosophical inquiry. Such writings are common in academic philosophy, but individuals unfamiliar with this practice of philosophical experimentation are likely to take these works as being more literal in their intent than they are. Judging by the reactions on social media to Crisp’s article I believe I am correct in my analysis of this article’s likely negative impact on future discourse around human extinction, Antinatalism, and the ethics of creating life. Many have made Crisp's article out to be a piece advocating for capitalistic or class based eugenics, Nazi-esque genocide, eco-fascism, etc., alongside making unfavorable comparisons to "big A'' Antinatalism - which I admit to having an interest in defending from such attacks.
I would like to note that this is not intended as a slam article – I understand Crisp’s purpose in writing the article discussed here and do not believe that conversations about such ideas should be forbidden or otherwise avoided. Indeed such conversations, as uncomfortable as they may be for some, are important to have. Additionally, some of the more histrionic responses to Crisp’s article are simply unnecessary and counterproductive, with many amounting to little more than ad hominem attacks. Where my criticism stems from is largely my frustration with academia's (of which Crisp is a part) stubborn disconnect from popular discourse and thought and the way in which more academically geared works such as Crisp's article are ultimately received by the general public. I do not deny the importance of these philosophical exercises and conversations, but their unqualified presentation to said public too often leads to long lasting damage to sphere of popular discourse around a given subject. I am not making demands of Crisp or his fellow academics and the outlets which publish their works, but I do urge them to adequately qualify all such writings so as to not further erode the quality of public discussion in any given area of philosophy.
Should Crisp himself offer a response, I will be glad to link it here as well as respond in kind.
Updated 5/4/2022 for grammar and clarity.