This week I have been reading a not-so well-known book of philosophy by the British philosopher Derek Parfit called Reasons and Persons. Parfit is flagged up in Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects, in which Morton comments on Parfit’s challenging of ‘long-held prejudices about utility and ethics from within utilitarianism itself.’ that, ‘Parfit showed that no self-interest ethical theory, no matter how modified, can succeed against such dilemmas.’ (Hyperobjects, p. 122) What Parfit illustrates is that Self-Interest theories actually reveal that what we should be self-interested in is the future, because this breeds a healthy anticipation of ourselves as a continuing presence. Parfit explains:
Unless we, or some global disaster, destroy the human race, there will be people living later who do not now exist. These are future people. Science has given to our generation great ability both to affect these people, and to predict these effects…Two kinds of effect raise puzzling questions. We can affect the identities of future people, or who the people are who will later live. And we can affect the number of future people. These effects give us different kinds of choice. (Parfitt, Reasons & Persons, p. 355)
Why Morton picks out Parfit for interrogation, is that Parfit is thinking in terms of hyperobjects (a term Parfit would not have known). The things dogging us are so massive in spatiotemporal scale that we are unprepared for the repercussions these massive objects will trigger. The hyperobject is an assemblage of events & things. We may parse Parfit’s own list of ‘pollution, congestion, depletion, inflation, unemployment, a recession, over-fishing, over-farming, soil-erosion, famine, and overpopulation’ for hyperobjects. In fact it would be time better spent to say that this list could come under a single heading of ecological.
I would say that a large part of our energies should be toward thinking ecologically so as to become what Morton calls ‘ecological-being.’ Expanding on the consideration of ‘future people’ Parfit explains:
In some cases we can predict that some act either may or will be against the interests of future people. This can be true when we are making a Same People Choice. In such a case, whatever we choose, all and only the same people will ever live. Some of these people will be future people. Since these people will exist whatever we choose, we can either harm or benefit these people in a quite straightforward way…Suppose that I leave some broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood. A hundred years later this glass wounds a child. My act harms this child. If I had safely buried the glass, this child would have walked through the wood unharmed. Does it make a moral difference that the child whom I harm does not now exist?’ (Parfitt, Reasons & Persons, p. 356-357)
We can determine that if we are to think ecologically, we have to cross the threshold of our own existence & encroach on the existence of a future person. This requires the difficult application of impartiality. Something we prove again & again, we are not all that deft at. Our actions should not be liable to such affective potentials, but impartiality is difficult when confronted with a non-identity, an identity that will exist in a radically different contexture to that of our current consumerist culture. We can, as Mark Fisher has explained, imagine the end of the world in a more rendered fashion than the end of capitalism.
Parfit’s insight aligns & informs with ecological thinking. We could alter the example to that of what we do whenever we produce a destructive material. Parfitt’s insight here provides a reasoning for thinking ecologically, instantiating the repercussions of one generation’s affectivity over another. What it simultaneously explains is why we do behave in a manner that affects future peoples: we know we can never be directly blamed when the actions of now manifest into problems later. This is the crux of the problem.
The Non-Identity Problem posited by Parfitt indicates that considering the rights & best scenario for future generations is problematic precisely because those future people have no identity. We can only conceive of them as being formed out of the fundamental differences we effect now. This is a consequence of trying to establish better choices now so as to effectively alter predicted trajectories that will become a future ‘worth living’. Despite the speculation we can make predictions to avert a future in which these future people least benefit from the re-percussive effects of our speculations. The problem cannot be directly seen, the nature of the future forbids this. However, out of predictive thinking (ecologically) we can be convinced to make decisions that will make the future better. We cannot begin to do this unless we can convince ourselves that spatiotemporal scales are integral to being able to make convincing predictions to benefit the future. The benefits must be toward a better world, which will therefore benefit the generation living in that world.
Self-Interest must be oriented to persuasive predictions of how a future might look. We currently, largely exist in the spatiotemporal scale of our biological clock. As a largely Humanist culture, we do this because it is ideally aligned with our societies habit of planned obsolescence. We don’t have that long here, so buy buy buy to experience as many products as possible. This is choking us. A good Self-Interest theory would not think like this, because the Self-Interest would be toward the preservation of a standard of existence worth living in the future; this of course makes sense if you want to reproduce & the nurturing of a child is futile if their is already no prospective future to live into. There is no good reason to assume that getting what we want is a rational mode of being. If we can sacrifice land to this purpose (landfills, factories, the decimation of wildlife & forest) then surely we can sacrifice our right to objects with a transient value.
If we begin to see more potently the spatiotemporal scales of these objects we claim a right to, we begin to recognize that it is precisely their histories & futures, which are proving deleterious to a standard of living in a murky future. A plastic object has travelled out of deep time, some 40 million years to form into oil. The speck of time this is useful to us pales in comparison. So too its future: one that will greet generations for thousands of years to come. Would you even recognize a person in a thousand years?
These thoughts are all culminating as I write my dissertation on the poet John Wedgewood Clarke. His book of poems Landfill for me instantiates the hyperobject. I am writing a chapter on spatiotemporal scales necessary to thinking ecologically so as to be ecological beings. It is interesting & challenging, if only because I am torn from the safe distances my biological clock establishes. However, I believe that it is this improvidence hacked into our thinking through our diurnal conditioning, which is a hurdle to us reckoning with now to affect much-much-later.
In the comments it would be interesting to know if people think ecologically? Do you think current protests & the Covid-19 pandemic are ecological problems? I look forward to your insights.