Roger Crisp is a well-regarded philosopher and has written important books on ethical theory and its history with a concentration on the British utilitarians. But in an article that appeared in the New Statesman on August 10, he presents one of the strangest arguments I’ve ever read.
Crisp asks us to imagine that an asteroid is about to hit the earth. If it does so, it will wipe out all life. You can push a button that would deflect the asteroid. Should you do so? Most of us would say that you obviously should, but Crisp is uncertain of the correct answer. There is a great deal of suffering in the world, and bringing an end to sentient life may be a “good thing.” Even if your own life is going well, you may have a duty to the rest of sentient life to sacrifice yourself so that others may die.
You may think I am making this up, but I’m not. Crisp sets up his case in this way:
Imagine that some huge asteroid is heading to earth, which if it hits will remove any possibility of life on Earth. If you have the power to deflect it, should you do so, from a moral point of view? If extinction would be bad for all sentient beings, both now and in the future, the answer “yes” seems hard to argue with. But … that’s not the case.
Consider the huge amount of suffering that continuing existence will bring with it, not only for humans, and perhaps even for “post-humans”, but also for sentient non-humans, who vastly outnumber us and almost certainly would continue to do so. As far as humans alone are concerned, Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill at the University of Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute estimate that there could be one quadrillion (1015) people to come—an estimate they describe as conservative.
These numbers, and the scale of suffering to be put into the balance alongside the good elements in individuals’ lives, are difficult to fathom and so large that it’s not obvious that you should deflect the asteroid. In fact, there seem to be some reasons to think you shouldn’t.
Crisp thinks that the way to settle what to do would be to try to weigh the pleasures and pains of all sentient life. One way to do that, following a method of the Harvard philosopher C.I. Lewis, is to imagine yourself undergoing the experience of each sentient being. Some of the experiences would be good on the whole and others painful. Would you be willing the experience the whole sum of lives? Crisp is doubtful that he would.
As he puts it,
How can we make comparisons like these? CI Lewis, a leading Harvard philosopher in the mid-20th century, offered an intriguing thought-experiment. To judge the value of some outcome, you have to imagine yourself going through the relevant experiences. Usually when we think about extinction, because we are not in great pain, we focus on the good things we’ll miss. But if God were to offer you the choice of living through all the painful and pleasurable experiences that will ever occur without extinction, would you jump at the opportunity? I have to say I wouldn’t.
Crisp notes that Lewis’s method isn’t the only way to compare pleasures and pains and mentions a few of the technical issues involved. But it may be, he says, that nothing can outweigh the pain of torture of one person for an hour. If so, bringing sentient life to an end would be the indicated course of action.
Again, I’m not making this up. Here is what Crisp says,
Perhaps one reason we think extinction would be so bad is that we have failed to recognise 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 counterbalanced 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.
Of course, allowing an asteroid to hit the Earth would probably be bad for you and those close to you. But given what’s at stake, it may well be that you should pay these costs to prevent all the suffering. As the philosopher Bernard Williams once said: “[I]f for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of [the suffering in the world] … and we really guided our actions by it, then surely we would annihilate the planet if we could.”
In fairness to Crisp, it should be mentioned that he doesn’t say that he wants to end sentient life, but just that the issue is worth thinking about. “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.”
The most obvious thing to say about all this is what Ayn Rand and her followers would say. Not only is this an “anti-life” ethics, but it is one that is explicitly so. If the purpose of ethics is to promote your own life as a rational being, you will find Crisp’s approach abhorrent. It is not only Rand who would view matters in this way; followers of Aristotle and Saint Thomas would do so as well. And so would any view that accepts respect for human life.
Crisp’s fundamental mistake is that he looks on ethical questions from an external point of view. Standing outside the world, he tries to figure out whether the goods of sentient life outweigh the bads. It is as if he imagined himself to be God, regretting that he had created human beings. In the familiar words of the Vulgate, “poenituit eum quod hominum fecisset in terra. Et tactus dolore cordis intrinsecus” (And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart; Genesis 6:6). This is not a standpoint fitting for human beings to adopt.