How many conversations have you had during which someone (maybe you) opined that “there are two kinds of people…” and followed that up with one of the roughly zillion ways that we “slice and dice” our fellow humans?
People who are open versus those who are closed. People who are honest versus those who aren’t. People who live in fear versus those who embrace change. People who are bat-shit crazy versus people who live in the admittedly-messy real world…
The New York Times recently ran a guest essay that made me think of another example: People who genuinely care about others–including their own children and grandchildren–and those who don’t.
The subject of the essay was something called “Longtermism”–a term I find somewhat off-putting. It began with a thought experiment, asking readers to imagine living the life of every human being who has ever existed — in order of birth. The experiment then went further:
But now imagine that you live all future lives, too. Your life, we hope, would be just beginning. Even if humanity lasts only as long as the typical mammal species (about one million years), and even if the world population falls to a tenth of its current size, 99.5 percent of your life would still be ahead of you. On the scale of a typical human life, you in the present would be just a few months old. The future is big.
I offer this thought experiment because morality, at its core, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own. When we do this at the full scale of human history, the future — where almost everyone lives and where almost all potential for joy and misery lies — comes to the fore.
If you knew you were going to live all these future lives, what would you hope we do in the present? How much carbon dioxide would you want us to emit into the atmosphere? How careful would you want us to be with new technologies that could destroy, or permanently derail, your future? How much attention would you want us to give to the impact of today’s actions on the long term?
These are some of the questions that motivate longtermism: the idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.
As I was reading this, it seemed like a very long introduction to a very important–and very obvious–observation: what we do in the present will affect untold numbers of future people, so we need to act wisely.
We can make the lives of those who will come after us better–or much worse. Given that reality, it is important to think about the long-term impact of our actions.
As the author notes, most of us tend to neglect the future in favor of the present, with the result that future people are effectively disenfranchised. “They can’t vote or lobby or run for public office, so politicians have scant incentive to think about them. They can’t tweet, or write articles, or march in the streets. They are the true silent majority.”
Yes–but not entirely.
Perhaps it is understandable that people who never had children would dismiss the effect of their actions on that future “silent majority” (although I know a lot of childless people who care passionately about future generations). But those of us who have children and grandchildren have an obvious and important stake in the future.
A number of the people who comment on this blog are–like its author–elderly. Most of us–granted, not all– are financially comfortable. The bad decisions being made by today’s courts and legislatures, the potential loss of democracy as a result of the significant number of Americans who live in Never-Never land, the existential threat posed by climate change–these things really don’t–and won’t–directly affect us.
But we care about them. A lot.
We care because we care about our progeny, and the progeny of our friends and neighbors. I suppose that makes us “longtermers.” Actually, I think it makes us humans.
I’m not sure what to call all the people who clearly don’t care about others–the people who didn’t care about their neighbors enough to wear a mask during a pandemic, and don’t care enough about future generations to divest of fossil fuels. The author tells us that “there is remarkable overlap between the best ways we can promote the common good for people living right now and for our posterity.” I agree.
Unfortunately, however, there are two kinds of people: those who care about the common good, and those who clearly don’t.Comments