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What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

Simon Coghlan tells us, with help from Derek Parfit.

What on Earth is the worst thing that could happen? A meteor could strike the globe like a million hydrogen bombs. Political instability might lead to nuclear holocaust. An animal-to-human supervirus might rip pandemically across continents.

Although you may have caught a whiff here of science fiction, all these scenarios are conceivable, not only logically but scientifically. Of course, everyone reading this knows that in a few billion years the Sun will become a red giant and swallow the Earth, but here and now the lack of urgency surrounding climate change shows that many people find it hard to meaningfully own the idea of a catastrophically damaged planet. We understand the idea of catastrophe only abstractly – in the head, but not in the heart or bones.

Philosophy in its dispassionate way has sometimes considered these disasters by way of thought experiments. These can be philosophically fruitful even when the envisaged possibilities are unlikely or even crazy. However, the scientific consensus on climate change gives a very real edge to projected global calamity. What will actually happen is not known in detail. Still, scientific concern is reaching such a pitch that some are now talking only about mitigating the consequences of climate change rather than reversing or halting it. Our reflective engagement with what ultimately matters has acquired an increasingly urgent existential dimension.

The question ‘What is the worst thing that could happen?’ is obviously vague. It could mean the worst thing morally speaking, or it could mean the worst thing in broader terms. I shall understand it in the broader sense that turns on what is ultimately good or on what states of affairs are intrinsically valuable, without being tied specifically to moral argument. To inquire into the worst state of affairs, then, is to ask about what things are good in themselves and the sense and degree in which they are good. Even in the absence of a full philosophical defence of any such claims, we can at least give some reasons why we think certain things are intrinsically good and their disappearance bad. And as you will see, what is centrally good in this sense is closely connected with morality in a narrower sense.

Parfit’s Thought Experiment: Total versus Near-Total Annihilation

Let’s start with a thought experiment by Derek Parfit from his book Reasons and Persons (1984, pp.453-4):

“I believe that if we destroy mankind, as we now can, this outcome will be much worse than most people think. Compare three outcomes:

1. Peace.

2. A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.

3. A nuclear war that kills 100%.

(2) would be worse than (1), and (3) would be worse than (2). Which is the greater of these two differences? Most people believe that the greater difference is between (1) and (2). I believe that the difference between (2) and (3) is very much greater.”

The context of the thought experiment is Parfit’s reflection on progress in moral philosophy. That is primarily why he thinks the second difference is so much worse than the first. The destruction of the whole of humanity would mean that we would never succeed in answering a most fundamental question: What is right and wrong? So for that reason the total destruction of humanity is the worst thing that could happen.

But surely, you will say, the question of what is right and wrong is not the only fundamental question to be pursued. Human beings have made enormous progress with other scientific and philosophical questions. Who could confidently dismiss the possibility that future discoveries may make present-day achievement in physics appear modest? Or fail to see that technology may allow us to create new forms of art which provide profound fresh insights into the world and the human condition?

Parfit indeed considers science and art, but he concludes that the subject of ethics is special insofar as progress there is likely to be greater than progress in any other subject. He believes that achievement in ethics has traditionally been hampered by religious assumptions. Overcoming the latter, he thinks, raises the tantalising prospect of tremendous and unshackled progress in moral philosophy over coming millennia.

Some will question Parfit’s contention that ethics has not advanced very far as a discipline and/or that much in the history of religiously-influenced philosophy is relatively worthless on this score. For one thing, his view implies that a certain kind of ‘rational’ thought characterises moral philosophy at its best. He supposes that the writings of Kant are the very model of how to do ethics, whereas the dialogues of Plato and the writings of Nietzsche are not, on account of their literary form and peculiar manner of expression. Others might think that ethics influenced by religion has accomplished more than Parfit allows. Critics of religion often contend that religion is scientifically and morally naïve, but even some of them may feel that it has sometimes expressed powerfully the mystery and greatness of existence.

Varieties of Human Achievement

Tiago Mattis illustration
Illustration © Tiago Mattis 2014. Please visit

In any case, Parfit’s basic position may surely be strengthened by making it less parochial. That is, we could recognise that the whole gamut of extraordinary human achievement in understanding the world is what would make human extinction a terrible loss: science, art, literature, architecture, law, technology, medicine, as well as all kinds of philosophy, are special and the wonders of human thought, creation, and discovery.

Many think that the highest kind of understanding and achievement is that of science. We might at least concede that it is misleading to characterise the achievements of Bach, Shakespeare, or Rembrandt as progress. Great artists may indeed create original forms of expression and aesthetic language, but perhaps they do not bring forth new facts or discoveries. Nonetheless, they are as important to the ever-increasing richness and depth of their disciplines as Einstein and Darwin were to science’s progress.

Could there be any higher achievements in art than those attained by Bach and Shakespeare? If we feel that this is unlikely, it is perhaps because their works speak to the centre of human existence in the most unfathomably moving ways. Yet even this is no grounds for saying that artists of equal or greater stature will never emerge; and the obliteration of human life would tragically deprive the world of that further insight and beauty. Moreover, it need not be assumed that advancement, say, in science and philosophy, is a more wondrous thing than the understanding and innovation afforded by art (and perhaps religion). Art, one might say, is at least as splendid, at least as central to the wondrousness of the existence of the human species, as science, or for that matter, philosophy.

One need not be an aesthete to view the annihilation of such things as objectively bad. The true aesthete may include other things on their list of fundamental goods: the beauty of desolate desert landscapes, and also of places teeming with plant and animal life; the beauty of the human body; virtues like honesty and kindness; play, adventure, exploration, and sport; relationships both sexual and Platonic; and so on. And you may agree that some or all of these items are intrinsic goods, which help make this galactic speck of a planet special.

Critics, however, might want to point out that the list we are forming is not objectively founded. Such things as are on it, said the utilitarian moral philosopher R.M. Hare (1919-2002), are mere ‘ideals’, and therefore not objectively defensible. Hare believed that personal ideals are relevant to morality not as fundamental goods or imperatives but rather as preferences. According to Hare, a careful examination of the formal structure of morality will lead us to realise that we should act so to maximise the satisfaction of people’s preferences. On this utilitarian view our list contains items that are good only because they are good for someone or something, namely, for beings with interests and preferences. According to this way of thinking, the worst possible calamity is that sentient life suffers without significant compensating enjoyment, while the second worst is that it ceases altogether to be. This need not show a species bias, for it is the sum total of happiness or preference satisfaction that matters, and any beings with strong preferences or capacities for happiness will do as well as any others. Dogs and cows will do as well as humans so long as utility (that is, happiness or benefit) is maximised.

Many people will feel that this is wrong because human life is special for the sort of reasons we have been discussing. The ‘ascent of man and woman’, many will say, makes this planet unique. To put it another way, our particular interest in intelligent extraterrestrial life is in one sense driven by the astonishing phenomenon of our own human ‘intelligent life’. When we wonder about extraterrestrial intelligence, we are usually not just thinking of mere cleverness or IQ levels, but also a capacity to understand (say) science and art and to have relationships that are emotionally sensitive and rich. That is not to say we wouldn’t receive the discovery of animal and even vegetative life on other planets as marvellous. But the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe may be more significant still. And by ‘significant’ is meant not just more interesting or frightening or startling, but more important in terms of what is absolutely good.

Why? The birth of a new human being is often regarded as a more profound joy, and the death of a human being a deeper loss, than that of any other known being. Someone who looks at a newborn baby can feel that the world is a better place for the child’s existence and that the world would suffer a kind of blow were the child to die. This could make us wonder whether something unprecedented and remarkable happened in the world when humans came into existence.

Morality and Diversity

Earlier I strove to separate value in general terms from moral value. But now I plan to bring them together. For it may be claimed that what makes human life the most marvellous creation of all is that we can care morally for other humans more than for anything else.

Supposing it were true that human creatures can be more deeply wronged than other creatures, it would arguably render a world with human beings far richer than a world without them. And this obtains irrespective of whether there is any further progress in art, philosophy, science, or elsewhere. This is a way of agreeing with Parfit’s conclusion about the unique terribleness of the ‘second difference’ – 100% human extinction versus 99% – and why this is so much worse than the 99% destruction scenario. Another part of the explanation might have to do with human diversity. It is one of the striking features of our kind that there is so much difference, as well as commonality, between us. In his essay The Moral Status of the Cloning of Humans (1998), Michael Tooley argues that a world in which we were all genetically identical, and so physically indistinguishable (he imagines there are other ways of recognising individuals), is not necessarily “inferior to the present world.” Tooley thinks his imagined world might actually be a better world, because “people would differ only with regard to the quality of their ‘souls’, and thus one would have a world in which judgments of people might have a less superficial basis than is often the case in the actual world” (p.82).

Let’s run Tooley’s thought experiment on a little. Greater regard for the quality of people’s ‘souls’ would certainly be a gain. A reduction in human conflict would be a large plus. Would there, however, be any significant loss? One of the great forms of human diversity comes from the differences between men and women, and the kinds of relationship this makes possible. Eliminating not only individual differences but also gender and thus sexism (and variations in sexual orientation) might be a way of reducing the superficial judgment of others, or blindness to their ‘souls’ – the state of their moral character – but what an impoverishment that would be! Even where gender differences remain, the elimination within each sex of differences in such things as facial expression, body size, shape and odour, racial features, the distribution, colour, and texture of hair, sound of voice, even the ways individuals walk, move, gesture, tilt their heads, stare off into space – what would the elimination of differences in all this mean? What would it mean if the manners in which we show anger or grief or joy were to seriously converge and homogenize?

John Lennon’s song Imagine does not go quite as far as yearning to rub out that kind of diversity, but it does (with the best intentions) crave the erasure of differences in nationality and religion. With the same good intentions someone may also want to expunge cultural diversity more generally. So no more conflict or injustice arising from differences in nationality, cultural practice and institution, religion, political belief, and language. To be sure, there is good in this outcome. But some of us might think there is also a lot of bad in it, and that the cultural diversity that is to be wiped out is actually part of a full conception of humanity. To be human, we might think, is partly to be white or black, Muslim or atheist, Australian Aboriginal or Inuit, British or French, communist or capitalist, or something else again – the list is endless and not limited to these cultural clothes. Our ‘souls’, on one view, are in part constituted by the range of cultural forms which we may be immersed in and which contribute to our multifarious perspectives on the world. We might see cultural diversity as a glory of the human race.

Beyond Humanity

It is also possible to be acutely appreciative of other animal species. Just as human life is made distinctive by its immersion in various aspects of self-reflective culture including art and science, higher animal life is also distinguished by its intelligence and emotional range, by the relationships this makes possible, and so forth. Animal life is also arguably distinguished in terms of the special moral concern we can rightly have for higher beings as opposed to the lower. I mean that, as before, we can be concerned morally with individuals belonging to the higher species in more significant ways than with those of the lower species. This is not a utilitarian point about maximising interests; it is rather about the sort of moral claims more complex animals can have on us. For example, we might think that shooting an elephant for sport, or killing a gorilla for meat or ornaments, is morally grotesque, compared to, say, killing and eating a pilchard. Accordingly, the extinction of say, elephants or gorillas would be far worse than the loss of the goldfish or frogs of the world. I do not only mean that it would be morally worse to go out and kill the former; I mean that a planet without elephants or gorillas is for moral reasons far more impoverished, in a sense distinct from the ecological, than a planet without frogs or goldfish (as marvellous as they are).

Doesn’t this mean that non-sentient animals, and other organisms and plants, as well as rivers, canyons, coral reefs, deserts, forests, are of little or no value? Surely we cannot have moral obligations to these things, for none of them feel, think, love, hurt, or care about anything.

What, if anything, would be wrong with the last human being on Earth – who is, let us say, the only remaining sentient creature – choosing to annihilate the abundant beautiful insentient life? We may additionally stipulate that all Earth’s remarkable natural landscapes will be destroyed. The preference utilitarian’s answer is that nothing is morally wrong with this last destructive act. Likewise, it is easy to acknowledge that destroying a great Rembrandt would be very wrong, but hard to deny that the reason for this is that the Rembrandt is, and will be, loved and marvelled at by human beings rather than because a painting can itself be wronged.

However, let’s stick with the claim that the Earth, even without sentient life, is a wondrous and marvellous thing. Can it be consistent to seriously hold to such an attitude and yet willingly destroy the Earth? Or, turning the point around, could someone who proclaimed this attitude, yet was indifferent to the planet’s annihilation because they had reasoned there would be no-one around to experience it, really have a genuine sense of wonder or a genuine love for the manifold parts and properties of this world? If our instinctive response to these questions is ‘no’, then perhaps a genuine sense of wonder and amazement can provide an understanding of what is so bad about the destruction of this planet.

© Dr Simon Coghlan 2014

Simon Coghlan has recently obtained a PhD in Philosophy from the Australian Catholic University and is also a veterinarian in Melbourne.


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