Considering Extinctionism

by Benjamin Studebaker

I recently found out that one of my professors is a self-described extinctionist. He believes that we have a moral duty to bring about the extinction of most, if not all, animal life. What makes this more interesting is that this particular professor is a vegetarian, and that he is an extinctionist for animal welfare reasons. I realise that the reader is probably not predisposed to agree with such a radical view, but I think for that very reason it is worth examining and thinking about. So today, I aim to take up, without prejudice, the question of whether or not the extinctionists are correct.

There is one fundamental assumption that must be accepted in order to consider seriously any kind of extinctionist argument:

It is possible for a being to have a life of negative utility.

If we accept this assumption, then we are saying that yes, it is possible for a being to be under such miserable conditions that, rationally considered, death would be a better alternative for that being, because that being’s life is, in aggregate, harmful to his interests, and has no significant potential of improving. Now, just because death is a better alternative does not mean that the being will necessarily commit suicide. Suicide might be in the interest of a being that is nonetheless incapable of committing it for some reason or another. A couple circumstances come to mind:

  1. The being is not sufficiently intelligent to be aware of its capacity for suicide.
  2. The being has an irrational fear of death that prevents it from committing suicide even though it is in its interest to do so.

Any being, human or non-human, could potentially be under such conditions. I am prepared to accept that this assumption is true. If say, I were sent to a North Korean prison camp where I would live out my days in a cell so small that my muscles would inevitably atrophy from lack of exercise, where I would receive bare bones rations that left me chronically malnourished, and where, even were I to attempt escape, I would still find myself in North Korea, which is in itself an unpleasant place to be, I would have to accept that death is the only realistic escape from such a torment. Consequently, I would have to accept that the rational thing to do in that scenario would be suicide. I may still be unable to kill myself in that circumstance due to cowardice, but it would be the sensible thing to do.

Now, in order to get from that assumption to extinctionism, we need an account of the animal experience that is somewhat similar to the North Korean case I offered. Consider the living conditions of farm animals. Now, I’m not restricting this to factory farmed animals–farm animals in general. A farm animal is trapped on a plot of land, perhaps reasonably sized, perhaps not. In either case, what do farm animals do with their lives? They are fattened and eaten, or milked, or what have you. If you or I were put in similar circumstances, if we were fattened up to be eaten, genetically modified so as to produce copious amounts of milk and then milked daily, we would call this an extremely disutile existence. Being “free range” would be no significant salve. A death camp is a death camp, whether you are in a small cell or a big one.

And what is the condition of an animal that is not being farmed? What of animals in the wild? Would you like to be a wild animal? In science fiction and fantasy, people often play around with the idea of assuming animal forms, or transforming into animals. But in the real world, being an animal is not particularly fun. Most animals live in constant fear of being viciously attacked and eaten, dying of thirst, starvation, disease, freezing to death, heatstroke, getting hit by cars, getting shot at by hunters or poachers, you get the picture. A sheep that escapes its pen must now worry about wolves and foxes. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The only way we justify all of this, that we claim that animals have happy lives, is on the basis that they are not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the indignity with which they live. We ourselves would never choose to live in the conditions that wild animals live in, but we permit them to do it even though they are equipped more poorly than we are for the task. Your average human being in the wild can build a fire, make a shelter, make tools, outsmart predators, and so on. This is why human beings got out of the wild in the first place. Your average animal cannot do these things. Leaving your average animal to fend for itself in the wild is not all that different from leaving a deeply mentally  disabled person in the wild. We would very likely call that cruelty, would we not? And as we have learned in our biology classes, most animals live in a food chain, a food web. They exist to be consumed. If we are not farming them, predators, in a much less organised way, are. And as for those predators themselves? They live day to day, on the verge of starvation if they are unsuccessful in obtaining a meal.

Many of us would even find living as one of our own pets demeaning or belittling. For most of human history, calling someone a “dog” or saying that someone “lives like a dog” has been a common insult.

The conclusion that the extinctionist draws from all of this is that the animals themselves live lives that are objectively not worth living, that they would be better off dead, and that, therefore, we are obliged to give them death, or at least sterilisation.

Now, I don’t consider myself under any obligation to accept any of the argument I have presented to this point, because I reject the other assumption this argument implies:

We have moral duties to non-reciprocating animals.

Much of my moral theory is about reciprocity and the belief that in order for us to have duties to a being, that being has to be part of our moral community, i.e. it has (or will soon have, in the case of children) the capacity to have and honour moral obligations to us. If animals do not contribute to our society and do not have the potential to do so, then we do not have duties to them, and if we do not have duties to them, then we can have no duty to bring about their extinction for their own benefit. Given that many of us enjoy eating animals, our utility is sufficient to deny animals extinction. I’ve made the reciprocity argument in reference to animals before. So if you agree with me on the necessity of being a current or potential contributor, does the extinctionist have any more moves left?

There is one that comes to mind.

It takes more food to keep a cow running than it does to keep a person running. Insofar as there is scarcity of food resources, choosing to increase the cow population reduces the human population, thereby diminishing the number of potential human contributors to our society.

However, if food scarcity is not a significant problem, if the real problem is food distribution (and I have compelling evidence that this is so), then making more cattle does not necessarily result in making fewer people. There is no outright food scarcity, so that argument in turn collapses.

If, however, you do not agree with my thoughts on reciprocity or food security, I put the question to you–why aren’t you an extinctionist?