I was only able to attend the first half of Socrates yesterday, before which I was exposed to some pretty cool ideas about space travel. It isn’t so much that I was convinced of something new, but that I got a chance to learn about how other people think, and let my mind swim around in ideas I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. A purely “philosophical” perspective doesn’t really do that, because people doing philosophy generally want to find, as a professor of mine from sophomore year put it, “The Truth with a capital T.” I’m often more interested in the experience of thinking about new things, since I usually know my opinion about an issue from the start.
The topic was “Future Generations,” and the question was: Do we have obligations to the people of the future, and if so, in what way? At first I did what I usually do; between bites of broccoli pizza from the Nauti Dolphin, say directly what I thought, which in this case is that our obligations to those who live after us are equal to the obligations we have to ourselves or to one another in the present. A thousand years from now, our exact combination of molecules and our memories will not remain, but our genetics will, and thus so will we.
The other opinions in the group tended more towards the concept that we have obligations to one another now, and have obligations to living people, but not to those yet to come. There was mixed opinion about our treatment of the environment and of non-human species. The basic underlying concept I think, was that we might as well enjoy our lives, and we ought to help other people enjoy their lives as well.
So I posed a question to try and see if I could convert anyone to my argument: Is it better to be born blind, or to be born with sight and then be afflicted with permanent blindness part-way through your life? The point being; it doesn’t matter. You end up blind. So I pointed out that from my standpoint, it is no more ethical to actively choose to prevent future generations from being born than it is to end a child’s life. Either way, the genetic continuation is ended.
The reaction I got from that was; well, that’s like saying there’s no point to life because it ends. You might as well have fun while it lasts.
Now, this is really where I can’t find common ground with most people. The idea that we are alive for the purpose of exposing our minds to experiences we find pleasurable is a dangerous one. It’s that kind of mindset that enables people to become sedentary, to worship money, to put family second and status first, to try and reframe all ethics and knowledge in accordance with one’s own wants or needs. Shouldn’t an experience like a holiday or a vacation serve a purpose: to revitalize or calm our minds so we can maximize our effectiveness?
My other problem was with the idea that we live better lives in the modern world; that electricity, cars, airplanes, and so forth make our lives objectively better than those which came before. What is the measurement of a good life? The chemicals that rush into the brain, causing sensations we temporarily enjoy? Only for our minds to re-adjust and seek something else when we get accustomed to that pleasure? There has to be something higher, and pointing to evolutionary biology as the moving force behind those emotional responses seems like a good direction for deciding what’s important in life.
So in another attempt to show how the hedonistic view comes from mixed up priorities, I played devil’s advocate and posed this question: Say you were able to collect conclusive data about which nations or communities were most likely to continue to produce people who were especially innovative, productive, disciplined, well-organized, peaceful, and predisposed toward universal moral ideals like freedom, equality, and justice? Next, let’s say you also have strong evidence that certain parts of the world were going to continue to be unable to provide for themselves, rely on exports, rely on foreign aid, remain stricken with disease, and succumb frequently to violent sectarian conflicts. Then, let’s suppose that the former group supports the latter group with money, with medicine, with community development and other volunteer assistance, and provided a high standard of living to refugees of conflicts. The question is: do the people living in the better-off group have an ethical obligation to maintain their own population size, in order to ensure that the people born into the worse-off group don’t suffer from their problems?
(Now, my question presupposes that you agree that what we are is determined mostly by our genes, and not by the environment or experience. From my point of view, this understanding ought to be very basic, and has been necessary for many advances in the sciences such as the discovery of new medical treatments. It’s a fact of our absurd time that you have to pay lip-service to environmentalism, even while there’s hard evidence of neurological differences between people).
So I guess I hoped the point of my question would be obvious: Is our existence justified on the basis of the charitable services we can provide to those who need them? Would it be acceptable to permit our own lineages to disappear (and thus commit genocide against ourselves), if no one needed us? Is an entertaining and comfortable life worth sacrificing the soul each of us has inherited from our forebears?
If we have any obligation to future people, then the first priority is to make sure that they exist.