The Origin of Extreme Ideas

By Xander Snyder

Recently, I had a conversation that disturbed me. Perhaps what was most disconcerting was that it was with someone who is extraordinarily intelligent and a successful expert in their field, conservation biology. After a few drinks, I was asked about how I think about morality (“what’s worth doing in life?”). My answer usually goes something like this:

“Priority 1: maintain the existence of intelligent life and human consciousness[1]. If we’re not around, there’s nothing to experience, so preventing stuff like nuclear Armageddon is a priority.

Priority 2: minimize suffering to a degree, but not explicitly at the expense of others. This makes me a modified utilitarian, because I believe roughly in the concept of maximizing utility (to the extent that utility is the opposite of suffering) but with some constraints. For example: in my framework you can’t kill one person to take 10 body parts to give to 10 different people who need them.

Priority 2 is extraordinarily important, but Priority 1 is slightly more important because we need to be here and have consciousness before we can attempt to place a value on that experience.”

I can already tell that you want to invite me to your cocktail parties.

This person responded by saying something like this: “Well, I agree with your Priority 2, but not necessarily Priority 1. Human beings are spreading like a virus on this planet, and maybe something like a nuclear war would be good for the planet on the whole. We’re abusing and destroying the planet anyways, so maybe we don’t deserve to stick around. It’d be like a big reset.” When I asked what exactly they meant by “the planet,”  they referred to the other forms of life that are on it, including the species of animal that they studied.

This took me by surprise. Nowadays you don’t run into too many people advocating for, or at least nonchalant about the prospect  of, a nuclear holocaust, especially if they have three letters after their name. Becoming an expert requires years of study, and focusing on something for so long understandably amplifies its significance.  But this conservation conversation[2]  was an example of how a compendium of knowledge in one specific field can be accumulated exclusive of a greater concern for humanity.

If someone thinks something is so important that it could be worth trading the lives of billions of people, does that make them an extremist? Maybe not, if it’s said un-seriously in passing, and will never be acted on. Nevertheless, uncompromising ideas like this can coexist in a scientist’s mind right alongside the commitment to an adherence to reason. Whatever it is about the nature of these sorts of destructive thoughts that allows them to coexist in a mind alongside intellectual acuity and expertise must surely be an aspect of extreme idea origination.

  1. Yes, I recognize that human consciousness and intelligent life are not the same thing, even just focusing on planet Earth. I’m just biased towards human experience particularly because I’m a human and therefore biased about it.

  2. Say that 10 times fast.