There has been a long and consequential debate in the history of ideas, and it can be summarized as follows: Does the current generation have the freedom and the right to remake society for its own benefit. Or, do we have an obligation to past generations to respect their conventions and values? This debate hit its high water mark during the period of the American Revolution. The Americans, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, foremost among them, argued in the spirit of optimism that each generation is indeed entitled to refashion society by its own lights and for its own interests. On the other side of the debate was the famed English conservative, Edmund Burke, who argued that lest we be unmoored from any sense of meaning, the past does indeed have a claim on us which we need to provide due deference.
The concerns around which the debate was waged at the time were primarily political. But they go beyond politics to entertain deeper philosophical questions about how we in our time, or any time, acquire meaning in life. Personal meaning is fed by many streams. It comes from the quality of personal relations, from the achievements and the successes we have won. It comes from attaining our aspirations and goals. But it also comes from fulfilling our obligations and what is demanded of us. We live in a web of obligations.
It seems self-evident, that our associations with others ensure that we meet our obligations to those now living, to our own generation. But do we owe anything to past generations? To those now dead? Many humanists would say “no.” It’s an irrational preoccupation. The dead are dead and beyond our caring. I say “Yes.” We do have some obligation to the past. One obvious example is how we treat the remains of our loved ones. There is a general human consensus that we treat the bodies of those who are dead with requisite respect. We would rightly be repelled (I know I would) if an individual discarded the remains of their parents or perhaps a child with no greater regard and reverence as one would an accumulation of trash. Why so? Because how we treat and respect the dead reciprocally says something about how we respect the living, including ourselves. Though they are gone, a linkage remains, and that link makes a claim on us even now.
What hold true for individual loved one, I believe holds true in a much more general and attenuated way for the funded contributions, exertions and memories of civilization that has come before me. I am their legatee. I am who I am because of who they were. And in some sublime way, perhaps not a completely tangible way, I feel an obligatory respect for members of the human family who created the world and environment into which I was born. I carry a piece of their cultural DNA so to speak. And for me that it is not trivial. It means something.
But I want to change the time frame and ask the question, how is my life made meaningful by the future? How am I altered by generations that will come after me and whom I will never meet? Am I obliged to them? And if so, why?
Here I fall back on a fascinating piece I read in the Times last September by an NYU philosopher, Samuel Scheffler, entitled “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously.” The author makes clear that the title is provocative. He does not believe that he will consciously live on after death. But his opinion is based on the reality that other people will come after us, and that this realization profoundly changes our understanding of our lives, motivation and the meaning we give to our existence.
He says, imagine that you know that you will live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep. But you also know that 30 days after you die, all humanity will be destroyed when the earth collides with a giant asteroid. What difference would that knowledge make to the way in which you would conduct your life? The difference would be profound, he argues, and I believe he is absolutely right.
For example, if you were a cancer researcher, your work would simply have no point knowing that humanity was doomed anyway in the near future. Why work to repair bridges or maintain any infrastructure? And in a point dear to the heart of Ethical Culturists, why struggle for a more just world, knowing that the human world will disappear a few days after you do? Why write a play or a novel, if there were no future audience to engage it? And perhaps, most poignantly, why have children, if they were destined to be killed in midlife and there would be no future to come after them? In other words, the significance and motivation of our current lives are dependent on the existence of future generations we will never meet.
In this sense the writer observes that the lives of these unseen future people are more important to us than our own lives are. Knowing that we ourselves will die does not usually stop us from what we do, because we know that others will be the recipients of our efforts, even if we will not be. Even if humanity would not end shortly after our own deaths, but perhaps two or three generations in the future, so that no one we know and love would die prematurely, such knowledge would no doubt add elements of sadness and depression to our current activities.
This interesting scenario confirms what I have long believed and is a mainstay of my humanism. And that is that we are more social than we often assume or that some hyper-individualists proclaim. As Scheffler notes, “Even though we as individuals have diverse values and goals, and even though it is up to each of us to judge what we consider to be a good and worthy life, most of us pursue our goals and seek to realize our values within a framework of belief that assumes an ongoing humanity. Remove that framework of belief, and our confidence in our values and purposes begins to erode.”
And here is an interesting twist: We often affirm in Ethical Culture over and over again that we need to dedicate ourselves to creating a better world for the sake of future generations, whether it is halting global warming, reducing human oppression, making peace or ensuring justice. Future generations need us to do this. This is true. But as the writer cleverly notes, “…our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.”
Please join me for my address on March 2nd. “How our Obligation the Future Changes Our Lives Even Now”