07/24/2013 09:59 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

The Extinction Paradox

Suppose we damage the planet, as we certainly seem to be doing. It seems uncontroversial to say that in doing so we wrong future generations. But suppose we damage the planet so much that there are no future generations. Suppose our actions cause the demise of our species. Then whom have we wronged? "Obvious" you might say, "we have wronged those that would have been. We have denied them existence!" But that can't be right. If it was we would have to say that potential people can be wronged. And there are a lot of potential people! We deny them existence every time we fail to exercise the opportunity to reproduce. But few, if any, would claim we have an obligation to do so. And those that do don't make it matter of an obligation to our potential children.

But if this is right then damaging the planet a bit is bad but damaging it a lot is not! That can't be right. But saying what is wrong with the argument is not as easy as it might seem. You might say this: "Even though potential people don't have rights, we do good by giving them life and so destroying the planet denies that good." But that we may do good by having children does not create an obligation for us to have children. We don't think of it as selfish to choose not to have children even if doing so would produce good.

"Well what about Nature?" you might say. "Don't we owe it something?" Most people think that people have rights. What they disagree about is who or what counts as a person. Some worry about fetuses. Others worry about (some) animals other than humans. Still others (mainly philosophers) worry about computers of the future. But the idea that Nature has rights forces us to think about rights beyond people, as some tried to do at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in Bolivia a few years ago, declaring that "The inherent rights of Mother Earth are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence."

But I want to be philosophically hard-nosed. Just what are these "inherent rights"? Evolution is amoral in the way winners and losers are selected, as are physical processes, like volcanoes and asteroids. "OK forget the rights talk" you may say, "let's just talk about the good as we wantonly wreak destruction in the world". Now I am going to be even more hard-nosed. Just what is the "good" at stake here? Suppose a virus arose that took over the world. It wreaked havoc and destruction causing extinction of most other species before finally succumbing to its own Malthusian excess. It changed the world, but did it do so for the worse? Just how do we cash in this notion? It was not for the worse by the virus' lights, even if it was by the lights of others. But here is the crux of the matter, we have no non-relativist notion of the good to appeal to.

Our philosophical challenge is then this: without a theory of rights for Nature or an inherent theory of the good, making sense of what is wrong with our destructive behavior is hard to do. That is not a plea to give up, but a call for us to think harder.