In this entry, I examine a broad swath of the conceptual territory underpinning future generations. Since this topic is particularly content-dense, I've decided to break this blog entry into several posts under a few different subheadings. Before reading on, I strongly suggest you first read my short entry, 6.1., to get a handle on my project. 6.2.a., The Poor, and 6.2.b., Children, are longer entries. Taken together with 6.2.c.i., ii, and iii: Future Generations, you'll have a broad conceptual map of the overlapping and oftentimes conflicting interests. As a reminder, I am not pronouncing on the good, bad, right, or wrong of any of the examples I use in this series. Since political rhetoric hooks up with mental states that move us in one direction or another, it's a good idea to examine the conceptual baggage we carry around in our heads.
i. The end of my world versus the end of the world.
Future generations rhetoric is concerned with planning for the future of those who will inherit the earth when we are dead and gone; in other words, estate planning. There are many parallels between the considerations and motivations individuals face when planning their estates and those of a collective. And in fact the interests of the two overlap and often come into conflict.
So while political future generations talk often refers to humans as a collective, it is indexed in each case to particular groups with their own particular interests and particular material conditions. A Jewish community might be interested in preserving Jewish identity and customs for their future generations by defending ritual male circumcision. The rights to a water source might be designated by a government for use by some future population in a growing urban area, but come into conflict with the traditional rights to the water source claimed by an indigenous group for use by their future generations. Whether these conflicts are really about future generations, or whether future generations are invoked for some leverage in these conflicts is something we’ll have to stew about.
All kinds of elaborate and impassioned arguments can arise around these very basic conflicts of interest. What often happens is that the original conflict becomes lost in rhetorical grandstanding and conflated with any other grievances the parties can claw in to bolster their positions.
Conceptual analyses is a lot of work. But it can help unmuddy the waters to expose the core conflicts and sort through the relevant premises needed to construct sound arguments that might actually help us solve some of our seemingly intractable disagreements. And preferably without bloodshed.
By future generations I mean those who might be born after all currently living generations on earth have died. Might? Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Certainly those anticipating the sixth great extinction or the coming apocalypse don’t. But consistency be damned, the rhetoric of each camp trumpets the message, Repent while there’s still time!
People have warned for millennia the end is nigh. And one of these days they’ll be right. But if these prophets believe the end is nigh, why issue a warning? To use their last breaths to trumpet, I was right! ? I know some arrogant twits who fit this description. But the end-of-the-world doesn’t interest me here, I want to know why anyone ought to repent.
Some people joke that if they’re given a terminal diagnosis they’ll run up their credit card bills, smoke like chimnies, eat and drink whatever and as much as they want. If you’re on your way out money and health won’t do you any good. So, why not enjoy the time one has left? Well, there may be many reasons why not.
Many find mortality, and especially morbidity, kind of a bummer. Dying people are often too sick to have unbridled fun. Yet some allow themselves a little palliation. Like cigarettes. So long as some Nurse Ratched doesn’t take them away. What most aren’t likely to do is break the bank on a wild spending spree. Although in America, some of the loved ones left behind will be broken by medical bills.
It’s true that some people will splurge on a cruise or some other extravagence as a last dying wish. So some terminal patients do break the bank, often with the encouragement of their loved ones. But others have no heirs and/or no money. Some ‘loved ones’ exploit the terminal patient to pad their own bank accounts. Some patients have money but no loved ones and die on mattresses stuffed with cash. And some long-faced morticians and grey-haired lawyers stand shoulder to shoulder, matching the pinstripes on their suits as they ask, “Can anyone tell us, what were his last wishes?”
Last dying wishes can only be made by the living, and only the living can fulfill those wishes — if it’s possible to do so. It’s nonsensical that one has a last dying wish unless she believes it possible for her wish to be fulfilled. (I’ll say more about this belief in my upcoming post, 6.3, on the Attainability of Ends.) Whether one’s wish is fulfilled, and who would know it, is another story. One might wish that she takes the whole world with her when she dies. But it’s a strange thing to think a wish is fulfilled if no one exists to pronounce it satisfied. Mind you, some wish to take others with them when they go. And some succeed. Hence murder-suicides and suicide bombs. Some sacrifice themselves to satisfy a desire to protect others, others to satisfy their desire for revenge. Determining where revenge and sacrifice come together or apart is a project for another day.
How do we know people’s last dying wishes? Some are expressed. Gramma always said she wanted her ashes tossed to the prairie wind. Gramma wanted each of her grandchildren to go to college. Some are guessed. Jack had no children but he loved animals. Let’s donate his savings to animal rescue. Jack would never leave his mother’s diamond necklace to his estranged cousin Betty. Some are never known. Here lies John Doe.
What is the difference between wishes and last dying wishes? Since we’re all terminal, at what point do wishes shift from what I want for my life to what I want for my death? Actuarials might be helpful here. I am more likely to die at this age, of this disease, in this occupation, in this country. But I also worry about my death when others depend on me. I name God-parents at my child’s baptism. I list Mom as my beneficiary on the paperwork for my first job. I give my son my favourite ball glove before I leave for active duty, my wife my blessings to remarry if I don’t make it home. I look at my husband and wonder which of us will die first. Who will kiss his forehead and take his teeth out when I’m gone?
When I think of my mortality, I think of what I wish to do with the time I have left, and what to do with my estate and remains. I think of what I wish will happen thereafter, and whether there is a here-after. I worry about how I’ll be remembered, or even if I’ll be remembered. I rehearse regrets, make amends, take care of unfinished business. Perhaps I’ll count my life charmed, a life well lived. In either case, maybe I’d do my life over again given the chance.
Life is an audience participation game, and in this sense we’re all trying to act out our last dying wishes. You have just one life, live it to the fullest! You only live once. You can’t take it with you. Life’s a bitch and then you die.
You never know what tomorrow will bring. So have hope. So make amends. So get your affairs in order. So save for a rainy day. Life can turn on a dime, and be gone in the blink of an eye. Go for it while you still can.
Given that I have just one life of uncertain length, why shouldn’t I live it as I see fit? What is it to you if I squander it or live to excesses? What will I prove by living in austerity or moderation? If my gas guzzler spews carbon into the air as I joy ride through the country side, it makes no difference to the fact that you, and I, and everyone living will die. If I starve myself so another might eat, we’ll both meet the same end. What magic occurs by living?
Does one look at the babe she suckles in her arms and say, I wish you great joy and minimal suffering? It’s my last dying wish, sweet child, that your life is better than mine.
(See my introduction to Theodicy, the attempt to answer the Problem of Evil: how a loving, all-powerful God exists and evil exists.)
If each life is lived as one long last dying wish, then there are no last dying wishes. But some mete out this advice as in Live each day as if it were your last!, which is intended to encourage people to live to the fullest but is utterly paralyzing. Every agoraphobic, hypochondriac, and depressive lives by this maxim. The terminally ill patient dies by it. And don’t we cherry pick here? There’s a list of exceptions to what we find acceptable for people to do with the last day of their lives.
We frown on those who live recklessly, foolishly wasting their lives. Especially those who have responsibilities. Or whose recklessness impinges on other people’s lives. Yet don’t we, in our fantasies, envision ourselves living with reckless abandon? Wading into the deep end of the pool, running away to join a monastery, or driving a convertible Bond-like on the hairpin corners of the Amalfi coast…
We make heroes of those who climb to the top of Mt. Everest. We make villains of those who ski out of bounds in an avalanche area. Both activities put their rescuers at risk if things go awry, and rescue missions can be quite expensive to execute. Someone has to pay. So an activity with a high risk of death might be thought worthy by those who perceive it as noble or romantic, unworthy if they don’t.
You might be tempted to justify the worthy/unworthy distinction. A flight to the moon is a calculated risk, e.g. skill, safety protocols, etc., in the way that diving into a river isn’t. Hence the former risk is worthy of praise and the latter isn’t — it’s just stupid. While it’s true that the calculations made for each activity are different simply because they’re different activities, that one is calculated and the other isn’t is patently false. In fact, we’ve far more experience with rivers and diving than we do with space and rockets. Whereas many count river dives among their cherished childhood memories, few have experienced space flights.
I was nearly twenty when the Challenger blew up on national television less than two minutes after take-off. And I’d occasionally hear-tell of someone with a spinal chord injury after diving into the river from the bridge we’d cross on our way to the city. Someone hit a log carried by the current into the swimming hole the day before. Mind you, this story might have been something my overprotective parents concocted from a story they heard-tell about to discourage me from jumping.
Some still aspire to become astronauts. And people will always dive into rivers. Can you imagine what we’d lose in life by avoiding every risk?
No matter what the activity, someone will always get hurt. But if you’re rendered a quadriplegic on a space walk, you’re a hero. On a dive, you’ve wasted your life. At least to some people. Some don’t like to bear the burden of fools. In reality, the two quadriplegics aren’t likely to live vastly different lives. But the former is more likely than the latter to be the subject of a feature article, be honoured in a hall of fame, and be recognized the world over. (See my discussion of the worthy and unworthy poor.)
People are more likely to curb their judgy-ness when someone they know is dying, and so are more apt to allow her some indulgences. Gramma smokes quietly on the front porch, oxygen in tow. Grampa, bedridden and intubated, feigns pinching the nurse’s bottom without launching a #MeToo backlash. A prisoner is offered a last meal before execution. What’s it gonna hurt? Let him enjoy the little time he has left. Be merciful. There are limits to our accommodations of course. Terminal cancer is not an argument to allow one to act on his unfulfilled pedophilloic urges as his last dying wish.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation doesn’t sponsor a safe passage to Lampedusa. The faith healer preys on your last dying wish, i.e. the hope of a miracle cure. The addict steals for a chance to play Russian roulette with Fentanyl.
Notwithstanding that there are all kinds of individual and complicated cases, I think I can make the following assumption.
Terminal patients tend to worry not only about who will be stuck with any mess they leave behind, financial and otherwise, but also about her ongoing well-being. These worries are grounded in the assumption that there is some “who” who carries on, that the end of one life, or many lives, is not the end of all life.
Some will their estates to animal welfare like a cat rescue, others to art galleries or libraries. But these bequests presuppose a guardian or steward, e.g. a lawyer, to manage or distribute the estate. The deceased will never know whether her gift will get where she intended it to go. She might have fattened her executor’s pocket rather than a kitten’s belly. But the deceased rests in peace for her purchase, much the way her crooked executor won’t for his theft. At least if he’s caught.
Some believe that a metaphysical guardian, such as God, oversees one’s thoughts and deeds. In which case it’s the person’s intent to bequeath a gift she believes will do the good that’s thought to impress her God, and not whether her gift actually gets where she willed it to go. When drafting her will, she feels assured that her executor is also under the eye of her God, and will be struck by lightning or cast into a lake of fire if he doesn’t honour her wishes.
It’s funny how one can simultaneously wish for another to be saved, absolved, and destroyed. Let my executor do what’s right, and if he doesn’t either let him repent or burn in hell. There are sophisticated theologians cringing at what I just said, and rightly so. This example characterizes what my husband calls “kindergarten Christianity” and is often used by unsophisticated atheists, aka kindergarten atheists, to strawman theistic beliefs.
Theistic beliefs are operative in future generations rhetoric. Stewardship, connectedness, duty, and repentance all have theological underpinnings. If you think yourself a committed secularist, I caution you that your concern for future generations is one place your theological roots are liable to show. And a good dye job, e.g. your professed atheism, won’t keep them covered. I have an atheist colleague who claims “it would be a shame” for the human species to go extinct. What he hasn’t been forthcoming about is a shame to whom?
Like the terminally ill patient, those who worry about extinctions and apocalypses assume that life, human or otherwise, will continue. If not, the energy these people expend to convince others to change their wicked ways is nonsensical. Beliefs that one can save an unsaveble world are incoherent. Unless, as noted, I believe God judges my intent and scribbles my name among the righteous in the book of life. Hence I believe myself saveable, whatever that means, even if the world isn’t.
A common theme in political rhetoric concerning future generations is that the world (humans, the environment, the planet) is doomed, but only if we act now it might not be too late to save the day. I call this rhetorical device the glimmer of hope move, which I will explain later in more detail. You’ll recognize this move if you’re a fan of The Princess Bride (if you haven’t seen this movie, you must).
Wesley (the hero) dies and his limp body is presented to Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) who, as the name implies, performs miracles. Max pronounces Wesley not dead, but only mostly dead. And mostly dead, explains Max, is slightly alive. If someone is slightly alive, there’s hope for recovery. When Wesley’s friends try to hire Max to save Wesley, Max thinks their offer too low. But he’ll work the miracle anyway if Wesley’s reason for living is a noble cause. Wesley is driven by true love, which Max agrees is a noble cause. But it takes a scolding from his wife and finally an opportunity to take revenge on the rotten Prince Humperdinck that motivates Max to work a miracle and make Wesley fully alive. And, in the throes of an incremental and comic recovery, Wesley carries on in his pursuit of true love.
Future generations are touted by some as a noble cause for why we should act now to save our mostly dead planet. But unlike the characters in The Princess Bride, none of us will be around to see if our miracle pill ‘took’. As for our last dying wish, none of us will know if our actions make any difference to, or for, future generations.
Of course you’ll hear future generations employed in the nothing to worry about and save the economy rhetoric as well. Each of these narratives recommend a course of action to spare future generations from our messes and leave them as well off, if not better off, than the generations before. And each narrative has some differing notions of what it is to be ‘well off’ or ‘better off’.
Nothing-to-worry-about rhetoric often makes the claim that the-end-is-nigh rhetoric is overblown and might cause undue disruption that will do more harm than good. Or that God-is-in-his-Heaven-and-all-is-well-with-the-world, e.g. God promised to never again flood the world, therefore the sea levels won’t rise. Save-the-economy rhetoric argues that we must take care of people living here and now, e.g. with jobs and food on the table, if we are to hope for a better tomorrow notwithstanding some of these measures will conflict with some save-the-world initiatives.
All of these rhetorical narratives overlap in myriad ways, but rhetors will often privilege elements of one narrative over another. And it’s the privileged narrative that is put on the table for debate and often defines a particular political camp.
Philosophical analyses often undermines political oratory by revealing sloppy concepts and poor argumentation, which might threaten the position and cohesion of some political camps. People under threat can dig in and go on the offensive. So it’s an important question for the philosopher whether by doing her analyses she will jeopardize or contribute to the trust and co-operation required for social flourishing. And this question is a tightrope she’ll always have to walk. To this end, I add the following caveats.
I am not here pointing to or criticizing any particular political camp(s). I am interested in unearthing and examining the concepts under political rhetoric broadly, and it’s in this domain that all camps might find more in common that they’ll readily admit when performing in the political arena. In the best case scenario, this exercise might mitigate some of the vitriol that contaminates polarized political climates and, c.f. 6.1, keeps this shared boat afloat.
Next: ii. Who are future generations?