Work in progress
Simon Knutsson
First published May 8, 2022; substantial revisions December 16, 2022; minor revision December 17, 2022

Consider the view that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence. Or some related views such as that there are more important things than preventing human extinction. For someone with such a view, which acts that matter for human extinction are morally permissible? In other words, which paths to human extinction are morally permissible? This paper is only about some moderate acts, especially acts that involve priorities, risks, trade-offs, or weighing different considerations. I argue that many such acts are morally permissible. An example issue is how much resources should be spent on colonising space versus preventing gruesome violence that occurs nowadays. On this issue, it is plausibly permissible to argue that space colonisation should get less than it currently gets, while there should be more resources allocated to preventing violence. Another example is biotechnology. Some technologies might have great potential benefits, for instance, in terms of reduced illness or suffering, but perhaps there would be some risk that humanity goes extinct. People with different views on extinction might have different opinions on whether developing or using the technology is worth the risk. Being involved in decisions related to such biotechnology is plausibly permissible and might matter for extinction. These were just a few of the examples I will talk about. All in all, there seem to be many practically important and morally permissible acts related to extinction that involve standard acts such as communicating, being involved in decision-making, and working on research and development.

1 Introduction

The main starting point of this paper is the view that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence.[1] Reasons for that view can, for example, be the horrors that some humans suffer, the low quality of life of humans, the harm humans do to other beings, or the view that continued human existence increases the likelihood of worse outcomes. I am also concerned with the view that there are more important things than preventing human extinction, as well as the absence of a (strong) belief or opinion about whether extinction would be better or worse than continued existence.[2]

Consider someone with one of these views. What is it morally permissible for this person to do that matters for human extinction? I will argue that many such acts are morally permissible. These acts are also potentially practically important and realistic.

I am only concerned with moderate acts. What I mean by ‘moderate’ will hopefully become sufficiently clear as we go. For example, I have in mind standard policy decisions. I will focus on an especially interesting cluster of acts, namely acts that involve priorities, risks, trade-offs, or weighing different considerations. Policies, allocation of resources, and decisions often have pros and cons, many things can be important, and one’s view of human extinction might matter for, say, how to weigh considerations and what decisions to make. Here are a few simple examples related to space to illustrate what I have in mind: How much government resources should be spent on colonising space and on preventing asteroids and comets from hitting Earth? (E.g., Bennett 2010; Green 2019.) One argument for spending resources on such things is to prevent human extinction. But such resources are, in my view, better spent on other things such as preventing gruesome violence that occurs nowadays. The point is that a moderate, standard, seemingly morally permissible act that matters for human extinction is to argue about how much resources should be spent on things such as space colonisation. And one could similarly argue about regulations such as whether anyone should be allowed to colonise space.[3] We will talk more about different acts including in areas unrelated to space, but these examples should give a sense of where we are going.

My impression is that existing talk of bringing about human extinction tends to be simple and about dramatic or perhaps unrealistic actions. The two most common ideas seem to be to voluntarily not have children or to kill all humans.[4] Not having children as an individual is undramatic and realistic enough, and it might be considered obviously morally permissible. But it is a simple idea and childlessness at the scale that would lead to extinction might be considered unrealistic. This paper is not much about individual voluntary childlessness and not at all about killing everyone. Other ideas that I will not deal with include collective suicide (Heyd 1992, 60) and forced sterilisation via, for example, a virus that affects human reproduction (Nonvoluntary Antinatalism 2021; 2022).

What seems to be one of the most in-depth reasonings about bringing about human extinction can be found at the website (EAS n.d.).[5] I will now touch on some of the topics and acts mentioned there partly to provide more background on what has already been said and partly to explain some of the ways in which what I say is different. Regarding deflecting objects heading for Earth, the website talks about “putting resources to stop the deflection programs” (EAS 2015b) and says: “All these complex elaborate projects, aimed at securing this planet along with all its suffering, must be infiltrated by activists and sabotaged to de-rail the entire operation” (EAS 2015a). Putting resources to stop the deflection programs can be within the scope of this paper, depending on what one means. For example, the following is within the scope of this paper: spending resources such as labour on arguing that the deflection programmes should be stopped because the work, money, and attention allocated to those programmes would be better spent on other things such as preventing extreme violence. But this paper is not about infiltration or sabotage. The website also mentions research, advocacy, establishing a movement, and spreading “the vision of a world which is truly cruelty free” (EAS 2015a). At least some acts in the areas of research, advocacy, establishing a movement, and spreading a vision are within the scope of this paper; it depends on the details.

The thesis of this paper is boring compared to most of the ideas in the just-mentioned literature, and that’s on purpose. It seems colourful, dramatic acts have gotten more attention than the plain acts that this paper is about.

To delineate the topic of this paper further. Typical doomsday topics are war and weapons of mass destruction. One can imagine people with different views on extinction coming to different views on what should be done. I don’t mean deliberately nuking the planet with the hope that humans will go extinct. Here’s an example of what I mean. In the case of the ethics of the possession of nuclear weapons (e.g., van der Bruggen 2009; Bass 2020), two arguments for possession are self-defence and peaceful effects, and one argument against is the risk of human extinction (see, e.g., Martin 1984). Depending on how one weighs the risk of human extinction, one might come to different conclusions about, for instance, which entities should have nuclear weapons, and which kinds of and how many nuclear weapons they should have. One can also see how the consideration of extinction, and the reasons behind the view on extinction, can play a role in diplomacy, helping a country that is being invaded, and so on. For example, someone who is extremely concerned about avoiding extinction, for instance, to ensure that many beings in the future come into existence, might take a softer stance when it comes to helping a country that is under attack. War crimes and misery in one country might be more acceptable as long as the conflict does not escalate into something that leads to extinction. On the contrary, someone who counts the harms of extinction in terms of harm to existing beings but does not see it as (so) important that many beings come into existence in the future, might take a more confrontational stance because the risk of extinction does not carry the same weight to that person.

Other examples include biotechnology and nanotechnology. Some such technologies might have huge potential benefits, for instance, in terms of reduced illness or suffering. But perhaps there would be some risk that something could go wrong so that humanity goes extinct. People with different views on extinction might come to different views on whether developing or using the technology is worth the risk (see, e.g., Moen 2021, 321–23).

My argumentation in this paper has three parts. The first part is simple: Many relevant acts are plausibly permissible in general. They are widely considered permissible and there seems to be nothing inherently wrong with them. Here are some examples: Arguing for one’s opinion, communicating with others, and informing people. Publishing a book, a blog post, or an opinion piece. Being a civil servant, an elected official, a decision-maker, or an advisor to a decision-maker. Serving on an expert advisory board or working in research and development. Of course, some specific instances of these generally described acts might be wrong, for example, publishing a text with a death threat to a random person. But the acts are plausibly permissible in general in contrast to, say, bribery and dishonesty.

The second part of my argumentation is also simple: There is a range of other relevant acts that are carried out. For example, there are myriad ways in which people try to have influence.[6] These include lobbying, manipulation, secret agreements about exchanging favours, giving campaign contributions to political candidates, building relations with powerful and rich people to get influence, communicating in ways that strategically omit relevant information, and many other acts. In academia and philosophy, one can, for example, use money to get more citations and promote and suppress ideas, and one can misrepresent one’s accomplishments, reject papers for strategic reasons when one is a reviewer, favourise value-aligned students and help them become influential, and try to spread one’s moral views and values to students.[7] According to Millgram (2018, 138), “philosophy today is a thoroughly corrupt discipline”. I do not claim that any of these acts are morally permissible (in contrast to acts in the previous paragraph which seem permissible). My point will be conditional: we will talk about if some of these acts are permissible, then those acts are plausibly also permissible for the person with one of the views of extinction under consideration.

The third part of my argumentation is the most substantial and it will take up most of this paper: If any of the acts mentioned in the two preceding paragraphs are permissible for others, then they are plausibly also permissible for someone with the views on extinction in question, unless there is some reason why they are impermissible for these people in particular. I argue that there seems to be no such reason in general.

Before we turn to various acts and possible reasons why they would be impermissible, let’s get some preliminaries out of the way. My talk of things that matter for extinction and of paths to extinction is intentionally unclear. Are we talking about causing extinction, enabling it, increasing the likelihood of it, ignoring it, or something else? I will simply sidestep that complication and talk about the moral permissibility of various acts.[8] Whether the acts should be seen as paths to extinction, as causes of extinction or something else doesn’t matter much for our purposes. What matters is that they are related to extinction in some practically interesting way, and whether they are morally permissible.

This paper is about human extinction without replacement. In other words, the notion of extinction I have in mind is that there are no more humans, and humans are not replaced by new beings and have not evolved or changed into new beings.[9]

Here are a few more examples of issues where views on extinction might matter: Preemptive incarceration, censorship, surveillance, national sovereignty, and using force as a countermeasure against an existential risk. Bostrom advocates reducing so-called existential risk. As Bostrom uses the phrase ‘existential risk’, the risk of human extinction need not be an existential risk, and things other than the risk of human extinction can be existential risks. Still, there is an overlap between existential risk and the risk of human extinction. Bostrom (2019, 464, 466) mentions “preemptive incarceration” and censorship, and that “the entire world population could be continuously monitored”. Bostrom (2002) also says that “Respect for national sovereignty is not a legitimate excuse for failing to take countermeasures against a major existential risk.” He talks favourably about “a preemptive strike on a sovereign nation” and “initiating force” (Bostrom 2002). He presumably floats these ideas because he finds existential risk reduction so important that the drawbacks of these ideas take the back seat. Someone with a different view on extinction might find these to be ideas bad and even alarming.

2 Potential reasons why the acts would be impermissible

The rest of this paper is about potential reasons why various acts would be impermissible for someone who thinks that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence. Or someone who has one of the aforementioned related views such as that there are more important things than preventing human extinction. Again, I will conclude that the reasons are overall weak, so the acts in question seem permissible.

The views and values themselves. The idea here would be that a reason why the acts we are talking about are impermissible is that there is something problematic about the values and views themselves. One can compare how racist and sadistic views are problematic and how acting based on such views can be considered morally wrong. To avoid misunderstandings, the views I am concerned with are not that extinction would be a good thing, and they are not about wanting humans to go extinct, longing for extinction, being glad about or gloating over the prospect of human extinction. Rather, they are views about what would be less bad, what is important, and the like. The basis for these views I find most appealing and defensible is about concern for others, especially those who are or would be really badly off. Such a basis is even admirable.

Aims and motives. Someone might say that the aims or motives of the person are problematic. According to the views I find sensible, human extinction is not an end in itself. And, of course, one need not be motivated by hatred, dislike, and so on. Rather, the weight given to human extinction including the lack of future humans is one of the presumably many considerations that go into a decision about what to do. It seems we here can get into complicated questions of intentions, foreseen versus intended consequences, and the like. Anyway, broadly speaking, the aims and motives the person can have seem permissible partly because they need not aim specifically for extinction; it can merely be that the prospect of extinction has less weight in a given decision. And the ultimate aim and motivation can be something like a less bad future.

Dangerous ideas. Someone might say that the views on extinction discussed in this paper are dangerous and that arguing for them, talking about them, and the like is dangerous. But the ideas don’t seem to stand out as being dangerous compared to other ideas. All sorts of ideas can be considered dangerous in various ways. For example, the idea that humanity ought to be preserved is dangerous to those beings who would come into existence and experience all sorts of horrors. And the idea that the preservation of humanity should get more resources and attention is dangerous in the sense that it might take away resources and attention from current evils such as human trafficking involving violence. The idea that various beings are not sentient is dangerous to those beings if they are sentient and the idea leads to disregard for them. Favourable talk of consequentialism or utilitarianism can also be dangerous by leading to people using dangerous means for the greater good. And similarly with favourable talk of the rightness of killing or dangerous behaviour (e.g., Bostrom’s talk above about preemptive incarceration and initiating force).

Infiltration and secrecy. Someone might say that the people in question being involved in, for example, decision-making that matters for extinction amounts to infiltration. EAS (2015a) does speak about infiltration. But there need not be any infiltration. One reason is that there need not be any secrecy, surreptitiousness, misrepresentation, or improper means involved. Based on the Collins English Dictionary (2009), it seems that a part of infiltration is secrecy, stealth, or surreptitiousness. In that dictionary, the two relevant passages under ‘infiltrate’ say “military to pass undetected through (an enemy-held line or position)” and “to gain or cause to gain entrance or access surreptitiously: they infiltrated the party structure”. And the entry on surreptitious says “done, acquired, etc. in secret or by improper means”, “operating in stealth”, and “characterized by fraud or misrepresentation of the truth”. As I have hopefully conveyed, the views, aims, and the like that I have in mind are permissible (they can even be admirable), and they need not be hidden or misrepresented. And there need not be any use of improper means; I am talking about standard practices that occur across the world all the time.

Influencing issues in specific directions. There are seemingly many issues that might matter for human extinction where people advocate from different sides. The claim here against the permissibility of the acts presented in this paper is the claim that it is permissible to try to influence various issues in some directions but not in others, and, in particular, not in the directions that would fit the person with the views of extinction in question. Whether this is a plausible claim presumably depends on the details of the issue and in which direction it is influenced. But the following are some general remarks: It seems the playing field in open societies is that people may advocate for different sides on different issues—even those with global impact, those that concern death, species extinction, and so on. Of course, this may not hold in dictatorships and totalitarian societies. But assuming some standard ideas about freedom of speech, diversity of allowed political opinions, and the like, it seems one would need a reason why influencing an issue in a specific direction is impermissible. It seems especially plausible that it is morally permissible to influence different sides on an issue when it is a matter of balancing different broadly reasonable concerns. It may not be obvious in which direction it is best to influence an issue, but it seems those with the views on extinction discussed in this paper are morally permitted to influence issues in the directions they judge to be best, generally speaking. Of course, there is a difference between holding that someone has a mistaken opinion on an issue versus holding that it is morally impermissible for that person to express that opinion or try to influence affairs in ways they hold to be right. Sure, even in open societies, there are limits to freedom of speech and the like, but those are seemingly different from what we are talking about in this paper. Also, the objection discussed here may not show that there is something especially impermissible about the acts of those with the views on extinction in question. That is, those who advocate on the purportedly wrong side of the issue are doing something impermissible, not merely those with the views on extinction under consideration.

Extremism. An allegation of extremism is perhaps too muddled to even talk about, but let’s try. Consulting again the Collins English Dictionary (2009), it mainly says the following under ‘extremist’: “a person who favours or resorts to immoderate, uncompromising, or fanatical methods or behaviour, esp in being politically radical”, and “of, relating to, or characterized by immoderate or excessive actions, opinions, etc”. The methods and acts I have talked about are presumably not extremist. They are standard such as publishing a book or being a part of normal decision-making. And the methods and behaviours don’t need to be uncompromising or fanatical. And merely being uncompromising is seemingly common among people with all sorts of different views and not enough to qualify as extremist. Are the views or opinions extremist? Based on the just-mentioned dictionary, I guess we would ask whether they are immoderate or excessive. It can’t be sufficient to establish that the views in question represent a minority opinion because that’s hardly a serious objection to any view, and ‘excessive’ seemingly conveys that something is too much. But even if the views under consideration were implausible, that doesn’t make them extremist in some meaningful way. And in terms of the prevalence of the views, there is a scholarly tradition arguing that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence (and other views such as that human extinction is morally unobjectionable, desirable, and preferable).[10] And the following views I am concerned with should be more common: the view that there are more important things than preventing human extinction and having no (strong) belief or opinion about whether extinction would be better or worse than continued existence. Sensible reasons for any of the just-mentioned views seem fairly common. For example, the Asymmetry in population ethics and suffering having special importance are seemingly talked about as common views.[11] And factual views about the future with and without humans such as humans’ effects on humans, other beings, and the planet. Or what the future has in store given climate change, the larger number of animals harmed, loss of biodiversity, conflicts, more powerful weapons, more excruciating torture methods, increase in violence, surveillance, totalitarian societies, etc. (e.g., Dwyer and Micale 2021). But, regardless of the prevalence of the views on extinction and the different reasons for them, even if a view is only held by one person, it doesn’t make it extremist in a sense that would make it morally impermissible. Prevalence seems irrelevant for moral permissibility (with some caveats related to, e.g., the democratic representation that we will get to below). All in all, an appeal to extremism in our context looks to be both unclear and weak.

Democracy and representation. This topic has several subtopics. One subtopic is what people want. This is relevant assuming that government actions should, to some extent, reflect the wishes and values of the population. According to Vinding (2022), “it appears that the views of population ethics held by the general population also, on average, imply a priority on preventing futures with large numbers of miserable beings”, as opposed to creating very large future populations with high welfare. A second subtopic is to what extent some efforts to prevent human extinction amount to illegitimate special interests. For example, the book The Doomsday Lobby says that

media-savvy seekers of federal funds are currently using the science-fiction-like threat of killer comets and asteroids — fanciful doomsday scenarios of DEATH FROM THE SKIES! — to secure funding for favored astronomy projects. (Bennett 2010, 2)

A third subtopic is to what extent people in government are supposed to act in ways that purely reflect the wishes of the population versus making their own decision based on what they think is best. For example, civil servants, military personnel, and elected officials. Insofar as such people have some moral leeway, there is more room for permissible actions even if they would deviate from what the public wants.

Finally, we can note that ideas about democracy and representation seem less applicable to corporations, non-governmental organisations, individuals simply writing something, and expert advisors to people in government. So, even if considerations of democracy and representation would limit what is permissible to do in government, there are plenty of areas outside of government where such considerations seem less relevant.

Professional duties. An interesting topic is particular professional roles. For example, being employed to monitor asteroids and comets to prevent them from hitting Earth. One could argue that there is no moral room in that role to follow one’s moral view and, say, allow something to hit Earth. Sure, but it is less convincing that it is impermissible for someone with the views on extinction in question to have such a job. Yes, one could argue that there is a tension between, say, holding the view that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence, and working with something that is partly meant to prevent human extinction. On the other hand, the employee might respond: ‘I need a job, this pays the bills, and I am doing my job as I am supposed to; I’m not doing anything wrong’. Anyway, monitoring asteroids is a rather far-fetched example. What about being a member of a parliament, a leader in a ministry or department of defence, or an expert on risk assessment? All sorts of research and development roles? And many other roles. It seems that countless roles can matter for extinction, where, say, decisions and communication involve weighing considerations, and where the views on extinction I am concerned with are compatible with the duties in those roles.

3 Concluding remarks

We started with the view that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence, and other views such as the view that there are more important things than preventing human extinction. We asked what would be morally permissible for someone with such a view to do that matters for human extinction. The reasoning in this paper has essentially been the following: There are plausibly plenty of morally permissible standard things that the people in question could do. These include publishing texts, working in government, being an advisor, or working in research and development. Other widespread acts are more morally dubious such as different forms of lobbying and myriad ways to try to have influence. I did not claim such acts are permissible; instead, my claim was conditional: if such acts are permissible for others, they seem to be permissible also for the people with the views on extinction we are concerned with. In general, whether the acts under consideration are generally permissible, such as publishing a book, or dubious (or clearly impermissible), such as different forms of influence activities, there seems to be no feature of the extinction-related views or acts in question that would make them impermissible. So, again, there seem to be plenty of morally permissible moderate acts that matter for human extinction.[12]


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[1] Benatar (2006, 194) speaks in similar terms: “My arguments … imply that it would be better if humans (and other species) became extinct.” Crisp (2021) and Glannon (2021) also speak in value terms such as ‘value’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, or ‘worse’. And there are related views stated in value terms that are not explicitly about extinction such as the following statement by Bergström (2022): “Surely, one must say that human existence, on the whole, contains significantly more evil than good. And that it is thus, as a whole, evil, something that has negative value in itself.” And Mendola (2006, 269) says that “our real world is in fact worse than nothing.” And there is Hermann Vetter’s comment in Weingartner and Zecha (1970, 368): “mankind might be extinguished. I do not think this is one of the greatest evils we are confronted with. If mankind were extinguished by a nuclear war, the real evil in my opinion would be the way the extinction would take place: there would be so much terrible suffering for so many people before they die that this is a tremendous evil. But if mankind were completely extinguished in a millionth of a second without any suffering imposed on anybody, I should not consider this as an evil, but rather as the attainment of Nirvana.” Thanks to Émile P. Torres for making me aware of this passage by Vetter.

[2] The are other views about human extinction that could be within the scope of this paper. I set them aside to focus, but one can see how my points can be applied to them. For example, the views that human extinction is morally unobjectionable, desirable, and preferable, and the view that planned extinction would be rational. According to Tännsjö (2021), “there is a strong tradition within Western philosophy arguing that, given our human predicament, the coming to an end of humanity is morally unobjectionable or even desirable”. About Japanese sources, Morioka (2021, 26) says: ‘As far as I know, the first scholar who discussed the planned extinction of the human race was Kazuyuki Kobayashi. He argued in his 1999 paper “Is Our Future Valuable?: A Strategy for Extinction” that the planned extinction would be a rational alternative for us’. According to Moen (2021), “On Zapffe’s view, however, human life (without enhancement) is so bad that extinction is preferable to prolonged human existence.” I am concerned with views, beliefs, and the like rather than wishes. Beiser (2016, 254) writes that “Bahnsen still praises Hartmann as a fellow pessimist, someone who also heartily wishes for the end of the world.” See also, e.g., Leslie (1996, 172, 184), von Wright (1997, 175), and Crisp’s (2021) quote of Bernard Williams: “[I]f for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of [the suffering in the world] … and we really guided our actions by it, then surely we would annihilate the planet if we could”.

[3] One can compare, e.g.,

[4] See, e.g., Zandbergen (2021, 272), Torres (2018), Hedenius (1955, 101–5), Heyd (1992, 60), VHEMT (n.d.) and EAS (n.d.). Regarding Zapffe, the following might be a useful resource:

[5] I use ‘EAS’ as the author for the texts on this website. Various words and phrases are used on the website such as ‘EAS’, ‘E.A.S.’, ‘the End All Suffering movement’, and ‘admin’.

[6] See, e.g., Oliver and Cairney (2019), Draper (2019), Bennett (2010, chaps 5–6), Rios Rojas, Richards, and Rhodes (2021), Thomson and John (2007), Harris and McGrath (2012), and Knutsson (2019).

[7] For example, according to Millgram (2018, 153): “Academics spend a good deal of time reviewing one another’s work; when referee reports enforce a party line, they are corrupt.” And “citations are too often tit-for-tat arrangements, attempts to curry favor with those higher in the pecking order, or a means of placating potential reviewers. To engage in or to overlook these little dishonesties is to be a participant in the crass form of corruption that pervades academic philosophy today” (Millgram 2018, 154).

[8] Here is an illustration of the complications of talking about, for example, causing extinction: If we were to talk about causing extinction, we could get into the issue of whether omissions can be causes (e.g., Sartorio 2009, 582; Beebee 2004). But regardless of whether some omission caused extinction or not, that doesn’t seem to help us much in determining whether various acts are morally permissible, as long as we know the other facts about the acts.

[9] Shiller (2017) “argued that we should engineer our extinction so that our planet’s resources can be devoted to making artificial creatures with better lives” but that is not my concern. The following indirect or uncertain replacements are within the scope of my paper: if humans no longer exist, humans or something similar might evolve or be created again much later and humans might be replaced by wild animals partly because there is more habitat for them. See Torres (forthcoming, chap. 7) on different notions of extinction.

[10] See notes 1 and 2.

[11] E.g., Griffin (1979, 47): ‘Karl Popper, I believe, has answered for the majority. “There is, from the ethical point of view”, he has said, “no symmetry between suffering and happiness. . . . Human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway. . . . Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all.”’ See also Vinding (2022).

[12] I am grateful to Gustaf Arrhenius and Krister Bykvist for their thoughts on an earlier version of this paper.


Permissible moderate paths to human extinction