What does any human being alive today owe to future generations? I can’t pinpoint what set me to thinking about this question, probably there was no single thing. I’m fairly certain though I’ve been thinking about it more in the past two years. Well before that I might have said living a long and virtuous life is the best outcome a human being can strive for, and the future will just have to take care of itself. Live your life the best you can, then swipe your hands, call it a wrap, it’s all good, you’re done. If after the check clears for the cremation service and there are leftovers in your account, by all means make sure you’ve bequeathed the excess to loved ones. If there’s still more, OK, gift as many head of cattle to impoverished strangers living in rural Africa as the largess of the estate will bear. But surely nobody owes anything to the future peoples of the world, right? That about describes my attitude toward this more than two years ago.
Related to this I’ve returned to thinking more deeply about what it means to be virtuous. There are antipodes of thought on this. Egoists believe that the fulfillment of one’s own values is to be prioritized over that of others, and not subordinate to them. How one keeps those values, i.e. the associated intentions, are the virtues. Example: Marriage is a value, fidelity is its companion virtue. Altruists believe pretty much the opposite. For them, the sacrifice of one’s own values to improve the lot of others is the height of virtuous behavior (although to be fair, not all altruists really care about the virtue part, I’ll get to that). I don’t mean to suggest marital infidelity is rampant among altruists. Only that when it comes to improving values, the altruist’s focus is outward, directed toward improving others’ values. By contrast the egoist’s productive efforts are inward-directed, in service to so-called selfish values. Ayn Rand went Full Monty on this with her audacious theory of ethics: The Virtue of Selfishness (VoS). The reception to which was roughly: “What heresy is this?! You claim that to behave in one’s own rational self interest is…a virtue? Are you daft, woman!” Thus spake the Russian Radical. (Curious side note : No book in my library has more marginalia and dog-eared pages than VoS). The takeaway here is that values and virtues are two sides of the same person. Values are things a person wants for herself (physical or psychological), and the virtues are the companion behaviors – how you fulfill the values. Pro tip: Human beings are not mere cash registers. The canard often leveled at Rand that she was nothing more than an apologist for unbridled capitalism, or ethical hedonism, is super unfair. Disagree with her conclusions on how a human being ought to live his life all you want, but on the evidence of her writing, especially (but not only) VoS, she pretty clearly understood quite a lot about the nuance of human psychology.
Avatars of moral altruism may include Mother Teresa, although certain cynics claim she is undeserving of the title. Also, Bill Gates handing a five spot to a beggar on Market Street in San Francisco is not an example of altruistic behavior. Economists will complain it is, since to Bill Gates there is real marginal value to the five spot. By giving it away he’s sacrificing his own value and simultaneously raising that of another person. Isn’t that in keeping with the definition of altruism? Not necessarily. Because the true intention for any other-directed human action is always suspicious. While Bill may be sacrificing $5, he’s doing it in public, and so he could just be virtue signalling, which imputes as a value to his ego – “Look everyone, I’m a good person!” Remember we said values can be psychological. So who’s to say the psychological value of virtue signalling to Bill isn’t greater than the marginal value of $5? If you’re as rich as Bill Gates it almost certainly is! Another example is people who give to charity but don’t wish to be anonymous – “Look everyone, I sacrificed $500 to cancer research!” 🤨 Now, I’m sure there are sincere, committed altruists among us, don’t get me wrong. Point is, you can never completely rule out egoism as the intention for any human behavior.
A more modern take on altruism is the movement known as Effective Altruism (EA). Cynics claim EA is an expression of white guilt, thus members of EA are not true altruists given their disguised psychological intent (see above). But after reading around a bit, insofar as it’s a smear against all members of the EA community, I think that’s unfair. Even though it does seem to me that many of the loudest advocates for EA are white people with deep pockets, online, loudly signalling, “I support EA!” Maybe some camels really can pass through the eye of a needle? Whatever.
Getting back to my opening question, if you’re a committed altruist, then sacrificing your time and money to help future peoples of the world, many of whom haven’t been born yet, is kind of a no brainier. And in fact campaigns to reduce human suffering, even animal suffering, seem to be popular among EA advocates, where the only real question is how much time/money should one sacrifice? In fact, if you’re an effective altruist, not only is sacrificing your values now to help people in the future have a better life something to consider doing, it’s something your fellow altruists will say you ought to do. Acting selflessly can become kind of a shame campaign. Whereas if your ethics are egoistic, you feel no such compulsion or shame. To the extent you care at all about future peoples’ welfare, you probably believe that their well-being will naturally improve, simply by more and more egoists improving their own individual well being. This is the old libertarian mantra: “A rising tide floats all boats.” Or, you’re an imposter altruist, an egoist who’s indifferent to the welfare of others, present and future, who merely virtue signals to salve his ego. This person gives half her fortune to stop malaria in Africa and makes sure everyone knows she did it. Which raises suspicion in others that she’s not a true egoist. But the true egoist won’t care what others think – she really only cares about her own values! One of which just happens to be accumulating the approval of others. Of course, it is also entirely consistent with true egoism to not care about future peoples one wit, and sacrifice zero present value. This is your cold-hearted Mr. Scrooge writ large – “Bah humbug! Child welfare you say? Why, ’tis a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket once a year. Besides, are the orphanages full?” Many years ago I felt a quiet solidarity with Ebeneezer.
How do I feel about it now? Overwhelmed. I’m still demonstrably an egoist, although I’ve become just altruisty enough to not want to leave the planet worse off than when I arrived. If that means doing fewer things I value or doing them less often, or donating a portion of our money to effective charities, we (HW & I) are willing to do that much. I meditate now, and sometimes while doing so I try to summon feelings of compassion toward others. My progress there has been uneven at best. Besides, achieving a better headspace doesn’t directly translate to a reduction in human suffering, or even appease my ego. One goal of mindful meditation after all is to dissolve the ego, not salve it. The bulk of our charity is geographically local (I have yet to purchase a dairy cow for an Afrikaner). Will this in anyway improve the lives of people and animals two or three hundred years hence? Only if the people helped in the near term pay it forward I suppose. Because for effective altruism or its future variants to be a durable strategy, those coming up behind us will need to do the same, otherwise it seems unlikely the problem of human suffering will ever be solved in any meaningful sense. And for people alive now, please reconsider having more babies. The simplest way to reduce human suffering on net is to have fewer humans. It’s something within everyone’s power to do.