Unit Overview

In this last unit we take up one last philosophical question, which is related to whether or not we should care about future generations of humanity. Additionally we consider a few topics related a number of different theories and issues we’ve discussed during this course. The Steven Pinker reading and video are summaries of his book The Better Angels of Our Nature which looks at the levels of violence in the world as related to historical levels. Evidence shows that violence has declined dramatically. Pinker also attempts to look at the causes of why violence has declined. The short excerpt from Derek Parfit, considers the idea that human history may just be beginning and the role that moral philosophy may play in the future of humanity. John Quiggan considers whether a golden age is possible and what it will take to get there.


Robert Heilbronner “What Has Posterity Ever Done For Me

Suppose we also knew with a high degree of certainty that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up our wasteful diet of meat, abandoned all pleasure driving, cut hack on every use of energy that was not essential to the maintenance of a bare minimum. Would we care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival?

“Suppose that, as a result of using up all the world’s resources, human life did come to an end. So what? What is so desirable about an indefinite continuation of the human species, religious convictions apart? It may well be that nearly everybody who is already here on earth would be reluctant to die, and that everybody has an instinctive fear of death. But one must not confuse this with the notion that, in any meaningful sense, generations who are yet unborn can be said to be better off if they are born than if they are not.”

Why should I lift a finger to affect events that will have no more meaning for me 75 years after my death than those that happened 75 years before I was born? . . . There is no rational answer to that terrible question. No argument based on reason will lead me to care for posterity or to lift a finger in its behalf. Indeed, by every rational consideration, precisely the opposite answer is thrust upon us with irresistible force

“… Geological time [has been] made comprehensible to our finite human minds by the statement that the 4.5 billion years of the earth’s history [are] equivalent to once around the world in an SST… . Man got on eight miles before the end, and industrial man got on six feet before the end. … Today we are having a debate about the extent to which man ought to maximize the length of time that he is on the airplane.

“According to what the scientists now think, the sun is gradually expanding and 12 billion years from now the earth will be swallowed up by the sun. This means that our airplane has time to go round three more times. Do we want man to be on it for all three times around the world? Are we interested in man being on for another eight miles? Are we interested in man being on for another six feet? Or are we only interested in man for a fraction of a millimeter—our lifetimes?

“That led me to think: Do I care what happens a thousand years from now? … Do I care when man gets off the airplane? I think I basically [have come] to the conclusion that I don’t care whether man is on the airplane for another eight feet, or if man is on the airplane another three times around the world.”

Adam Smith

Losing our finger vs. Everyone in China Dying: we would more bothered by losing our finger than by hearing about 100 million people dying in China, but we wouldn’t choose that 100 million people in China die instead of losing our finger

Because, “a ‘man within the breast,’ an inner creature of conscience whose insistent voice brooks no disobedience: “It is the love of what is honorable and noble, of the grandeur and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.”

“Yet I am hopeful that in the end a survivalist ethic will come to the fore—not from the leading of a few hooks or the passing twinge of a pious lecture, but from an experience that will bring home to us, as Adam Smith brought home to his “man of humanity,” the personal responsibility that defies all the homicidal promptings of reasonable calculation. Moreover, I believe that the coming generations, in their encounters with famine, war and the threatened life‐carrying capacity of the globe, may be given just such an experience. It is a glimpse into the void of a universe without

Moreover, I believe that the coming generations, in their encounters with famine, war and the threatened life‐carrying capacity of the globe, may be given just such an experience. It is a glimpse into the void of a universe without man. I must rest my ultimate faith on the discovery by these future generations, as the ax of the executioner passes into their hands, of the transcendent importance of posterity for them.”

Steven Pink The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Six Historical Periods of Human Progress

  1. Pacification Process i.e. rise of states
  2. Civilizing Process: plunder -> trade
  3. Humanitarian Revolution i.e. getting rid of gruesome torture and punishments (18th century)
    1. Caused by literacy/science/education not wealth (maybe)
  4. Long Peace
  5. New Peace
  6. Rights Revolution

The Better Angels of Our Nature

“human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and inclinations that counteract them—what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” Historical circumstances have increasingly favored these peaceable inclinations.”

Parts of Human Nature that Militate towards Violence:

  1. Raw exploitation i.e. taking what you want by force (rape, plunder, murder)
  2. Drive Towards Dominance
  3. Revenge i.e. moralistic violence
  4. ideology which might be the biggest contributor of all (such as in militant religions, nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism)

Our better angels:

  1. self-control: the ability to anticipate the consequences of behavior, and inhibit violent impulses.
  2. There’s the faculty of empathy (more technically, sympathy), the ability to feel others’ pain.
  3. There’s the moral sense, which comprise a variety of intuitions
  4. reason, the cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis.

Historical Developments that brought out the better angels of our Nature

  1. a state and justice system with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence
  2. Trade, which is not zero sum, unlike plunder
  3. The expanding Circle: According to this theory, evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. That’s the good news; the bad news is that by default, we apply it only to a narrow circle of allies and family. But over history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding: from the village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to more recently to other races, both sexes, children, and even other species. Although, “This just begs the question of what expanded the circle. I think one can argue that the forces of cosmopolitanism pushed it outward: exposure to history, literature, media, journalism, and travel encourages people to adopt the perspective of a real or fictitious other person. Experiments by Daniel Batson and others have shown that reading a person’s words indeed leads to an increase in empathy, not just for that person, but also for the category that the person represents. Historical evidence includes the timing of the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th century, which was preceded by the Republic of Letters, the great increase in written discourse. Similarly, the Long Peace and Rights Revolutions in the second half of the 20th century were simultaneous with the “electronic global village.” And perhaps—this is highly speculative—but it’s often been stated that the rise of the Internet and of social media might have been behind the color revolutions and the Arab Spring of the 21st century.
  4. The Escalator of Reason

Derek Parfit – How Both Human History, and the History of Ethics, May Just be Beginning

Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has already been said. I believe the opposite. How many people have made non-religious ethics their life’s work? Before the very recent past, very few. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. A large minority were in fact Atheists, whatever they pretended. But before the recent past, very few Atheists  made Ethics their life’s work. Buddha may be among this few, as may be Confucious, and a few Ancient Greeks and Romans. After more than a thousand years there were a few more between the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Hume was an atheist who made ethics part of his life’s work. Sidgwick was another. After Sidgwick, there were several Atheists who were professional moral philosophers. But most of  these did not do ethics. They did meta-ethics. They did not ask which outcomes would be good or bad, or which acts would be right or wrong. They asked, and wrote about, only the meaning of language, the question of objectivity. Non-religious ethics has been systematically studied, by many people, only since about 1960. Compared with the other sciences, non-religious ethics is the youngest and the least advanced. . . Belief in God, or in my gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, non-religious ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.

[excerpt from reasons and Persons: Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1984), 453-4]

John Quiggan “The Golden Age”

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

He predicted

  • a future of leisure for all
  • a separation of work from survival
  • a golden age

Malthus predicted that as prosperity increased populations would also increase which would keep the majority of people in poverty

  • He was against contraception for moral reasons

The 19th century saw an increase in production, an increase in work, estimated at 60 hrs per week, but mass poverty.

Most economists in the 19th century agreed with Malthus, except Marx.

By the late 19th century Malthus was being proven wrong. People were having smaller families and the middle class was growing.

“The relatively novel idea of progress — that the natural tendency of human affairs was to get better rather than worse — rapidly became part of ‘common sense’.”

Then things started to really change:

“The working class had more compelling reasons to hope for better things. Over decades of struggle, workers clawed back the ground they had lost and then some. The Factory Acts outlawed child labour in Britain, and by 1870 all children in England and Wales were entitled to at least an elementary education. The hours of work were limited by legislation and union action. The eight-hour day, a norm that is still under challenge 150 years later, was first achieved by Melbourne stonemasons in 1855, though it was not established more generally, even in Australia, until the early 20th century. The weekend, making Saturday as well as Sunday a day of leisure, came even later, around the middle of the 20th century in most developed countries.”

“The idea that a combination of technological progress and political reform could produce a genuine utopia became an appealing alternative to the ‘pie in the sky’ of an afterlife.”

Numerous books were written about this future golden age:

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888)

Oscar Wilde’s The Sould of Man Under Socialism (1891)

Marx and Engels’ The German Idealogy (1846)

But they didn’t have an economic theory to support their ideas.

Keynes did:

“He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century. Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less.”

Throughout the middle of the 20th century it seemed that Keynes was right. The rise of the social democratic welfare state had begun to make extreme poverty and destitution a distant memory for most. People expected to retire at 65. Etc. Most people felt they could change their job if they found it too unsatisfactory .

But progress was halted.

“How did this reversal come about, and is there any possibility that Keynes’s vision will be realised?”

“The first of these questions is easily answered. The economic turmoil of the ’70s put an end to the utopianism of the ’60s, and resulted in the resurgence of a hard-edged version of capitalism, variously referred to as neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus. I have used the more neutral term ‘market liberalism’ to describe this set of ideas.”

“The central theoretical tenet of market liberalism is the efficient (financial) markets hypothesis. In the strong form that is most relevant to policy decisions, the hypothesis states that the prices determined in markets for financial assets such as shares, bonds and their various derivatives are the best possible estimates of the value of those assets.

In the core ideology of market liberalism, the efficient markets hypothesis is combined with the claim that the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer. This claim is rarely spelt out explicitly by its advocates, so it is best known by its derisive label, the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis.

Taken together, the efficient markets hypothesis and the trickle down hypothesis lead us in the opposite direction to the one envisaged by Keynes. If these hypotheses are true, the mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets are not merely justified: they are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us. The investments that generate technological progress will, on this view, only be made if they are guided by financial markets driven by the desire to make unimaginable fortunes.”

“This experience makes it clear that, if Keynesian social democracy is to regain the dominant position it held from the end of Keynes’s own lifetime until the ’70s, it must offer more than a technocratic lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society. For this reason, the time is right to re-examine Keynes’s vision of a future where economic scarcity, real or perceived, no longer dominates life as it does today.”

Keynes didn’t consider the whole world:

“So, taking the entire world into account only defers the estimated end of scarcity by 30 years, to 2060 — within the expected lifetime of my children.”

He didn’t consider housework and children.


The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

A Universal Basic Income:

There remains the question of how to move from a revitalised social democracy to the kind of utopia envisaged by Keynes. It would be absurd to spell out a detailed transitional program, but it’s useful to think about one of the central elements of such a society — a guaranteed minimum income.

In one sense, a guaranteed minimum income involves little more than a re-labelling of the existing benefits provided by all modern welfare states (with the US, as always, a notable exception). In most modern welfare states, everyone is eligible for income support which should be sufficient to prevent them from falling into poverty. Those who cannot work because of age or disability are automatically entitled to such support, while unemployed workers receive either insurance benefits related to their previous wages or some basic allowance conditional on job search.

In a post-scarcity society, everyone would be guaranteed an income that yielded a standard of living significantly better than poverty, and this guarantee would be unconditional. The move from a near-poverty benefit subject to eligibility conditions to a liveable, guaranteed minimum income would require both an increase in productivity, such that a smaller number of workers could produce an adequate income for all, and some fairly radical changes in social attitudes.

It seems clear enough that technological progress can generate the necessary productivity gains, so what is needed most is a change in attitudes to work that would make a guaranteed minimum income socially sustainable

The Future:

his brings us to the final, really big question. Supposing a Keynesian utopia is feasible, will we want it? Or will we prefer to keep chasing after money to buy more and better things?

An escape from what Keynes called ‘the tunnel of economic necessity’ is still open to us. Yet it will require radical changes in the economic structures that drive the chase for money and in the attitudes shaped by a culture of consumption. After decades of finance-driven capitalism, it takes an effort to recall that such changes ever seemed possible. . . Popular anger has boiled over in a string of electoral defeats for the advocates of austerity. But, unlike the right-wing tribalism that has formed part of that backlash, progressive politics cannot, in the end, rely on anger. It must offer the hope of a better life. That means reclaiming utopian visions such as that of Keynes.

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