Ask Dr. Cobb

April 1999 Question

What is the value of the human race and should it be saved? This question is asked in view of the fact that our human population is destroying our own carrying capacity and bringing to extinction other life forms that are not less valuable than our own. Though human beings may be unique due to our advanced level of self-consciousness, does this uniqueness and all that it wrought outweigh the right for less sentient beings, our brothers and sisters, to have a habitat and simply exist?

Dr. Cobb's Response

At one level this question could be simply brushed aside as irrelevant.  The human race will not intentionally wipe itself out for the sake of other species, and there is probably no one who would seriously advocate doing so.  But at a deeper level, the question is very important. What is our justification for making our own survival and wellbeing as a species so central to all our acts and moral assertions? Does that justification
stand up to criticism?

Furthermore, there are ideas being seriously discussed in "deep-ecology" circles that, if taken straightforwardly, could easily lead to the conclusion that the moral thing would be the decimation if not the
obliteration of the human species. The fact that the propounders of the ideas do not draw the extreme conclusions does not render the ideas innocuous. History shows that ideas that seem very remote from practicality in one generation can be taken very seriously in another.

One such idea is the equality of all species. The principle is stated quite forcefully by a number of thinkers. Fortunately, none of them today draw their practical conclusions from that principle alone. For example,
some introduce the idea that every species rightly places its own interests first. But there are tensions between their qualifications and much else that they say. Suppose in another generation some people took the principle at face value and drew ethical conclusions from it. The question to which this essay is an answer would arise quite forcefully. If the wellbeing of the human species is no more important in the grand scheme of things that that of a species of beetle somewhere in the Amazon, and if the human species is responsible for the extinction of many species every year, then surely doing what we can to eliminate or at least greatly reduce the human population becomes our moral responsibility.

Realistically, it is very unlikely that the conclusion would be applied to those who adopt the principle. But it could greatly affect acts of the privileged and powerful toward others. If the privileged and powerful are
convinced that the human population should be reduced, this will reduce their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the survival of starving people in other parts of the world. Writing off certain peoples or countries, as proposed by the life-boat ethics, will come to seem moral.

The "land ethic" can also be formulated so as to lead to a similar result.  Normally it is directed precisely to human beings to guide our relation to the land. It calls on us to do what is needed for the health of the land.
But if our very presence in the land is what causes its deterioration, than the removal of that presence is the most moral response.

Process theologians share the conviction of the importance of biodiversity and the health of the land. But we do not formulate our basic principles in ways that could lead to the results noted above. We seek the greatest possible value in the whole scheme of things, ultimately as the whole exists in the life of God. We believe that all creatures individually contribute to the value of the whole, but that some contribute more than others. Of course, our ability to rank creatures in this respect is limited, but our conviction is that the experience of a dog is much richer than that of a flea. We believe it is not merely human prejudice, but also
objective fact, that the experience of a healthy human being is richer than that of the dog. We believe that if the wellbeing of the human species requires some loss of other species, that can be sadly accepted as part of the tragic character of existence. We do not greatly grieve over the eradication of certain bacteria whose chief function has been to cause human sickness and death. On the other hand, we do not deny that even
those bacteria have had intrinsic value, so that their disappearance also involves some loss. And when the question is about beetles and birds and mammals, the loss of value from their extermination is far greater.

A second principle is equally important to us. This is that diversity contribute to value. An experience is rich to the extent that it holds diversities in contrast. What makes human experience richer than that of the dog is that it is capable of holding more diversities in contrast. An important part of the diversity that enriches human experience is biodiversity. Hence, even for the sake of human value, the maintenance of biodiversity is important. The total value of other creatures is not just the addition of the value of each individual creature. This is supplemented by the contribution of the diversity to the richness of experience of other creatures, and especially of human beings.

This means that on the whole, the well-being of humanity and the well-being of other species are mutually supportive. For our own sake we need to adopt the land ethic and act with a view to maintaining biodiversity.  Deeply appreciating the intrinsic value of other creatures and their claim upon us helps us to check our tendency to define our human goods in narrowly economic terms. When we allow the latter to dominate, as at present, we sacrifice not only other creatures but also our own long-term and inclusive good to short-term gains for the rich. Our failure to oppose this now dominant policy is our greatest collective sin against ourselves, against other species, and against God.

Introducing God into our considerations undergirds the principles already given but also enlarges their application. One could argue from what has been said above that the loss of many species is unimportant. If one species is replaced by the expansion of another, so that the number of creatures of approximately equal individual value remains the same, and if the present number of such species far exceeds human imagination and appreciation, then there seems to be no reason to deplore this simplification of the biosphere. That is, if
the loss of a species does not reduce the total value of individuals, and if it has at most a trivial effect on the richness of human, or any other creature's, experience, it would be unimportant according to these

For process theology, however, there is One for whom the whole diversity does contribute to richness of experience. That One is God. The contrasts available to God's experience are reduced whenever one type of experience ceases to be. In comparison with what it could be, God's life is impoverished.

The emphasis on the value of diversity in process theology gives strong reasons for opposing human expansion at the expense of other species. It also heightens the distinctive importance of the human species. Of course, there is diversity within the experiences of members of other species. But
the diversity among human beings far exceeds that within any other species. One reason that in the human case we place so strong an emphasis on the distinctive value of each individual is that individuals differ so much from one another. Those differences contribute to the richness of experience of each human being. They contribute also to God. If we compare a world without human beings in which a larger number of species lived well with a world with human beings, the loss of diversity would be enormous. Even if the latter world had moderately less biodiversity than the former, the total diversity would be greater. Process theology
provides strong undergirding to a concern for human survival and flourishing.

The real questions for us have to do with proposing and supporting policies that will truly undergird human flourishing precisely by supporting the flourishing of other species. Such policies must deal not only with overcoming the primacy of economic measures but also with human population. Global population is already too large for universal human flourishing in a world in which other species also flourish. We must seek policies that stop population growth and eventually reduce human population, which do not themselves undercut the human dignity so essential to present flourishing. Excellent proposals, worthy of our support have been offered, at Cairo, for example. They do not go far enough, but even they are not being implemented.  

A major obstacle to adopting these policies and, even more, to considering more drastic ones is religious-philosophical. In the dominant Western traditions, the value of individual human life has been absolutized. The above paragraphs make clear that for process theology individual human life is of great value, but it is not absolute. Only if it is de-absolutized can the Cairo policies be adopted, and additional steps be taken.  The potential value of the fetus is great, but it must be weighed against other values in a context in which overpopulation is a serious problem. It is important that elderly persons be treated with great respect, but such respect does not entail denying them the right to a dignified death when life ceases to be a positive value for them. Allowing people to move freely across national boundaries is an excellent ideal, but when it prevents the adoption of population policies that are crucial for a desirable future, it must be restricted. These are hard choices, but the truth in the concerns underlying the question indicate that they are important ones. If we do not make hard choices now, we will be forced to make truly horrible ones later.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.