Life, in Context

By A. G. Moore 9/24/2013

Child Sleeping on the Sidewalk in Mombasa, Kenya
Photo by Mar del Sur;  Uploaded from Wikimedia Commons on Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike LicenseIn a New York Times essay (The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously), Samuel Scheffler suggests that the context of our lives influences behavior. Dr. Scheffler, who is a professor of philosophy at NYU, isn’t addressing individual physical circumstances, such as income or nationality. He’s looking at circumstance through a longer lens: generations that will follow and will inherit the consequences of whatever we do on earth today.  Dr. Sheffler contends that awareness of future generations adds to our happiness and affects the way we choose to live .The thrust of Dr. Scheffler’s argument is this: if we realize how important future generations are to our own happiness, then we will more thoughtfully care for the planet we will leave behind. Dr. Scheffler is persuasive and his apparent benevolence hard to resist–but I must take issue with some of what he says.There’s a contradiction in his essay.  After proposing that we are made happier by an awareness of future generations, he goes on to declare that one day the human race will cease to exist.  But he claims that we’re not threatened by the prospect of existential calamity because it’s so far away, so removed from us, that we’re able to ignore it.  His dismissal of ontological anxiety simply doesn’t hold water.If we’re comforted by an awarenss of future generations how can we not be unsettled by the prospect of extinction? Acknowledging the possibility that life as we know it may cease to be presents us with a  dilemma. Why, we must decide, does anything have significance if we, as a species, may come to an end?The answer cannot be Dr. Sheffler’s, that  the event is so far off that it has no relevance. Of course it has relevance; with the hard truth that there may be an end to us, comes the realization that the only thing we can be certain of is what we have now,  and  who we are now.  Focus, therefore, should not be on a hypothetical horizon, but on the palpable reality right in front of us.We may indeed be comforted by the idea of future generations, but it’s not productive to derive inspiration from this consciousness.  In order to be responsible custodians of the present, we have to pay attention to immediate needs.  It’s easier–sort of  a moral cop-out–to look way off in the distance and imagine a better place, a better time, than it is to look down where our feet are firmly planted  on the ground.One of Dr. Sheffler’s excellent examples of how behavior might change if awareness of future generations did not exist: a cancer researcher might decide that work in the field of cancer research would be  pointless because  no future patients would  benefit from the work.  In Dr. Sheffler’s view, the scientist’s change of focus would be a loss. I say–not necessarily. It is true that a researcher might not try to improve the lives of people who haven’t been born yet; however, there might be a new interest, in something else, something more mundane, that  might be useful to those already living.If it is true, as Dr. Scheffler believes, that life ceases when our last breath is drawn, if it is true that one day there will an end to humanity, then the only rational reaction is to invest in what we have–the present. If we do that, we cannot help but improve the lot of those who may or may not come after:  they will most certainly  enjoy the fruit of  our good labor.As to Dr. Scheffler’s contention that awareness of future generations gives meaning to our lives– that may be true, but this sense of others to come is not essential to happiness. Another path to happiness is open:  meaningful work.  There’s no end to the amount that needs to be done, work that will enhance the lives of others.  Each time this work is performed, significance is added to our lives in the most concrete way.Ask someone who tends the sick; someone who rescues an animal;  someone who witnesses the moment a child achieves literacy.And when it comes to context, if the long view is important, then think about this: a certain school of thought claims that everything we do, each small act, is imprinted in time, forever.  Somewhere, the events of our lives will continue to occur throughout eternity.How’s that for context?
Assorted and not necessarily connected ruminations on Happiness

*Aristotle’s Ethics*The Sources of Happiness According to Buddha at: The Berzin Archives*Epicurus and Epicurean Philosophy *Very Happy People, By Ed Diener and Martin Seligman

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