With no fu­ture, how do we live?

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

WHY SHOULD we care about peo­ple who are not yet born? If cli­mate change de­stroys the lives of peo­ple two or three gen­er­a­tions down the line, so what? Well, bear with me, here’s a pos­si­ble an­swer. And it in­volves a thought ex­per­i­ment

— one pro­posed by the Amer­i­can philoso­pher Sa­muel Sch­ef­fler but in­spired by a work of fic­tion.

We nor­mally take two ba­sic facts for granted. We take it for granted that one day we will die —that we’re mor­tal. And we take it for granted that although we our­selves will die, other peo­ple will go on liv­ing. But sup­pose you knew that af­ter your death the hu­man race would soon die out. Per­haps for some rea­son hu­mans had be­come in­fer­tile, the plot line for P D James’ novel, The Chil­dren of Men. In other words, imag­ine that peo­ple who are alive to­day, in­clud­ing your chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, would live out their nat­u­ral lives — but no new peo­ple would ap­pear.

How would that make you feel? What would that do to how you live your life? Would it make any dif­fer­ence to the projects that you cur­rently pur­sue?

Sa­muel Sch­ef­fler thinks that most of us would re­gard the im­mi­nent end of hu­man­ity as a catas­tro­phe. He’s spo­ken to so many au­di­ences about this that he has em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence to back up this hunch. And if we re­ally be­lieved hu­mans would cease to ex­ist soon af­ter our deaths, he says, it would af­fect al­most ev­ery­thing we do.

Most ob­vi­ously, projects whose aim is to ben­e­fit peo­ple in the fu­ture will seem pretty fu­tile: the sci­en­tist work­ing on a cure for di­a­betes, the ur­ban plan­ner imag­in­ing new ways to lay out cities, the ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist re­search­ing how kids can most ef­fec­tively learn. All that could seem a waste of time.


Sch­ef­fler be­lieves that the knowl­edge that hu­mans would soon cease to ex­ist would also touch ac­tiv­i­ties that seem to have noth­ing to do with the fu­ture. It would un­der­mine the sat­is­fac­tion we take even in things like sex, mu­sic, and sport, he says.

Take sport. Would you not con­tinue to take plea­sure in the foot­ball sea­son? Well, per­haps not . Sup­pose you sup­port Tot­ten­ham and each year you ar­dently want them to win the Pre­mier League. That de­sire only makes sense in a his­tor­i­cal con­text — the his­tory of the league and its on­go­ing fu­ture. It’s not at all ob­vi­ous that if you be­lieved the league would soon cease to ex­ist, be­cause play­ers would soon cease to ex­ist, that you would sup­port Tot­ten­ham with the same en­thu­si­asm or in­ten­sity.

What does all this show? Sch­ef­fler draws sev­eral im­por­tant con­clu­sions, but one of them is as fol­lows. Usu­ally, when we worry about what kind of planet we’ll be­queath to our de­scen­dants the is­sue is couched in terms of the obli­ga­tions of our gen­er­a­tion. That is to say, although it is a bur­den to have to take fu­ture peo­ple into ac­count, none­the­less we have a moral duty to do so.

But Sch­ef­fler’s thought ex­per­i­ment turns the eth­i­cal bur­den on its head. True, fu­ture peo­ple need us not to mess with the planet. But it turns out that we need fu­ture peo­ple as much as they need us. And that puts the re­la­tion­ship be­tween us and our de­scen­dants in a wholly dif­fer­ent light.

Sa­muel Sch­ef­fler did not need to dis­cover phi­los­o­phy, he grew up with it. His pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents were from Ro­ma­nia, his ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents from Poland, but his fa­ther was Is­rael Sch­ef­fler, a Har­vard philoso­pher. Is­rael was also an or­dained Con­ser­va­tive rabbi and Sam was raised in “a fairly ob­ser­vant house­hold”. Asked about his Jewish iden­tity he of­fered a won­der­fully philo­soph­i­cal reply. “My Jewish iden­tity con­sists partly in the fact that I spend a lot of time think­ing about what my Jewish iden­tity con­sists in, though it is no less strong for that.”


Would you still sup­port Spurs if you knew hu­man­ity was dy­ing out?

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