Friday, 11 May 2012

Robert Nozick and The End of Humanity

Many of you may be familiar with the philosopher Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State and Utopia, a book that rapidly became the libertarian bible after its publication in the 70s. The tone of that book is clear, unsentimental, and cold, while yet affirming the value of individuals and their choices. Imagine, then, my surprise when one day I was browsing around Amazon and came across a reader review of Nozick’s The Examined Life that mentioned his belief that the end of humanity would be no tragedy. I was intrigued enough to order the book and thought his reflections interesting enough to share here.

Before he address the issue of humanity’s status in the universe, Nozick offers a warning in a chapter discussing the necessity or otherwise of the world’s existence: 

We are aware of the warnings that one shouldn’t speculate about certain things, and how those people who do will realize it would have been better had they not been born.

You said it, Prof.

Nozick’s musings on humanity come in a chapter about the Holocaust. Although he never states explicitly if he is (was) a practicing Jew, Nozick views the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis as a unique event in human history whose special import cannot be denied.

I believe the Holocaust is an event like the Fall in the way traditional Christianity conceived it, something that radically and drastically alters the situation and status of humanity...Mankind has fallen.

It now would not be a special tragedy if humankind ended, if the human species were destroyed in atomic warfare or the earth passed through some special cloud that made it impossible for the species to continue reproducing itself. I do not mean that humanity deserves this to happen. Such an event would involve a multitude of individual tragedies and suffering, the pain and loss of life, and the loss of continuance and meaning which children would provide, so it would be wrong and monstrous for anyone to bring this about. What I mean is that [...] its loss would now be no special loss above and beyond the losses to the individuals involved. Humanity has lost its claim to continue.

In response to the criticism that mankind has been a savage creature throughout his long and distinguished career on Planet Earth and that the Holocaust was merely an extra-large dollop of normal human savagery, Nozick states

Perhaps what occurred is that the Holocaust sealed the situation, and made it patently clear.

[Humanity] no longer deserves not to be....If a being from another galaxy were to read our history, with all it contains, and that story were then to end in destruction, wouldn’t that bring the narrative to a satisfying close, like a chord resolving?

Nozick states that he is not a Christian, but declares that whatever meaning Christian teaching may once have had

The Holocaust closed the door that Christ opened.

Revealed religion is no longer enough (at least not Christianity; Nozick talks elsewhere in the book about Judaism, but never states explicitly his own beliefs regarding the ‘special status’ accorded to the Jewish people in the Old Testament). Instead we need to ask if humanity can redeem itself without divine aid:

Is there anything we can do by our behaviour over time, so that once again it would be a special and further tragedy if our species were to end or be destroyed?

Perhaps...we need to change our own nature, transforming ourselves into beings who are unhappy and suffer when others do, or at least into beings who suffer when we inflict suffering on others or cause them to suffer, or when we stand by and allow the infliction of suffering. This latter change, however it occurred, at least would cut down greatly on the amount of suffering humans inflict. Yet there is so much suffering in the world, if we were unhappy whenever others suffered for whatever reason, we would have to be unhappy all the time...

Perhaps it is only by suffering ourselves when any suffering is inflicted, or even when any is felt, that we can redeem the species...What Jesus was supposed to have done for humanity before the Holocaust, humanity must now do for itself. 

Someone might think that...if we all do take humanity’s suffering upon ourselves, that involves many additional events of actual suffering. So if that were the only way humanity could redeem itself, wouldn’t it be better to leave it unredeemed? How much of a tragedy is it if humanity’s ending were not to be a further tragedy – and isn’t that a tragedy we can learn to live with?

However, Nozick still appears reluctant to give up entirely on humanity:

Yet being part of an ongoing human enterprise that is worth continuing may not be a trivial part of our lives and the meaning we think these have. It was against that background, taken for granted until now, that many activities found their point of significance and many others found a place to permissibly be. One cannot share or dissolve that context yet leave everything else as it was.

And that’s where he leaves it. Interesting stuff. Of course, many questions arise, amongst others:

Can someone’s past suffering be ‘redeemed’, particularly when that person is dead?

Do we all bear a burden in the light of the Holocaust, or is Nozick attributing unjustifiable weight to that particular persecution?

Would added suffering be an improvement? Would it somehow ‘redeem’ us?

Personally, I share Nozick’s views on the enormity of the Holocaust. Surely no one living in its aftermath can be under any illusion that scientific and technological advancement necessarily imply human moral improvement. The Holocaust was only possible because of technology and was based on a concept of race superiority derived from a particular reading of Darwin, much and all as Dawkins, Hitchens and co like to attribute all the world's misery to religion. (Interestingly, when asked about the Holocaust, Dawkins said it was a ‘blip’ on the glory road to the city on the hill. Hmmmm.)

And as for us all suffering when someone else suffers, it certainly sounds highly effective (much like the treatment meted out to the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange). Can’t see too many people signing up, though, much and all as I like the idea of humanity permanently bedecked with sackcloth and ashes.

Anyway, food for thought....


  1. I smell some ethnocentrism in Nozick. Why are the 100 million plus non-Jews killed by communism in this century (just one example) not some kind of unique event? And I suspect the fate of the Palestinians doesn't phase him.

  2. Noam Chomsky, usually fairly mild-mannered, once described Nozick as a 'Stalinist' and, ironically, in regard to the Middle-East a believer in the two-state solution, ie Israel and the United States.

    I suppose the Holocaust takes such precedence in western eyes due to 'The Holocaust Industry', the endless books, documentaries and movies. Not that this is to diminish the horror of it, merely to remind ourselves that it wasn't the only genoicide of the 20th century.

    I imagine his core point (and that of other commentators who insist on the Holocaust's primacy) is that an act of genocide so incredibly clinical and ruthless, and carried out with such rational efficiency by the nation that believed itself to be at the forefront of European civilisation and culture finally exploded the idea of 'Progress'.

  3. Very good, Karl. I did not know this about Nozick - but doesn't libertarianism itself also make for a certain callousness towards others?

  4. Yes, I'm no libertarian myself. In the same book, Nozick acknowledges that the philosophy espoused in ASN is highly inadequate and doesn't take into account the vital necessity of democratic institutions and such like. In essence, Nozick admits that whereas before he believed individual freedom was only possible outside the state, he now thinks that only the state can provide the meaningful framework within which any freedom worth having can be exercised. (Personally, I'm all in favour of people leaving society altogether if that's what they wish.)

  5. Indeed food for thought.

    "Do we all bear a burden in the light of the Holocaust, or is Nozick attributing unjustifiable weight to that particular persecution?"

    My personal take on this is that I believe that he is speaking a metaphorical sense. While the Holocaust was a huge dirt in the history of mankind, I believe he´s speaking about what it represents. I find that I personally do not have anything to be held responsible for the Holocaust, but those that are alive today may one day serve as fodder to another type of monstrosity to occur - in fact as it does occur every day - silently. I believe that the Holocaust represents something, not that those alive today are personally responsible for, but something that stains humanity as a whole - even more, as a compound that´s gone wrong.

    I believe Holocausts happen everyday, and potentially, with the humanity we still have today, can happen every damn day, once again. That´s the burden of the holocaust I believe he wants to evoke. I don´t think he personally thinks anyone living today is responsible for that one historical sad event, literally, because that would be, in fact, quite nonsensical.


  6. Thanks, Shadow. Yes, where there's humanity there are holocausts. I think also that the Holocaust holds a special place becasue prior to it genocides, slaughters, mass exterminations and so on were deemed to be the activities of 'savages', 'unenlightened' races, 'barbarians' etc. The Holocaust proved that even the so-called 'advanced' races could do it, and do it better than anyone else.

    Ah, humanity!

  7. I'm reminded of a sentiment expressed in a story by Stephen Baxter called "Riding the Rock."

    For the central character, the great destruction and evil he witnessed was a shattering experience. From his perspective, nothing could or would ever compensate for it. "We can't go back. Not after what we have done here." The story took place over 20,000 yrs. in the future. Events like WWI and the Holocaust, the Belgium Congo, et al. seem to readily supply us with that sentiment today.

  8. I'm reminded of White's line in Cormac McCarthy's, "The Sunset Limited." He says, "Western civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys of Dachau, and I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now."