On Nov. 6, the Daily Nexus ran a news article summarizing a guest lecture given on campus by Professor Patricia MacCormack of Anglia Ruskin University, a lecture which I attended. The lecture was substantively of a perspective that is not altogether unreasonable; I think that most of the UCSB community would agree that a through-going system of ethics ought not to exclude non-human forms of life from its protection. Some common human-to-animal interactions are quite worthy of suspicion and quite vulnerable to criticism — some animals are born into slavery and others are born to be raised and slaughtered. No obvious grounds exist to fully justify either condition, and I don’t think anyone on this campus fails to have at least one friend who is a vegetarian, and is most likely a very altruistic person.
But one aspect of the lecture was given quite a bit of attention, despite its frankly bizarre nature, and I will need to attend to it as well. When Professor MacCormack proposed that human beings embark on a project to extinguish themselves as the “only true parasites of the earth,” I realized that the whole foundation of ahuman ethics would need some further scrutiny.
The argument to end human reproduction was formulated with reference to some academic theorists I have not heard of, and used a vocabulary that was less than clear, but as best as I can formulate, the argument was essentially this:
1. Human beings are in the process of destroying the earth.
2. If human beings are destroying the earth, we have an ethical responsibility to stop them.
3. The only way to prevent human destruction of the earth is to prevent the creation of more humans.
4. Therefore, we have an ethical responsibility to stop human reproduction.
I’m sorry, but talk like this offends my sensibilities. It’s just impossible for me to regard human life as valueless, let alone consent to its obliteration.
Now, Professor MacCormack was perfectly comfortable acknowledging that this ethical imperative is more apropos of fantasy than reality. Her instruction was activism for activism’s sake, and as long as one personally refuses to reproduce, one is held blameless for the billions of others who choose differently. But I’m not even comfortable with that.
An ethical responsibility cannot be impossible to fulfill — that strikes at the very heart of ethics. If, in a certain case, there is no way to choose the right, then the responsibility should be lifted from our shoulders. This is the way we regard every other ethical responsibility: If a madman runs into the freeway from a dark hiding place, then the driver who inadvertently takes his life is exculpated.
But Professor MacCormack made quite clear that the responsibility is to extinguish the human race and thereby save the earth. A program like that would take the unanimous cooperation of over seven billion people, and if you’ve ever tried to order pizza toppings for seven people, you know how preposterous that is. Methods of fulfilling the responsibility without unanimous cooperation breaches the realm of the truly appalling — one can imagine millions of forced abortions performed on unwilling women, in the ultimate worst-case scenario.
Of course, Professor MacCormack was not suggesting anything like this. She was just describing a fantastical program that she would put into place if she lived in a different universe. But, I’m sorry, I just can’t relate. Even if I were a passionate advocate of animals, I would want to distance myself as much as possible from this idea of ending human life in the next generation.
To be as charitable as possible to Professor MacCormack is to recognize the fear that man will commit some even more suicidal crime than abstaining from reproduction, such as some grand, hubristic nuclear war that will end all life on earth, human and otherwise. But if that is so — if some foolish venture leads to our end — then that too will be exculpated, just as the dodo was exculpated of its extinction in the same way: The dodo ended its rendezvous on earth by making a poor choice in life, not by making the poor choice of choosing death.
Ben Moss prefers to think of himself as a friendly probiotic than a parasite.