Why Should the Human Species Survive?
Someone here repeated a comment I have heard many times in my conversations with atheists and others—that people ought to live their lives for the common good of humanity so that the human species may survive.
Backing up to my previous blog post for a moment. I argued there that meaning and morality depend on there being some transcendent ground. That is, if there is no God or anything like God, then there can be no objective meaning and no objective morality—other than what human individuals and societies create on their own.
For me, this is not enough grounding for meaning and morality (existence of right and wrong).
Many non-theists (and some theists) argue that a transcendent creator-being such as God is not necessary for morality because we human beings have an innate, intuitive awareness that promoting the common good of humanity is good because it promotes the survival and flourishing of the human species.
What I wonder is whether, without something/someone transcendent like God there is anything special about the human species. We know that over the millennia of the existence of life on earth many species have died out, become extinct. People may mourn their loss because they value biodiversity, but why is biodiversity an objective good?
Nature’s law of life is the survival of the fittest. Inevitably some individuals of species and whole species will die out. What’s wrong with that? And more to the point, why is it anymore important, right, to promote the continuing existence and flourishing of the human species if there is nothing objective “special,” valuable about human beings—among the many life forms on earth—past and present?
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut famously said “We’re terrible animals. I think that the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should.” (I am not going to get into a debate with anyone here about whether Vonnegut really meant it or what. The statement here stands on its own because I agree with it—unless there is a God or something like God as I will explain.)
Human beings, as a whole species, has been destroying the earth and other species now for a long time. We know that. Like no other species. We human beings are the only species that has ever lived on earth that has damaged the environment and created the potential to destroy not only itself but all other species—and used that power in (so far) limited ways—whether accidentally (as at Chernobyl) or purposely (as at Hiroshima).
My point is that unless we human beings have some special significance assigned to us by a creator being who “rules” over all and is the “reservoir” of all goodness and the ground of all meaning and morality there is no objective reason to think it is an objective good (an “ought”) to promote the survival or flourishing of the whole human species or even of the species as a whole.
I, too, am a humanist. I belong the oldest “tribe” of humanists at least in the Western world—Christian humanism—expressed by Christian thinkers like Erasmus and Pascal. For all its faults and failings, the human species has higher dignity and worth and value than any other species even though part of that dignity, worth and value is the assignment to care for the earth, the environment in which we have been placed. What Christian theologians have called the imago dei, the image of God, mentioned in the Bible, is the ground of true humanism. Take it away (and I’m not talking about the precise term or language but the concept) and our claim that our survival and flourishing objectively matters—beyond mere self-interest—has no real ground or basis or foundation. It becomes sheer specieism.
What that means in practical terms is that without the ability to appeal to some special, transcendently assigned dignity and value, there really can be no reasonable argument that promoting the survival and flourishing of the human species is better than not promoting it. In other words, the claim that pursuing the common good of humanity is the right thing to do becomes a mere assertion without reason to support it. It becomes an expression of a personal, perhaps communal perspective but nothing more.
Recently I have viewed several documentaries about doctors and nurses who very willingly participated in the euthanasia program in Germany in the late 1930s. They believed it was best to help nature weed out the weak, the vulnerable, those judged to have no quality of life—by killing them. Most of the world now condemns that program and the people who participated in it. But why—if every human life’s dignity and value and worth is not grounded in something or someone transcendent who says so?
On the other hand, I have also watched documentaries about the people of the French village who sheltered Jews and others from being sent to concentration camps during WW2—at great risk to their lives. And I have studied the amazing Belgian village that has for many years taken in and taken care of people with severe mental diseases who cannot care for themselves. It is that village’s way of life—to shelter and care for people who might otherwise end up institutionalized if not homeless.
What makes the latter villages and their inhabitants’ costly actions objectively better than the German doctors and nurses who willingly participated in the euthanasia program there in the 1930s? There really can be no answer outside of appeal to a “higher law” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) than “man’s law.”
I have read Ethics without God by Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen and numerous other books and articles like it—attempts to demonstrate a purely natural and rational basis, grounding, reason for right and wrong without anything or anyone transcending nature. And yes, I know that some of these philosophers think that somehow humans ourselves have transcended nature, but they fail explain how that happened or even what that means. So what if we have somehow achieved consciousness of ourselves, awareness of our destiny, and even conscience? If those are only evolutionary adaptations of the human species, as one has to believe if nature is all there is, even if we have somehow transcended the rest of nature in certain ways, then we are still only ephemeral beings, an ephemeral and passing species, ultimately destined (probably) to die out, to become extinct or transform into something else. What we do in the meantime can only be a matter of social construction based on self-interest and cannot be based on a higher “law” or higher calling and assignment of special dignity, value and worth.
People here radically misunderstand me on a regular basis and I happen, personally, to think they are not thinking clearly. I have never said that atheists and secular humanists cannot be moral people, good people. All I have said before and now is that their worldview yields no objective reason why people should be moral, good people. That they choose to be says nothing about whether they ought to be.
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