Engaging with the Future

Our investments in the future do not stop paying dividends when we die.  Other beneficiaries may cash the cheques, but that does not represent a loss to ourselves, because our connections to them are not fundamentally different from our connections to ourselves during our remainder of our lifetimes.  In that way, it’s as though someone else always cashes the cheques.

In practice, this means we need not hold all our future eggs in one basket.  We have no reason to invest only in ourselves.  It is no less rational to work towards goals that benefit other people, or the non-human world, than it is to work for our own benefit.  They may be goals for places far outside our homes, and for times following our personal deaths.  We can commit ourselves to goals at future times when there will be no one alive for whom we now feel full-blown self-concern.  Like Terry Fox, we can engage with a future in which we will no longer exist.

People have a choice.  Put starkly, they can invest their remaining energies either in the ever-diminishing remainder of their personal lives (which, once they pass mid-life, become limited not only in time, but in the kinds of activities they are physically and mentally capable of) or in something broader.  For some people, ‘something broader’ consists of their families; for some, their community; for some, the planet.  For those who make the first choice, focussing on themselves, nothing counts as a benefit unless it falls within those narrow, and ever-narrowing, boundaries.  To make that choice is to be made acutely conscious of the amount of one’s remaining life, which, like the sand in the upper chamber of an old-fashioned egg-timer, is constantly running out.  Making that choice triggers the gloomy fear noted in earlier posts, giving rise to oppressive imagery like Parfit’s glass tunnel, “through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness,” and the anguished words typed by “AWUK” into the cyber-void: “Although I’m only 23 I dread getting old. … The time goes so quickly and it seems like yesterday I was worrying about starting my periods and getting my first bra – now I’m married and working and I feel that life is passing me by!”

If, instead, you take the long view, involving yourself in bigger things, adopting goals that may not be realized until after you are dead, it becomes obvious that you can’t go it alone; such goals will not be achieved without others’ help.  Considered in this light, a purely selfish goal has limited value.  The goal is unsaleable – no one else would adopt it.  Only group goals and unselfish goals will propagate to others.

There are two points here.  One concerns the propagation of goals to other people.  No one else is likely to adopt my selfish goals; to achieve them, I must go it alone.  The other point concerns a selfish reason to adopt unselfish values.  If I am emotionally invested only in myself, it is difficult to avoid the painful sense of loss as my personal future – what remains of my only life – constantly runs out.

The Propagation of Goals

Of course, there are ways to get others to work towards my selfish goals: I can incent them.  This is not so much a matter of persuading others to share my values as of enlisting values they already have to serve my ends.  Incentives can be effective; they are the basis of the employment economy (as they were of the slave and serf economies that preceded it.)   Their effectiveness, however, depends on my ongoing ability to supply carrots and/or wield sticks.   In an employment economy, when an employer runs out of money, his employees soon stop showing up for work.

The situation is different when people are motivated by shared values.  The photo club I belong to provides an example.  The club is a volunteer organization.  Members value the club’s activities – the sharing of images, professional critiquing, cross-fertilization of creative ideas and exchanges of technical tips, workshops, use of club equipment, excursions, mutual encouragement, and the pleasant, focussed social interaction of people with a shared interest.  The members know that the value depends on members’ effort.  That understanding makes it possible to recruit volunteers for the various functions of the club.

That’s not to say that it’s easy.  Members who don’t volunteer their time are not expelled, or denied any benefits of the club.  A modicum of social pressure is applied, especially to those who regularly attend club events.  Most members feel they should contribute some time and effort.  The resulting distribution of work is uneven; some members take on major roles which consume more time than they can easily afford, while others opt for minimal involvement.  Roles are easier to fill if they are not too onerous; so club administrators try to divide large responsibilities, filling them with committees rather than individuals.  The club seems to function most smoothly when the work is well divided, no one shoulders too great a burden, and most active members contribute something.

What makes such recruitment possible is the value the club makes available to the members.  The value is implicitly acknowledged – if people show up to events, week after week, everyone assumes they are getting value out of the club.  Members know that active support from a critical mass of participants is needed to keep things going.  Although, in our overscheduled society, people are reluctant to assume any new commitment, most members, when asked, will agree to take on a responsible role in the club’s operations.  Not all – because as I said, members can lurk and do nothing without being stigmatized, while receiving full benefits – but enough do help.

As an example of the motivational power of shared values, the photo club is a modest one.  Modest both in its demands and in its effects: a volunteer commitment of 10-50 hours per year is not enough to sustain enthusiasm for life.  Most people need more value than is available from the photo club in order to sense intimations of immortality.  Nevertheless, even activity in a shared-interest club can provide a significant percentage of one’s recommended daily requirement of purpose.

Let’s look at bigger goals.  One might think that preservation of an unspoiled planet, with clean air and water, with a range of climactic zones supporting biodiversity, with a minimum of climate-change disasters, would be a goal to which many people could devote their energies with enthusiasm.  To undo human damage to the environment would be a great achievment, a lasting legacy that might, one would think, motivate whole societies to reshape their economies and their lifestyles into a sustainable form.  Yet progress is slow.  There is as little optimism about results from the forthcoming meeting in Cancun as there was actual progress in 2009’s meeting in Copenhagen.  Governments drag their feet, waiting for others to make a commitment first.  Those that are democratically elected are not, at present, being pushed very hard by voters.

What’s going on?  It’s hard to see a clear answer, from where we sit in the midst of events, the ‘fog of war.’  Commonly cited factors include (1) skepticism about the science (2) competition from other values, such as economic prosperity (3) discouragement.

The skepticism, I suspect, is largely self-deception.  Instead of acknowledging and coming to grips with the problem, people cling to the hope that it may not be as bad as it’s made out.  And of course it may not be, because there is uncertainty in any forecast; but it may be worse.  To do nothing is to gamble; and the stakes couldn’t be higher.  Those who refuse to act on climate change because the outcome is uncertain typically do not take a similar attitude towards other threats: they insure against disastrous contingencies – death, disability, fire, flood – they buy home security systems, and support government programs to guard against possible terrorist attacks.  Why would they not take similar precautions against the devasting effects of climate change warned of by the majority of experts who have studied the matter?  Only by unconsciously clinging to a fantasy that nothing is wrong.

The worry that an adequate response to climate change would dampen economic prosperity is a complex one.  Certainly, a rapid switch to energy sources which do not release carbon into the atmosphere would raise the cost of energy.   It would do so because of the need for massive investment in infrastructure – most probably in a mix of technologies including wind, tidal, solar, renewable biofuel, carbon capture and sequestration, and perhaps nuclear.  Economically, this would be a mixed blessing.  The effort would create many jobs and business opportunities.  But energy-intensive goods and services would become less affordable.  The cost of a plane ticket, for example, would shoot up many times – perhaps to levels, compared to average income, not seen since the 1950’s.  We would take fewer long trips as a result; we would use more teleconferencing, and trains.  We would respond to higher costs of home heating and cooling by building better-insulated homes.  We would drive fewer cars, and make more used of transit and bicycles (a trend already underway, at least in Europe and North America).  We would ship more by rail and less by truck (this trend is well advanced).  As the costs of manufacturing and shipping rose, as companies and consumers were held responsible for the costs of recycling and garbage disposal, there would be a trend away from disposability towards more durable goods.  We would adapt.

The third factor, discouragement, like skepticism, strikes me as disingenuous.  We do not have convincing evidence that the situation is hopeless, yet.  We only know that to fix it would be hard.  But people have risen to shared challenges before.  They have found common purpose and acted effectively, even when action required enormous personal sacrifice.  Consider England’s response to the threat of Hitler in 1939.  The lateness of that response only underscores the magnitude of the sacrifice that was required.  WW I had ended only twenty years before; the hell of the trenches, the unprecedented scale of destruction and death, lived in people’s memories.  Despite first-hand knowledge of the grim realities of 20th century war – knowledge that the probability of dying themselves, or losing loved ones, or of losing their limbs, their genitals, or their peace of mind for the rest of their lives, was terrifyingly high – the people of England chose to do what was necessary to stop the Nazi tyranny.   The sacrifices demanded of us today to combat climate change are not nearly as great; and we are not burdened with the memories of horror that slowed, but ultimately did not stop, Chamberlain’s generation.

The question why our society’s response to a great threat falls so far short of the response of an earlier generation is profoundly interesting; but an attempt to answer it would take us far outside the topic of this post.  My point here is simple, and, I think, uncontroversial: sometimes, people inspire other people to adopt goals outside the bounds of their personal lives.  The mechanisms by which goals propagate include rhetoric, exhortation, example, wielding of authority, invocation of tradition, praise and criticism, honour and shame bestowed by the group on individual members who contribute, or who shirk, respectively.  Social pressure may be applied to convert, or to ostracize, doubters and dissenters.

Because such goals are not confined to their personal lives, people find purpose in them which is not limited by the time they have left to live, or by their robustness of health or physical capacity for enjoyment.  That is why active engagement with the future can generate enthusiasm for life, at any age.

The Pain of Self-Concern – an Argument for Unselfishness

A person who is emotionally invested only in his or her personal life has a problem: what remains of that life is constantly shrinking.  As time goes by, Ian Brown’s question – “If you physically don’t have much future left, what motivates you to engage actively in it?” – becomes an overwhelming one.

Not only does one’s remaining time run out, but, in one’s latter years, what one is capable of doing with that time is also diminished.  One’s future shrinks along two dimensions, offering less and less potential for reward, while the capacity for suffering seems undulled.  In “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot caught the sadness and diminishment of self-absorbed aging:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

As we have seen, it is possible to escape that painful dynamic.  Nothing stops us from finding value outside our personal lives.  The more one devotes oneself to projects of a broader scope, the less important is one’s shrinking personal future.

This is a psychological fact, from which we can derive a prudential argument against moral egoism.   The kind of moral egoist I have in mind is one who cheerfully embraces selfish values and eschews all others.  Of the varieties of egoism, this is one of the least objectionable, and may be the most common.  It is a weaker form of egoism than any of the following:

  • ethical egoism, which holds that persons are morally obliged to prefer their own interests to those of others
  • rational egoism, the view that persons are only acting rationally when they act in their own interests
  • psychological egoism, the idea that persons are motivated only by self-interest

My moral egoist could consistently deny all three of the above positions.  He doesn’t think he is morally obliged to pursue his own interests, but simply prefers to do so.  He doesn’t argue that his more altruistic fellow citizens are “at bottom” pursuing selfish goals, or that they are acting irrationally; he just acknowledges that they are different from himself.  He does not think they ought to become more selfish.  Instead, he may welcome their generosity, because he finds it easier to make his own way in a world that is not exclusively dog-eat-dog.

I have argued that we are not rationally required to hold only selfish values.  To this, my egoist might respond, “Fine – I agree that my selfish values are no better rationally justified than any other set of values I might hold instead.   But neither are they worse justified.  I just choose my selfish values.”

The egoist’s position seems coherent.  It is self-consistent, and it seems invulnerable to appeals to demonstrable fact.  It is open to moral criticism; but because its proponent may reject all commonly accepted moral standards, a moral argument may have difficulty gaining traction.

Now another type of criticism can be levied against the egoist’s position – a prudential one.  It is a general truth about selfish values that they can only be realized during one’s lifetime.  If all one’s values are selfish, then everything that one cares about depends on remaining alive and able to appreciate those values.  As one’s remaining lifetime diminishes, there is less and less opportunity for one’s values to be fulfilled.  Awareness of that fact causes a painful sense of loss, like Prufrock’s.  So the egoist can be answered: yes, you can choose only selfish values without making a logical or factual mistake, but be careful – if you do so, you risk making yourself unhappy, particularly as you get older.

His own future happiness is something my egoist can be counted on to care about.  This argument’s force stems from its appeal to values he already holds.   If it persuades the egoist, it does so by drawing his attention to a fact about his own psychology, which he cannot in honesty deny.  “Okay,” he will then agree, “I now see I have a selfish reason to adopt unselfish values.”

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One Response to “Engaging with the Future”

  1. Claudia says:

    I like this. In a way it’s what Dickens laid out in a Christmas Carol. choose a crabbed and small existence or choose something more expansive. One small quibble. Not relevant to your point, but bicycles are used in Asia perhaps more than in North America!

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