Note: This is part 5 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4
In my previous posts on morality, I’ve listed a set of baseline premises which we can use as the foundation of a system of morality:
• Perpetuation of the human race
• The value of human life
• Individual autonomy and accountability
• Importance of community
• Respect for living things
• Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
• Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles
From those premises, I have derived three basic universal moral rules:
1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Promote the community’s welfare
In this post, I will discuss Rule #2: act for the future. Acting for the future is a natural extension of Rule #1 Following Rule #1 means not just being selfless and loving toward people in the present, but showing that same love and selflessness towards those in the future. It also means showing that same love and concern for your future self. We think of our “self” as one continuous being, existing from birth until death. It can sometimes be helpful, however, to consider this idea of a continuous self as an illusion and consider the “you” of the present moment as a finite entity, one which will soon no longer exist, and of the different “yous” at future times as separate independent selves. Consider who you were 10 years ago. Chances are that there are substantial differences between who you are now and who you were in the past. You probably look different. Your opinions about many things may have changed. Your personality may have changed. Your relationships and personal circumstances may be different. These changes were probably mostly gradual ones, so it may be difficult to fix a moment in time when the “you” of the past changed into the “you” of the present, but it is probably clear that the change has happened.
One of the unique properties of personhood that makes us consider our future and past selves to be the same “self” is that the condition of each of your future selves is largely determined by your actions in the present. But taking a moment from time to time to look at your future selves as separate, independent beings for whom you have complete responsibility helps you remember that because of your obligations of love and selflessness, you have an obligation to work in the present to ensure the welfare and personal development of your future selves.
Why focus on the future?
Human beings are not very good at predicting the future. Our predictions of what will happen in the future, and how we’ll feel about it, are often wrong. Over time, almost every mutual fund underperforms when compared with the market average. Pundits and so-called experts generally avoid making specific predictions that can be easily measured and evaluated, and when they do, they are usually wrong (of course, they love to trumpet the rare occasions when they are right, but conveniently forget to mention the far greater number of times that they were wrong). On a more personal note, we are very bad at predicting how we will feel in the future, and how potential life events will affect our future levels of happiness.1 So if the future is so opaque, why should we act for the future, and how can we do it?
Acting for the future doesn’t require that we predict specific events, but that we engage in the behaviors most likely to fulfill the premises of the moral system. How can we know which behaviors will do this? First, we can use all of our methods for discovering truth, including the scientific method, past experience, and our knowledge about cause and effect. Second, we can draw on the experiences of others. Most people are very similar to each other. We can get a good idea about the effect of certain behaviors in our life by looking at the effect of those same behaviors in others’ lives.
We act for the future by doing the things now that will make the world a better, more moral place in the future. We act for the future by improving ourselves and doing the things which will make us better people in the future. Acting for the world means seeking progress: both personal progression, progression of others, and progression of humanity.
Make the World Better
The most basic way to “live for the future” is to live so that the world will have been a better place for having you in it. My conception of morality places human beings at the center, so making it a “better place” focuses first on making it a better place for human beings, but also secondarily on making it a better place for all other living things, so long as we can do it without hurting humans beings in the process.
So where do we start in our quest to make the world better? The first place is the family. Almost none of us will do much that will be remembered in history books or encyclopedias. The vast majority of even the “famous” people of today – including most scholars, writers, politicians, movie stars, and musicians – will mostly be forgotten in 100 years, relegated to footnotes in books that nobody reads. And in 1000 years, most will be completely unknown. The most lasting contribution most of us will make to humanity’s future is through the children we leave behind.
Because our greatest impact on the future is through our children, we should put a proportionate amount of time and effort into our children, but not in the way that most people would think. Things like dance lessons or piano practice, private school tuition or tutors, extra homework or sports practices are not the most important places to direct our efforts. As I’ve discussed previously,2 there is a large and ever-growing body twin and adoption studies examining a variety of life outcomes which show that, out of heredity, home environment, or the outside environment, the home environment is the least important variable.3 Now, of course, parenting is still important. Good parenting can have small effects at the margins. Moreover, bad parenting can have disastrous effects: any kind of abuse will very likely have significant negative impacts on children. Parents need to care for their children, teach them basic manners, ensure they have access to an education, etc. But assuming that those basic needs are met, most of the life outcomes for your children will be determined, to a large extent, by genetics and by environmental factors outside of your control.
So how do we put forth the time and effort to making the world a better place through our children? First, if you are a decent person and are someone who is contributing to society, then chances are that your children will be that way too. So, you can contribute most to future society by focusing more on having more children and less on being a helicopter parent who micromanages every aspect of your child’s upbringing.
Other than abuse, one of the worst things that parents can do to negatively influence their children is divorce. Just like most other behaviors and life events, likelihood of divorce does seem to have a genetic component,4 and it appears that some of the same genetic factors that increase parents’ likelihood to divorce, and not the divorce itself, are responsible for some of the negative outcomes in children in divorced families. Some of the negative outcomes, however, do appear to be caused by the divorce itself, and not by genetic factors.5 That means that you should be committed to monogamy for life (and that if you have a family history of divorce, you should be concerned about whether you might have a genetic propensity for divorce). Of course, there are situations (such as abusive relationships) when a divorce would be best for children, but in our world of no-fault divorces, these are likely a minority of current divorces.
Research has indicated various factors which increase the probability of a stable, enduring marriage. Women who delay their first sexual encounter until adulthood (after age 18) have much lower divorce rates.6 While it could be that some other factor makes a woman both more likely to have sex as an adolescent and to get divorced later in life, the research indicates that it is more likely that having sex at early age itself made women more likely to get divorced (although more research needs to be done to confirm this). I don’t know what the research shows about the effect on men of having sex at a young age, but it doesn’t matter: the sexual partners of young women are mostly young men, so that means that to prevent early sexual behavior from increasing the likelihood of divorce, both young men and young women should not have sex until adulthood.
People who live together before marriage are far more likely to divorce.7 Couples who cohabit “reported significantly lower quality marriages and a greater potential for splitting up than other couples.”8 Some researchers have questioned the causality in the relationship between cohabitation and divorce,9 but I have not found any hard data from these critics to back up their criticisms. Thus, absent further data to the contrary, it is also prudent to avoid cohabitation before marriage.
The most dramatic large-scale improvements in quality of life for large numbers of people have been brought about by the astronomically high levels of economic growth since the industrial revolution.10 Some people like to portray humanity’s far past as being an idyllic existence living in harmony with nature, free of exploitation or hierarchies. They are wrong. Life for our forebears was nasty, brutish, and short. Our farmer ancestors generally lived lives close to subsistence, doing backbreaking labor all day, every day.
Before agriculture, our hunter gatherer ancestors had somewhat better health and diets than their farmer descendants, and they usually worked fewer hours as well. But warfare and violence between tribal groups in hunter gatherer societies was generally high. Infanticide was probably fairly common. And life was still not easy. For example, women had to carry each child child up to about age four for miles every day. Our hunter gatherer ancestors living in that “idyllic past” did all sorts of things to harm the environment, such as hunting to extinction almost all large mammals outside of Africa and practicing slash and burn agriculture that radically altered the environment of many places on Earth. Medical knowledge was nonexistent. Literacy amongst our ancestors was rare, if it existed at all in their culture. People didn’t have the leisure or the knowledge to worry about things like education, the future of humanity, economic growth, or the environment. The truth is that the only reason people in the present day worry about such things as quality of life, humanity’s future, or the environment is because economic growth (along with the accompanying scientific advances) have given them enough education, prosperity, and leisure to be able consider those issues.
Acting for the future means doing the things we can do now to make sure that the future is a better place to live for ourselves, our descendants, and every other human being. The best way to achieve that is through economic growth (both on a personal and societal level).
How can we as individuals do this? One the biggest long-run determinants of economic growth is the savings rate. We should therefore avoid using debt to finance personal consumption and we should save. Not all debt is bad, though. It can a good idea to use debt to accumulate capital – this could include going into debt for an education to build human capital (but only to the extent that the education increases our earning power and gives us skills which will contribute to society) or to build physical capital (by, for example, building a factory or starting a business).
More than just saving, we should be frugal and restrained in our lifestyle and consumption of resources. One of the miracles of the human condition since the industrial revolution is decreasing prices for almost every type of good. It seems that human ingenuity has been able to cope with increasing population sizes and the limits of earth’s resources such that we have been able to provide better living conditions for ever-growing numbers of people. It would be easy to assume that this will always continue. I hope that it does. But prudence dictates at least some caution. It makes sense to conserve our resources. The great prosperity we enjoy in the developed world is a direct result of the frugality and savings of our forbears. It is fascinating to read through accounts of the living conditions of average Americans from previous eras. They endured many hardships to be able to save their money and ensure a better future for their children. The infrastructure and physical capital that we have now in the United States is the result of generations of hardworking Americans who saved and worked and built up our country. We owe it to future generations to do the same – it would be tremendously short-sighted and selfish to refuse to do the same thing for future generations.
That means we should keep a budget. We should live below our means and save our money. We should be frugal and conservative in what we buy and what we consume. Reduce, reuse, recycle, etc. We should also minimize our consumption of meat. When you feed plants to animals, most of the energy contained in the plants is lost – it is far more efficient to devote the same land and resources used to feed and raise animals to growing crops for human consumption.11 If everyone ate the same kind of diet as Americans, the world would only be able to support 2.5 billion people.12
On a societal level, we should seek governments and economic systems that encourage economic growth. This means governments free of corruption and free of onerous economic regulations. It means governments with laws that encourage real competition between firms (and not the oligopolies and monopolies we see in so many industries today) and that prevent corporate executives from extracting high rents (in the form of ridiculously high salaries) or from maintaining a shortsighted perspective focused on short-term profits (to keep a high stock price so they can get bonuses) at the expense of real long term growth.
Implications of Rule #2: specific sub-rules
I’ve discussed some of the implications of this rule, but there are many more. So what are some of the moral rules that would derive from Rule 1? I list below the rules that I think most important. An individual discussion of each rule is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think that most of them speak for themselves.
1. Act with self-control.
2. Practice the things you want to succeed doing.
3. Persist in doing good.
4. Cease doing unnecessary or less important things and instead prioritize doing the necessary and more important things first.
5. Always seek to improve your character and discipline yourself.
6. Get married, and don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t cohabitate before marriage.
7. If you’re a good person, have children. Have more children.
8. Be good to your children. Teach them and give them the basic opportunities and tools for success in life.
9. Live within your means.
10. Be frugal and save your money, work to be self-reliant.
11. Avoid debt.
12. Minimize the resources you use.
13. Work hard.
14. Work doing things that contribute to society.
15. In all of your work, balance your efforts so that you do not neglect the most important things in life: your family and relationships with others.
16. Always seek greater knowledge and wisdom.
17. Help others achieve the comfort and well-being that you enjoy.
In the next post in the series, I will discuss Rule #3, “Promote the community’s welfare.”