My doctoral research applied T.M. Scanlon’s contractualism to the problem of intergenerational ethics in order to determine how good a life we are obliged to give future people both in terms of their genetic material and the environment into which they are born. I used the contractualist method to devise what I called ‘reason-balanced sufficientarian’ principles to guide individual procreative decisions, the allocation of natural resources, the imposition of risk, and permissible population sizes. My work on population size attempted to reject the familiar repugnant conclusion, but also to consider its opposite: human extinction.
There is a significant amount of financial and intellectual investment being put into preventing human extinction. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge, for example, aims to “steer a small fraction of Cambridge’s great intellectual resources, and of the reputation built on its past and present scientific pre-eminence to the task of ensuring that our own species has a long-term future” and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford lists as one of its aims “to research into interventions that could reduce the risk of outcomes that would end Earth-originating intelligent life.” Furthermore, some philosophers see the fact that a theory permits human extinction as a reason to reject that theory.
Yet, there has been a surprising lack of philosophical research into why we should be trying to reduce the risk of human extinction at all. My research tries to identify why (if at all) it would be wrong not to. That is, I am not interested in why it might be regrettable if we went extinct, but why it would be wrong, since I believe wrongness gives us more useful guidance in what we ought to do and ought not to do.
There seem to be at least four identifiable reasons people might think human extinction wrong: 1) Many billions of future people would not have the opportunity to exist; 2) Our cultural and intellectual progress and intelligent life would be lost; 3) People existing at the time the extinction starts to unfold could experience physical suffering in the process of extinction and/or premature death; 4) People who know the extinction is about to occur could suffer non-physical harms such as despair or hopelessness, and others might suffer a loss of autonomy (if extinction were to occur, say, through involuntary sterilization). Which reasons apply will of course depend on the way in which extinction occurs.
In a recent paper ‘What’s Wrong with Human Extinction?’ in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, I approach the issue from a person-affecting contractualist perspective and conclude that human extinction is only wrong for reasons (3) and (4). This means that extinction is not wrong in itself, and would only be wrong if it caused involuntary physical or non-physical harms or premature death. However, contractualism makes some assumptions that aren’t necessarily shared by all ethical theories, in particular the idea that interests can’t be aggregated and that all reasons must be held by persons as opposed to impersonal values—both assumptions crucial to the rejection of reasons (1) and (2) above.
My project is to apply a variety of other ethical and political theory positions (including utilitarianism, anti-natalism, Rawls’ Original Position, and libertarianism) to the question of human extinction. I aim to show that, contrary to what many philosophers might initially think (and might hope!), most ethical and political positions either actively endorse, or at least passively permit, human extinction. This will have implications on work being done both inside and outside the philosophical community. Outside of philosophy, the resources put towards preventing extinction should perhaps be refocused less on continuing or prolonging the existence of our species, and more on ensuring its demise is as harmless as possible. Within philosophy, as I said earlier, some use the fact that a theory would permit extinction as a reason to reject that theory (e.g. Tim Mulgan. Future People (Oxford University Press, 2006)). But if most, if not all, ethical and political theories do in fact at least permit extinction, then we will either need to abandon all of them, or reconsider our intuitions about extinction.
In addition to my work on human extinction, I have published on the non-identity problem (‘Contractualism and the Non-Identity Problem’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 19(5)) and am co-editing (with Gustaf Arrhenius, Krister Bykvist & Tim Campbell) the Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics, expected in 2018.
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns is a Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Warwick and an Affiliated Researcher in Philosophy at the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, Sweden. She defended her DPhil in Political Theory at Oxford in 2016, supervised by Simon Caney. Before starting her doctoral research, she was an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Canada, completed an MSc in Political Theory at the London School of Economics, and worked for several years as a policy advisor in the Ontario government.