We humans have a responsibility to get our stuff together and then help others. Let’s not shift it to some hypothetical future civilization that may be just as flawed as us.
Update 2018-03-10: I have pretty much reversed my opinion on this due to Jan Brauner’s comment below and Lukas Gloor’s Cause prioritization for downside-focused value systems, which makes this article obsolete. I previously had no opinion on the likelihood of earth-originating space colonization. Now it seems close to inevitable to me conditional on us not first entering some singleton state or going extinct (which, at least in combination, seem even more likely to me). Therefore antinatalism may be a way – though we can hopefully find more tractable ones – of preventing an exacerbation of wild animal suffering per space colonization.
Different people with different moral preferences see different reasons for antinatalism. One of them is that humans cause suffering in the world, so that the world would be better off without them.2
Surely, humans cause suffering, but whether we cause more suffering than we prevent is an open question. But even if our existence is currently net negative, we need to take a more long-term perspective.
Image courtesy of Relatively Interesting
Just from a quick glance at some timelines of the evolution of life like the above, and from the Wikipedia article on the “history of the world,” it looks like the first proto-insects emerged over 500 million years ago, while humans emerged only some 200,000 years ago (already a difference of a factor of over 1,000 – like, for me in Berlin, the difference between going to a supermarket and going to Brussels), and our civilization probably only emerged some 15,000 years ago.1
Jonathan Haidt, an evolutionary moral psychologist, proposed the theory that it was human morality that has enabled our civilization to form, at least alongside many other developments, because it enabled us to trust each other to a point and thus to cooperate and trade. Whatever it may be, it has made ours the dominant species on the planet and has conferred on us many luxuries. Before humans had trade with distant regions, we were dependent on weather conditions, and when conditions were untoward, mass starvation ran rampant. There was no housing for a long time, and no heating, apart from caves and fires with their noxious smoke. Evolution took its due every winter, making sure that only those who performed best on its arbitrary rules of survival got to see another summer. And there was no medicine to defend us against parasites and diseases. Many of the forms of suffering of the poorest in developing countries were pervasive everywhere. These humans were not bound by the laws of states and society, but they didn’t gain much from this freedom since they had to fight for their survival day by day. I could not imagine living in such conditions, and I probably wouldn’t make it for long either.
We’re not the dominant species in numbers. There are some 7 billion humans but several hundred billion birds, up to a trillion mammals in general, up to a hundred trillion reptiles and amphibians, up to a quadrillion fish, several quintillion insects/spiders/et al. – differences up to a factor of 1 billion to the human population. Many of these have been around for a thousand times longer than humans, and most of them show learning behavior in that they try to avoid harmful stimuli, indicating that they’re at least somewhat likely to be capable of suffering.
And everything that I just described about the conditions under which precivilization humans had to live is true of them too – all the starvation, freezing, being eaten alive by parasites, dying from diseases, predation, etc.3 and all of it already for over half a billion years.
It has taken evolution half a billion years to get from probably sentient macroscopic beings to human civilization, so in all likelihood, no other species will manage to get there for another half a billion years or much longer. (We have no way to tell how unlikely it may’ve been that a species as intelligent has ours emerged at all.) That is how long, at least, all nonhuman animals will be destined to continue lives so dominated by suffering if we don’t do anything about it.
So far it’s unclear whether human civilization has had a positive or negative influence on this ongoing catastrophe. Perhaps it is negative. But our civilization has conferred tremendous power to us, a single species, and one that you, reader, and I happen to be a part of – what are the odds! It has also been nothing but a blip compared to the history of sentient life.
If we now decide that our track record has been bad and we should discontinue our species, we’re just shifting the responsibility for helping everyone else on this planet to some future generation maybe half a billion years of suffering into the future, and that civilization will probably face just as many problems with expanding their compassion to other species as we do today.
So even though we may have but a tiny chance of shifting human morality in a direction that does not privilege our own species, we need to seize that tiny chance we have4 or else we’ll pay for it with hundreds of millions of years of continued suffering and do nothing but shift the responsibility to another hypothetical civilization in the distant future.
But we need to be careful with terms such as “we” and “us.” I might’ve just as well chosen to divide people of my country (us) and people from outside (them), or people of my skin color (us) and people of another skin color (them), or people with a particular religion (us) and people of another or no religion (them). The distinction that, for convenience, I did choose – homo sapiens (us) and all other sentient species (them) – is no more morally meaningful to me. Consequently, when I see someone sick, injured, or threatened, I want to help them no matter of which of these us or them groups they are a member. So I feel the same responsibility to a wild turtle that I feel to another human. ↩
I strongly empathize with this reason for antinatalism, which is why I argue against it here. (Also because this started out as an OkCupid message to a particular person with a particular view.) There are other reasons, which I don’t empathize with as much. See the comments below for an example and Strategic Considerations for Moral Antinatalists for a broader discussion. (Further discussion can be found on r/philosophy.) ↩
Wild Animal Suffering Research has started research on how to help. The topic has been so neglected so far that I hope they will find as many low-hanging fruit as medicine found around 1800 when there were still many left to find in the field. ↩