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Is a biosphere worth living?

You would be excused for considering it a masterpiece of trolling. Exposed to it, people usually considered to be champions of rational thought became bags of livid, incoherent rage. Friends, on which I usually count for their lucid and precise capability of dissecting fallacies, were running in circles yelling non sequiturs.

The poison? This recent article by young philosophers Amanda and William McAskill, which finally brings to the spotlight a pet peeve of mine: the issue of predation in ethics – in turn, a simple summary of longer treatments such as The Moral Problem of Predation by Jeff McMahan. Let us assume you value animal life and suffering. Let us assume in particular that you follow an anti-speciesist perspective – that is, you assume that animal suffering is no less important than human suffering. This is not a fringe point of view: it is the basis of veganism, a relatively successful and expanding (if minoritary) cultural movement. It also starts from a very simple, general and honestly hard to disagree assumption: all suffering is bad, no matter who feels it. Now, animal rights movements and anti-speciesism usually focused on human contributions to animal suffering, e.g. by meat or dairy production, or by scientific experimentation. But is it the right focus? Amanda and William McAskill are just the last of a few who point a very basic truth: most animals suffer by predation and parasitism by other non-human animals. In the famous words of Richard Dawkins:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

If we care about suffering in non-human beings, predation and parasitism are not an issue, they are the issue: humans are just a specific case of the problem. We try to save humans from being killed by non-human creatures. Why not non-humans? What do you do in this case?

The McAskills’ answer is, to me, the only logical one: we should (humanely) cull predator populations, or coerce them to eat artificial, non-animal food (some propone advanced genetic engineering to “herbivorize” meat eating species). This may sound contradictory with concerns about animal welfare, since almost all predators are animals as well. To exterminate species or force them to a fully unnatural way of living seems at odds with all what we can naively think as “animal rights”.

However the ethical axiom at the core is not the love of animals per se: it is to eliminate suffering. In this view care about animals only because, presumably, many higher animals are entities capable of suffering. If tomorrow we could prove, beyond all doubts, that (say) kittens are incapable of suffering, mauling kittens suddenly would not have any ethical consequence whatsoever. Viceversa, if chairs were demonstrated to suffer, we should suddenly care about chair welfare. That also answers the typical “if you are anti-speciesist, what about plants or microbes?” knee-jerk objection: plants or microbes do not have nervous systems and therefore, as far as we know, they are incapable of suffering. Anti-speciesism, as far as I understand, does not mean “I care about all species no matter what”, it means “I care about suffering regardless of the nature of the suffering entity”. If we find out that, to reduce suffering to a minimum, we are forced to eliminate or coerce some animals, so be it. It is the total good that matters.

What made biologists such as P.Z.Myers froth at the mouth is that the elimination of predation would have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem. They have a point. Philosophers should be honest: Once you remove predation, you end up with no ecosystem whatsoever. There is no way to maintain a significantly complex, functional self-sustaining ecosystem on Earth without predators, period. What they do not understand however is that, unless the existence of ecosystems has a moral value superior to the suffering of billions of beings, this is entirely morally irrelevant.

This has profound consequences: Given the utilitarian, anti-speciesist assumptions, the only ethical way to sustain complex animal life on Earth is a fully artificial biosphere. It is conceivable that, with massive and constant human intervention (well beyond our current capabilities), you could maintain mock biotas, more akin to aquariums than ecosystems, where you give artificial nutrients to plants and avoid Malthusian overpopulation catastrophes by selective sterilization or genetic engineering. Predators could be maintained in zoos, by isolating them and feeding them artificial prey.

But should we stop there? There is a deeper issue, and it is that suffering is often an inextricable part of the living experience of many species. Octopus mothers die starving after caring after their eggs for months or years. Sexual intercourse can be traumatic in many species. In general no living being is free from disease or injury. Life is a war, against external and intrinsic factors. And the only way to win a war, often, is not to play.

In our case, this has resulted in the theory of anti-natalism. Breeding humans only generates more beings capable of suffering and that will live, more often than not, unsatisfactory lives. It follows that the most ethical and compassionate course of action is to stop reproducing, ultimately extinguishing humankind. But this applies perhaps even more to non-human animals, which often cannot choose rationally how to make their lives better. Wherever there is a nervous system, there lies suffering.

It follows that the only certain way to avoid pain, suffering and misery is to wipe out all life from Earth. Even keeping simple plant or microbial life does not make the cut, since in the billion year or so before Earth becomes inhabitable, complex life capable of suffering could evolve again. Humans perhaps could decide to survive, possibly immersed in virtual reality, where their lives could be finally be fully hedonistic, free of any undesired suffering.

All of this could look like a long reductio ad absurdum, but it is not the case. I am not anti-speciesist, not even vegetarian, yet the foundation of utilitarian anti-speciesist ethics are for me intellectually difficult to set aside. It is not what I do, but perhaps it is what we should do. As a biologist, the idea of wiping out the beauty of Earth’s life horrifies me: and yet is my intellectual horror worth the suffering of trillions of conscious beings?

Perhaps this line of thinking, unexpectedly, also explains partially the Fermi paradox. All sentient species capable of compassion should arrive at the conclusion that suffering should be avoided, and as such should unavoidably derive that they should wipe out, regrettably, their own biosphere (and perhaps others too). Living beings evolved only to guarantee their own replication, regardless of anything else – if this means pain and suffering, then so be it. Perhaps we should see life not as a magnificent supreme pinnacle of the Universe, but as a bizarre bug entrenched in the physical laws, ultimately infesting planets with a seething soup of self-aware horror. Perhaps the Cambrian explosion, where first evolved both nervous systems capable of pain and predation-based animal ecosystems, is the most terrible event in the history of the known Universe. Perhaps it is our moral duty to return the Universe to its true natural state: a barren, peaceful void, free from the dreadful curse of self-replicating matter.






  1. Andreas Egeland Andreas Egeland

    The major objection I would raise is that this article uses primarily consequentialism, in it’s most simple anti-suffering format, when a utilitarian approach would solve many of the issues.

    Utilitarian approaches are not fundamentally anti-speciest (humans still have a greater capacity for autonomy and hence have a higher utilitarian value) and the existence of populations and possible choices, i.e. a complex biosphere, has an inherent moral value.

    Now indeed, technically, the only way to remove all suffering is to remove all life, however this would have the a side effect in eliminating all pleasure or utility.

    Hence it seems obvious to me that it does not follow from a consequentialist perspective, and certainly not from a utilitarian perspective, that we should eliminate all life.

  2. Linus Linus

    Very interesting thoughts indeed. But the dichotomy in the idea that we should either extinguish all life – carrying a nervous system – or let it continue feeling pain seems a bit like greedy reductionism; a positivistic view on a matter that might fare better under a hermeneutic scope. But as long as humans invent and assemble under different paradigms, and at the same time conclude that all others carry the same knowledge as they do but have still decided to stand with the opposition just to spite us, then such hermeneutic understanding will be very difficult to achieve.
    Nevertheless I believe that your argumentation is very good and deserves to taken seriously when discussing Epicurus statement about hedonism and suffering, and also what should be the ethical consequence of our understanding of it.
    Thanks for the read! 🙂
    Best wishes /L

  3. Vincent Noel Vincent Noel

    I agree with “All sentient species capable of compassion should arrive at the conclusion that suffering should be avoided”. I don’t agree that *ALL* suffering should necessarily be wiped out. Suffering creates hope, progress and the will to move on from the present to something better. Too much suffering is obviously bad, but too little is bad too. Full-scale Hedonism breeds depression and other undesirable outcomes.

    If avoiding all suffering means living in a world not worth living in, why try to?

  4. steve steve

    you have gone full philosopher, never go full philosopher.

  5. Jeowulf Jeowulf

    The myth of Eden tells us we had it all–immortality and happiness in a world devoid of suffering. We chose a different existence in search of knowledge. And what do we do attempt to do with that pursuit of knowledge? We wish to recreate Eden as we try to invent and implement ways to eliminate pain, suffering and death among ourselves –and as seen here– even in the world around us.

    Myth is a true story that never happened.

  6. Tim Phillips Tim Phillips

    I’m not a philosopher by training. I’m an environmental scientist. So I didn’t read through the other comments at length so excuse me if this is already covered but….

    It seems to me that the major assumption to question is that the suffering of an animal with the ability to reason and empathise is equal to the suffering of an insect who can’t be said to be fully conscious in any sense. Acting to protect yourself is not the same as feeling pain or fear and the idea that an insect lives in fear of future events is of course ridiculous.

    So if there is a continuum of potential pain relative to consciousness then animals who can write essays about the suffering of all life have the potential to suffer the most and the fungus that grows between their toes has the least.

  7. @Andreas Egeland:
    and the existence of populations and possible choices, i.e. a complex biosphere, has an inherent moral value.

    I am interested in that, because it seems to me the main need for a way out. Can you elaborate?

    the only way to remove all suffering is to remove all life, however this would have the a side effect in eliminating all pleasure or utility

    Yes, but overall “pleasure” moments, for animal life in nature, indeed exist: but they seem very little. Most of the time animals are scared, hungry, thirsty, or downright sick. There is thus an imbalance between pleasure and pain which is intrinsic to life on Earth, I think. Having more data would be indeed useful.

  8. @Linus: Many thanks. I am not sure I follow your argument about hermeneutics, perhaps I am a bit ignorant. Can you help me?

  9. @Vincent Noel: Suffering creates hope, progress and the will to move on from the present to something better.

    Indeed, but is this progress and will worth the suffering? Also, this might be OK about human suffering, but what about animal suffering?

    If avoiding all suffering means living in a world not worth living in, why try to?

    My question is if life should live at all, or not.

  10. @Tim Phillips: So if there is a continuum of potential pain relative to consciousness then animals who can write essays about the suffering of all life have the potential to suffer the most and the fungus that grows between their toes has the least.

    I actually totally agree that there is a continuum. I do not think a clam or a jellyfish are significantly conscious. But the problem is that wiping out only “superior” animals would put in great trouble also the survival of poorly conscious creatures. We can think of an Ediacaran-level biosphere, where we are reasonably sure there is no suffering, but then suffering could evolve again.

  11. The Cyanobacteria just remembered the good times. Digitally emulated life forms of the future will be marketed with pain circuits as an optional extra.

    A Phd in Hypothetical Emulation maybe on the cards for the author?

  12. Or maybe your morality that posits suffering as an absolute evil and that absolute evil can only be reduced if it is avoided and/or snuffed out mindlessly as we define and project it is open to question once you accept both those moral positions dressed up as proposition are anything but unassailable axioms.

  13. steve steve

    what do you have against suffering anyway? You need to consider your emotional state, and not confuse it with wisdom.

  14. Sean Sean

    You call the matter self replicating, but this is not the case. The matter is simply a means for the information to replicate itself. The matter is just a building material, nothing about the matter itself is replicated.

    Like matter and energy, information cannot be created or destroyed, so if we were to strip the earth of all life, we would simply be casting this information upon the cosmos, where it will oscillate and replicate itself forever, for nothing can be cleaned without dirtying something else.

  15. Hagbard Celine Hagbard Celine

    Experiencing suffering seems absolutely necessary in order to experience the opposite of suffering (pleasure, happiness, etc). We know what hot is by also experiencing cold or at the very least “not-hot”, and so on. All experiences are relative and are only as rich as the extremity of their opposite extremes.

    So it would seem to me that we have four options:

    1) To accept things as they are, and allow all things to experience all that there is to experience regardless of any non-balance of extremes experienced by each individual nervous system.

    2) Actively attempt to manipulate things (universe, biosphere, environment, etc) in such a way as to balance as much as possible the experience of the extremes (suffering/pleasure) by all individual nervous systems.

    3) Actively attempt to manipulate things (universe, biosphere, environment, etc) in such a way as to reduce the experience of extremes by all nervous systems as much as possible, ergo, to reduce all nervous systems to a state that could perhaps be considered “non-experience” (limbo?), where awareness is defined as a perception of the relative difference between the extremes.

    4) Eliminate all nervous systems, and thus the ability to experience extremes at all, and consequently everything in-between.

  16. Nuporl Nuporl

    That suffering is a negative is a very human evaluation and derived from self-preservation.
    It has no real meaning, you cant accumulate “suffering” and trillions of creatures “suffering” change nothing anywhere. So why make it out the most evil of all things?
    Its an entirely fictitious process that happens within the psyche.

    Avoid it? sure, no one likes to suffer, but to destroy entire ecosystems and try to avoid every single negative stimuli is absurd.
    In a way, its necessary for our proper development and understanding, compassion requires a level of personal suffering in our lives to understand why we would want to avoid it in ourselves and others.

    An excellent teacher and the prime motivator forwards, both technologically, biologically, ethically, morally. To eliminate it is to stagnate.
    We have no right to intervene in a massive scale in the natural processes merely to eliminate a fiction of our psyche.

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