Generally speaking, I try to avoid news. The reason is that any given day of the news cycle is bound to deteriorate one’s opinion of the human race. Case in point – A Huffington Post article earlier this week reported on something you’re more likely to read on The Onion’s home page: “Coal Rolling.” According to the article, which I cannot decide is real or fake though if it were real I would not be surprised, “Some truck enthusiasts are intentionally producing copious amounts of diesel exhaust, spewing black smoke into the air as a form of political protest…[truck enthusiasts] can spend thousands of dollars altering their rides to produce ever greater amounts of smoke.” This news item, along with the volumes of other news items that bespeak the evil that men do, left me at my most misanthropic. While I am well aware that the news agencies do their best to promote the worst humanity has to offer as ‘news,’ that by itself does not mean there aren’t a lot of people out there unworthy of their lives. Or are they?
The question reminds me of something a Cylon said in the 2004-2009 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica of the Sci-Fi Network. When Commander Adama asks his captured cylon why the cylons hate humans so much, the cylon – Boomer – replies, “I don't know if 'hate' is the right word...You said, 'Man never asked itself why it should survive.' Maybe you don't.” Unfortunately, the show didn’t do much to explore this bit of dialogue, but I think about it sometimes. Does humanity deserve to survive? What, if anything, makes human beings worthy of existence?
In answering these questions, we have to first consider whether these questions are non-starters. We should be sure these questions are not like the invention of the word ‘intelligence’ and then applying to ourselves; if any one of us are our own judge of intelligence, well, any intelligent person knows that certain biases are going to come into play and we’re likely to view ourselves favorably. It’s akin to me coming up with the word ‘gandalboff’ – meaning “he who is without equal” – and applying it to myself because no other person, much less a lesser animal, came up with it. Can we actually be deserving by our own standards?* Also, we should also consider the usage of ‘worthiness’ or ‘deserving’ as it relates to being human. That is, to be deserving means you take actions in order to gain a reward while being human is simply something one does as one had no choice in being born. Ultimately, it appears as though to ask if human beings are worthy or deserving of existence isn’t a valid question. [* - I will not play into the hands of theists by supposing the standards for deserving one’s existence lie with some sort of a Creator who’s rules we can’t know aren’t arbitrary.]
But let’s assume for now that there is some sort of baseline by which people are judged worthy of existence since we do the same for intelligence. What is it about people deemed worthy of existence that makes them exactly that? We cannot say that merely being born makes one deserving since being born is not something a person has a choice in doing. (Sorry, Humanists.) One might assume the viewpoint that to be deserving means one is carrying on with life despite the absurd life they were forced into. One could euthanize themselves, but the fact that any given person does not implies they think they are worthy of existence. That, or they simply do not think about it and instead operate on the survival instinct, which by-the-way again implies that for us to ask if we are worthy or deserving of life is not a valid question. But let’s return to asking for that baseline since we’re going to ask the question anyway. The baseline we are looking for should be clarified, though, meaning we’re looking for a subjective baseline from which we consider ourselves worthy because other people deem us worthy. (There is no objective baseline when dealing with more than one person. Without other persons with which to compare one’s self to, the question of being worthy of existence is moot.)
It seems as though the characteristics that are not culturally relative when it comes to defining what constitutes a good person (‘good’ in the sense that the person is worthy of their life) include compassion, humility, trustworthiness, being responsible, and caring for and sharing with persons beyond one’s cultural circle. [Notice I did not include ‘intelligence.’ Many evil people are intelligent thus this cannot be a quality of a good person. ‘Being moral’ is also not included as morality is culturally relative.] A person need not possess all of these traits, but the more of these traits they possess, the more that person is viewed as a good human being even by people they may have relatively little in common with. For example, a devout Muslim may sense these qualities in a devout Jew and despite years of cultural conflict, may nonetheless view the individual Jew as a good person. We certainly look upon people with the traits opposite of the ones mentioned as bad people or even evil, thus, characteristics such as arrogance or indifference are also not culturally relative when judging who is worthy of existence.
But why the traits I mention and not others? Ultimately, the answer comes down to survival of the species. Compared to other animals, human beings are weak and it was only through qualities such as compassion that individuals were able to cooperate and overcome limitations of physicality and organize socially. It is our level of cooperation, not mere intelligence / problem solving that allowed human beings to dominate the planet. The qualities of a good or worthy person are those qualities that maintain control over our basic instincts or altogether supersede our negative (non-communal survival) tendencies. If, collectively, we begin acting with more of the negative traits, the traits associated with bad people, we risk our collective survival. In the case of the “coal rollers” mentioned at the beginning of this piece, their desire to pollute – even of global warming were not real – risks the health of people in their community. Even if their pollution were targeting people they dislike in order to get rid of those people, they’d still be risking their own survival by limiting the gene pool they participate in. (Genetic variety is one of humanity’s leading defenses against catastrophic disease.) The actions of these “coal rollers” indicate some of the worst human traits; pettiness, vengeance, and the desire to have power over others.
If an individual is going to ask themselves if they are worthy of existence, they have to ask if they possess enough of the afore mentioned qualities (or act with those qualities in mind) to answer in the affirmative. If a group, say, the entire human race, were to ask itself if it is worthy or deserving of existence, it has to ask itself if collectively it possesses enough of the requisite characteristic to answer positively. At first glance, though, it doesn’t look to me as if humanity is much deserving of its existence, not when so many people regularly act without regard for others or act kindly only towards members of its own group, willingly uses irrational arguments to manipulate other people, knowingly pollutes and poisons the environment, murders, rapes, and robs without fear of reprisal, etc., etc. It is possible more people in general are deserving of life in terms of what I’ve laid out here than there are not, but the next question becomes, how exactly would we know we are no longer worthy of existence? I believe most of us willfully ignore this question for fear of the answer. We may be ignoring this question at our peril. Ignoring this question certainly does not make us worthy of existence.