Destroy the World
The above is factual - to the extent that pretty much everything in this world is in a state of flux. Cannot anything be considered dynamic, if one looks at it from a long enough time frame? Most systems with sufficient complexity show chaotic behaviour, meaning that a small difference in our actions can potentially produce large differences in outcome, which diverge rapidly with time.
To translate this factual epigram into anything approaching normative, we must cross several high hurdles. That we should, or ought to, save the world, is by no means obvious. The first problem is that as humans, we are equipped with a faculty of judgement that allows us to make moral decisions, but being designed for the purpose of short-term and short-range decisions, it is utterly ill-suited for making 'moral' decisions of whether the human race ought to propagate itself in its current state, or not. For decisions that influence evolution, population dynamics, and the status of life itself, We are forced to give up all our common-sense notions of what is 'best' or 'right'.
is it possible to predict which small changes will lead to which outcome?We have fairly advanced systems which predict the weather; at present the accuracy is perhaps 85% on a simple binary decision about tomorrow. However, The accuracy of a person who simply quotes today's weather as their prediction for tomorrow, is 60% anyway! This small gain in accuracy from large-scale modelling is significant, and is rising gradually as we understand more about weather, and more about chaotic systems in general. What then is our accuracy for next month? or one year's time? or twenty? Moreover, to what extent does this justify any action?
The immediate requirements are then, firstly a quantitative statistic of how the accuracy of such predictions vary with time in the future, and secondly a statistical threshold (or p-value) at which moral choices become 'worthwile' or in some sense ethically valid.
is there an argument for prolonging human life?There are two fundamental ethical arguments for prolonging human life.
- Life can lead to net pleasure (e.g. from the principle of utility). Any life which is likely to lead to net pleasure by that person, is good per se, and should be prolonged until the likelihood is that it will not yield net pleasure. This is problematic because our ability to make these predictions is sometimes accurate, but is limited; is it correct to make judgements on life or death based upon limited knowledge, which can at best give a probability?
Where there's life there's hope: any life is better than no life at all. This allows that, if everyone is going to have a life of suffering, everyone should live it through. This could be one extension to the argument in (i), since if we cannot predict whether a life will be worth living, then any chance of pleasure, be it close to zero, precludes surrendering. It also has an a priori exposition: that life itself has intrinsic value, whether or not it consists of suffering. Although there are very few solid arguments to contravert this, any doctor will testify that prolonging a life of pain and displeasure at all costs is pragmatically a pointless feat. If such a patient has no motivation to stay alive, and has close to zero chance of being more motivated in the future, they will not 'benefit' from being artificially kept alive.
If life's intrinsic value comprises a certain property of 'life', this property has to be more clearly defined, as we shall see later. Some people may highlight conscious mental life as the feature of interest; others might cite the seven criteria of life (to which plants and prokaryotes equally conform); yet others might constrain the value to humankind, perhaps citing language as a key property.
is there reason to create more human life?
- The selfish gene hypothesis, or rather theory, has a clear opinion that we are as individuals programmed to propagate our genes. Our behaviour is partially genetic, but also partially 'memetic'. The latter influence interacts with the genetic, but alters behaviour so as to propagate our own ideas. Whether this is good or bad is left to the imagination.
- If we believe that net pleasure has value, and we predict that due to resource limitations there is a maximum number of humans that can be sustained simultaneously in happiness, then there will be a limit to how much human life we should create.
- Some may accept that the right to have children is a basic human right. This comes into conflict with (ii) in some situations. In a pure system of rights, this is distnct also from unconceived non-existent potential beings having a right to be alive (see later) - which also creates an inconsistency in the value of certain actions.
is there duty to other species?
The great diversity of life on this planet is testament to the number of niches available to support life. Note that nature has never been, nor ever will be, in a state of harmony or balance. Biology is in a constant flux, a dynamic sequence of rises and falls, which is punctuated irregularly by the physics's impervious interventions and biology's chaotic (but perhaps modifiable) explosions.
The extinction of a species is often a consequence of human effects on the environment in which we, and other life, inhabit. By our very existence we alter the niches to such an extent as to cause evolution of organisms which depend soley upon us, and as to cause death of organisms that cause us harm. Unfortunately, there are many organisms we destroy which would actually prolong human life.
Although we cause extinction by destroying niches, there are two corollaries: By destroying a species, we may leave the niche open for other species to evolve into; and also, when one niche is destroyed, it is possible that another niche is opened up. Thus, maintaining the diversity of species has no intrinsic merit. However if we believe that it is appropriate to maintain the human race in the future, then it would follow that we must attempt to predict what kind of organisms might be beneficial to us in the future. It is not at all clear that an excess of insects, birds and monkeys is in fact beneficial to the pure survival of the race.
In summary, we must
- preserve diversity by ensuring that when we make a species extinct, we also open up another niche for organisms to evolve into. For example, burning down a rain forest is beneficial if we show that the number of new species that could evolve to survive on the ashes is greater than the number previously inhabiting that rain forest.
- if we accept the utilitarian principle, we destroy species who experience less pleasure to make way for those who experience more pleasure. Unfortunately this abstract principle is far from being usable, due to current difficulties in evaluating pleasure in other species (though this may at some point become feasible). In fact to justify our own existence, in the extreme form, we need to demonstrate that on average, a human experiences more net pleasure than other animals do.
Animal minds and duty
even if we accept that animals can experience pleasure, does this oblige us to act in their interests?
If we have this duty to other humans (see 6), we cannot exclude this possibility. We need to determine the nature of their minds, and particularly whether they possess the qualilty discussed in 2(ii) - perhaps they are conscious? By definition, there is no objective way to know this, as pure consciousness is subjective alone. (This is true unless a biological or physical correlate is one day found, which is certainly possible.) We do know, however, that they have minds which are capable of certain forms of primitive representation, and in some sense, thought. However there is no evidence for a linguistic (i.e. grammatic) system in any non-human organism.
How do we tell, then, whether animals truly have experience, in the same way that we do? Well, only appealing to our intuition, it seems.
Animals have several characteristics that engender our emotions towards them, in the same way that we are emotional towards other people. It is therefore a construction of our own sensibility that we feel the emotions we do towards humans and animals. However, in the strongest cases of this phenomenon, the animals have actually evolved (e.g. as pets) under human selection pressures, and therefore are likely to develop certain behavioural and sensual characteristics that immediately command our brains' attention and affection. Biologically they may indeed be considered parasitic, given the niches they find themselves in, and we are their slaves.
So, because we are slave to our natural unconscious faculties, evolution has created entities that we believe have conscious experience. As a consequence, many people believe that they have rights, and that we have duties to them. Whether these are misplaced, it is not possible to tell; however we have some reasons to suspect that we are being fooled. If we had evolved as obligate carnivores, which animal would have rights and which one duties?
is there a moral duty to the unborn?The question of identity and morality in counterfactual situations and possible-worlds is as yet unsolved (Parfit Reasons & Persons 1984).
is there a moral duty to the other?Although this has been hitherto an uncontroversial conclusion of most ethical systems, It is worth establishing the reasoning behind why we should be considerate of other humans. If we view this from a decentered viewpoint, the phenomenon can be described as co-operation. We are faced everywhere with examples of inter-personal co-operation. Some examples are apparently for self-benefit; other examples are not so clearly so. If the cause of human behaviour is deterministic, then two approaches are suitable:
- we act on a selfish, self-preserving instinct, or rather, our goal in deciding action is to obtain maximal pleasure. In many cases, from birth we learn (or are hard-wired such) that giving pleasure to others leads to pleasure to ourselves. Thus co-operation is ultimately a pleasure-giving manner of behaviour. Being ethical is pleasurable, due to our upbringing. However, why are we taught this, or why should it be hard-wired?
- the ultimate reason we are taught to behave in certain ways is a result of selection of ideas through generations, in a 'meme-like' fashion. Thus co-operative behaviour is in some way beneficial - or perhaps more accurately, self-propagating.
- despite a fully determined future, we are in some sense free. This may be due to the nature of the passage of time, or may fit into an 'explanatory relativism' scheme.
In conclusion, there are many difficulties to be surmounted before we have authority to save the world. There are even more difficulties in demanding that others should co-operate in saving the world. In particular there are metaphysical objections, humanist objections, utilitarianist objections, scientific objections and existential objections. In future, superheroes will have to contend with all these arguments before single-handedly acting, or even producing an agenda for, saving the world.
1. Sikora, R.I. and Barry, B. (eds.), Obligations to Future Generations