A Useless Passion

Albert Camus famously said that the most important question in philosophy is whether or not to commit suicide. He posed this problem because he saw humans as inhabiting a hostile, meaningless universe, all the while spending their lives seeking meaning. Thus, human existence is absurd.

I think it’s reasonable to expand this problem of the irreconcilable division of a meaningless universe and the human need for meaning to society and humankind as a whole. Everything we believe is important now will become obsolete. Countries will be toppled, fade away, or change so much as to be unrecognizable, making patriotism fleeting and vain. Family lines will be diluted, making our genetic inheritance effectively disappear. Even if your religion never dies (which it likely will at some point, but for the sake of argument) it will be changed and altered by shifting cultural mores and new discoveries to a point where it will be unrecognizable to you. Ideas and customs we hold dear now might be lost to history, or even be seen as reprehensible by our descendants.

These are things to consider, but I’m interested in a slightly different problem when it comes to humanity as a whole. This is the irreconcilable division between humankind’s penchant for inhumanity to other humans and our desire to strive for a greater ethical philosophy.

The problem of evil is a theological question that, as far as I am concerned, has yet to be answered satisfactorily. However, secular humanism has the same problem: if humans are capable of evil, is the whole human enterprise worth preserving? Or should we, in Camus’ terms, commit societal suicide?

Christianity holds that humans are imperfect and sinful, but there is something intrinsically worthwhile about trying to be better humans. And our humanism or inhumanity will be judged in the afterlife. There are issues with this, of course. It means that suffering is necessary such that it allows others to be “good people” by exercising their generosity on the less fortunate, making some people a means to an end. It also doesn’t address the issue of people suffering and/or dying before they are able to acquire conceptions of good and evil, virtue and sin, God and humanity. I could go on about sticky issues with deontology and consequentialism as well, but lets just say for the sake of argument that we are looking at humanity independent of religion.

So, what is societal suicide? It is a fairly standard sci-fi trope that a superintelligent Artificial Intelligence may determine that humanity is better off not existing – this would eradicate the existence of suffering along with humanity. The logic is that humankind is irredeemable – our behavior will tend towards violence and suffering, regardless what systems are put in place to prevent this. If there are no humans around to suffer or to cause suffering, then suffering will be eradicated. Therefore, instead of trying to “fix” humanity, simply get rid of it like a rabid dog. Of course, in these stories, the plucky humans will show that humanity is worth preserving because of art, beauty, love, etc. This may be so, although that could be debatable. However, if this is true now, it will not necessarily always be the case. We may not have a superintelligent AI that can pass judgement on us, but it is possible for us to commit suicide on a species-wide scale. While the question of “who gets to make the decision to do it” is a fascinating one, here I am mostly interested in whether it should be done or not.

Camus’ answer to the question of suicide was to be happy in the face of absurdity. To become a sort of absurd hero, that can understand our situation and still be happy. Is this the solution to humanity’s issues? It may work on an individual level, at least for some people, but what would it even mean for humanity to be happy in the face of its own absurdity, as I have defined it above?

I posit that humankind does not need to become an absurd hero. Instead, humankind can change itself. Problems with humanity can be traced back down to individual human nature. What if that nature could be changed for the better? Would that not be an ethical step to take? Is there something intrinsically good about being human in the sense that we are human now? I think if history can teach us anything, it is that humanity, as it exists now, is a useless passion. If our behavior can’t be changed, then perhaps our nature ought to be.