Picture a barren winter landscape with not a person in sight. You might find it hard not to mitigate the desolation by imagining, perhaps on the outskirts of that expanse of snow and bare trees, a cabin with smoke emanating from its chimney, thus indicating that this hypothetical absence of humanity is only partial, that all is not lost for us. We recoil from the thought of a universe with absolutely no human beings in it; more precisely, what bothers us is the thought that there might be a time after humankind. This is to say that we can tolerate reflecting on the time before human history and even on the age of Earth before the rise of mammals, since we know in the back of our minds that those ancient periods laid out the conditions for our emergence; moreover, we can even ponder the lifeless void, the billions upon billions of star systems that currently have no inhabited planets, because we know that simultaneously there’s this one planet that we call home. But try imagining our universe as it would have been had humans never evolved or else picture our planet after the apocalyptic end of our species. No cabin on the outskirts and no potential for our reemergence; no hope for our eventual triumph, but just the final end, the last breath and the last heartbeat before the universe soldiers on without us and the tree still falls with no one to hear it.
There’s a group of people who, for moral reasons, would actually prefer a world with no people in it. They even have a strategy for bringing that world about: we should cease procreating so that we intentionally die out as a species. These grim folks are called antinatalists, “antinatalism” meaning the opposition to human birth. There are roughly two kinds of antinatalism (AN), what I’ll call the misanthropic and the compassionate kinds. Both kinds prescribe the termination of human life by stopping the procreative replenishment of our species. But while the misanthropic antinatalist is motivated by contempt for human nature, the compassionate sort is opposed to suffering and thus takes the suicide of our species to be only a dire means towards the elimination of that mental state. (Compassionate antinatalists are often called “philanthropic,” but this is a confusing name, since although the Greek roots of that word mean love of people, the English word implies a concern for human advancement, whereas an antinatalist’s compassion is perfectly tragic.) Moreover, both kinds of AN have a moral defense: the misanthrope wants to extinguish humans because of our wickedness or our morally significant deficiencies, while the lover of people wants to eliminate, once and for all, the evil of human suffering.
An Arch-Villain’s Doomsday Scheme
You’re likely already familiar with the outlook of misanthropic AN, from comic books and pulp science fiction: the cartoon super-villain is a classic misanthrope, or hater of humans, often building a doomsday weapon to destroy humankind, leaving himself as the planet’s sole possessor. But the cartoon villain typically allows his plan to be foiled, whether by hiring buffoons for henchmen or by giving away the details of his plan to the hero in a gratuitous monologue, to fulfill the subtextual logic of sadomasochism: the dominator needs victims to satisfy his sadistic impulses, so to finally kill off all weaklings and rivals, by way of a sadistic frenzy, is to err on sadistic grounds. Sadism is a form of parasitism. But the misanthropic antinatalist isn’t sadistic; instead, she’s opposed to human nature and thus to all people including herself. Thus, the misanthrope would participate in her scheme by not sexually reproducing, as opposed to hiding her children in the last generation so that they could inherit the world. Mind you, the sadist too, after cleansing the planet of everyone else, would likely commit suicide for having foolishly failed to maintain the parasitic ideal of sadism. Indeed, the misanthrope and the cartoon villain have much else in common, especially if the super-villain justifies his actions by regarding himself as superhuman: both have contempt for humans in general, both have a plan for our extinction, and although the misanthropic antinatalist’s plan isn’t particularly invasive, the misanthrope needn’t be merely an antinatalist. That is, if you think all human beings are depraved and worthy of death, you needn’t tiptoe around the issue by, say, writing pamphlets to convince people to hate themselves, to doubt the chance of human progress, and thus to refrain from procreating; instead, you might take the bull by the horns and devise a coercive doomsday scenario. After all, if people are evil or so myopic that we lack the right to propagate our species, our freedom and rationality needn’t be respected.