Peter Singer shares with his readers a wide variety of areas where individuals can focus in an attempt to make donations of time, effort, or money with a goal of helping the world move in a positive direction in his book The Most Good You Can Do. He discusses donations to individuals in poverty in the developing world, donations to political advocacy organizations, and even donations meant to prevent human extinction through global (usually man made) crisis. Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer makes an effort to quantify the benefit and the return on investment of directing donations and efforts toward various causes.
When writing about the preservation of the human species through donations meant to prevent our extinction Singer states, “The universe is so vast and so sparsely inhabited with intelligent life that the extinction of intelligent life originating on Earth would not leave a niche likely to be filled anytime soon, and so it is likely to reduce very substantially the number of intelligent beings who would ever live.” By taking this view Singer is elevating the importance of the role of humanity in the universe and justifying any effort made to protect our species and the lives of humans into the future. He is advocating that we fill a special spot in the universe because we are the only intelligent life that we have been able to detect in the surrounding areas of our galaxy which we can study at this point. For Singer, there is an intrinsic value in human life simply because we exist and will exist into the (at the least very near) future.
For me, the quote above makes me question Earth’s value. The vast space and time of the universe is on a scale so large that it is hard or possibly impossible for any individual to fully encompass. On an episode of the podcast Startalk, Neil De Grass Tyson once said, “Think about a beach full of sand, and for every grain of sand on the beach, we have more planets in the universe.” With that in mind I cannot imagine that the intelligent life on earth is truly as unique as we imagine we are. We simply have not been able to view life on another planet in the space near Earth that we can study. Throughout the space-time of the universe which operates at a different scale than what we perceive and comprehend on earth it is incredibly unlikely that life has not been quite abundant relative to our standards and experiences in studying the universe to this point.
In my mind, Singer’s view of humans importance in the Universe overinflated the value of humanity. By focusing and placing so much attention on intelligent life Singer also leaves out other species on this planet that play an incredible role but may not be considered intelligent relative to humans. I think our role even on Earth is less than that which Singer imagines. When human extinction does occur it will only be humans that truly suffer. Life will not suffer, as species will change and adapt and probably thrive with biodiversity returning to the planet in new ways. The universe will not miss a single species no matter how intelligent or dominant they are within their section of the universe. Life, and the continued organization of the randomness of the universe will continue to expand be it intelligent or not. I would therefor argue that providing for our continued existence as humans on this planet is less important than the improvement and elevated life quality of those who are currently living.