Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Yes, We Do Have Obligations to the Future

A few days ago, the New York Times's Stone blog ("a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless") published an essay with a provocative title: What Do We Owe the Future? I find the topic of intergenerational morality to be good fodder for intellectually stimulating discussions, and I've written about my thoughts on the matter in the past. I was disappointed, however, when the NYT piece turned out to be as intellectually lazy as it was.

The authors--Patricia Vieria and Michael Marder--criticized the act of designing policy with the future in mind as a form of colonization of the minds of the future, an attempt to speak for the voiceless, the not-yet-born, those whose intentions we do not, yes, cannot know.

To insist on any one notion of the future in political and philosophical debates risks turning it into an ideological instrument used to justify present policies. The discourse of anti-abortion advocates, for instance, emphasizes the rights of the unborn in order to regulate female sexuality. The reductio ad absurdum of this argument is the prohibition of any form of contraception by certain religious conservatives, who place abstract reproductive possibilities above existing persons. Arguments like this turn future generations into mere pawns in the power games of the present.

And so, suffocating under the excessive burden of the future, we project our worries onto it, and usurp its proper space. In claiming to speak for the future, we represent it in a double sense: by electing ourselves as its delegates and at the same time turning it into an extension of the present.

Another dimension of the colonization of the future is its idealization as the be-all and end-all of our actions. The future is converted into a fetish that supplements the deficiencies and redeems the flaws inherent in the present. Since the coming generations have not yet attained empirical existence, the ones now living will never be able to measure up to their purported perfection.

This seemingly new phenomenon is actually a mutation of the old metaphysical tendency to debase the world here below at the expense of an otherworldly ideal: Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s unmoved mover, medieval philosophy’s God, Hegel’s Spirit and the rest. But the emerging metaphysical paradigm differs from its predecessors in that its fate is tied to historical becoming, rather than to the eternal principles of being. This temporal characteristic is illusory, since the future is postponed indefinitely. It always remains beyond the present, immune to contestation, much like the chimeras of old metaphysics.

The examples they provide about such "colonization" of the voices of the future are (1) the debate about abortion and contraception, (2) the debate about personal and public debt, and (3) the debate about environmental protection.

They complement these with the central question "why are the demands of the present neither pressing nor absorbing enough in their own right?"  Such a question is highly relevant in issue #2, the subject of debt--particularly public debt. Budget projections are not known for their sterling reliability, and thinking about the debt of those living 50 years from now makes no sense when there is plenty of suffering today ignored by our politicians. However, I think the authors give an unfair treatment to environmental concerns, particularly climate change--about which they seem dismissive.

The scientific knowledge about climate change is far more certain than the economist's knowledge of future debt, and addressing climate change is a far more formidable endeavor. We do need to plan for the future so that, frankly, there can be a future. However, as the USA Today editorial board noted yesterday,  climate change is not just a matter of the future: it is a matter of the present. We are already seeing the effects of the increasingly unstable weather patterns that will increase in the future.

Moreover, the authors conflate several concepts of the future. You can look at the "future" as the "not-yet-born," but you can also see the future as the "future selves of the born." If I think of the world 20 years, 30 years, 50 years into the future, then I am thinking of a world in which I still live. And I believe that we have a duty to our future selves--a longitudinal moral obligation--just as we have a duty to others--a latitudinal moral obligation.

The authors, ultimately, appear to be arguing with a straw man with their criticism of the use of the future as a "diversion" from the concerns of the present. Their critique would make sense if it were targeted at revolutionary utopians who believe that the suffering and toil of the present will be justified by the creation of a glorious future of material abundance that no one in the present will ever know. But they do not orient their critique as such. Most environmentalists that I know are not ascetics who believe in inflicted austerity on the present world in order to make things viable in the future; rather, they believe in transforming society into a more just, equitable, and sustainable system. They are not sacrificing the needs of the present for the idea of the future: they see them as irrevocably linked and believe that the most effective ways of addressing climate change acknowledge such linkages.

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