What will future generations condemn us for?

Here is a bit more post-holiday moralizing. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the famous ethicist and philosophy professor at Princeton University asked the question in the Wapo:What will future generations condemn us for? What else should be on the list? Does anyone in the observant community care? Why not? What were we thinking?

Industrial meat production

The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; it was Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, who observed that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they’re doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.
In the European Union, many of the most inhumane conditions we allow are already illegal…

The institutionalized and isolated elderly

Nearly 2 million of America’s elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Is this what Western modernity amounts to — societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?

Keeping aging parents and their children closer is a challenge…Yet the three signs apply here as well: When we see old people who, despite many living relatives, suffer growing isolation, we know something is wrong. We scarcely try to defend the situation; when we can, we put it out of our minds. Self-interest, if nothing else, should make us hope that our descendants will have worked out a better way.

The environment

Of course, most transgenerational obligations run the other way — from parents to children — and of these the most obvious candidate for opprobrium is our wasteful attitude toward the planet’s natural resources and ecology. Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you’ll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That’s the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe’s first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth’s surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.

It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet:

Let’s not stop there, though. We will all have our own suspicions about which practices will someday prompt people to ask, in dismay: What were they thinking?

Even when we don’t have a good answer, we’ll be better off for anticipating the question.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, is the author of “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.”

One response to “What will future generations condemn us for?

  1. I feel we’ll be condemned by our progeny for allowing Diaspora Judaism to disappear. We’ll be condemned for not stopping Israel from becoming over time an undemocratic apartheid state. An apartheid state leads over time to a one state solution or endless strife. Either solution will create a reverse Zionism. I read there are already close to a million yordim. Third, though we can’t do much about the Russians, the old Likud people or even most Sefardim, the settlers and the charedim are from circles close to ours. We have not done enough to stop these movements, each of which can have awful consequences for Israel.
    On the global level I agree with Appiah about the environment. I can’t get worked up over animal rights when we can’t stop genocide. The old people are interesting. Medicaid people are warehoused and many times live in the same facility with schizophrenics. It’s awful. All the rest, the children don’t call, or even fax…yes, but there are far bigger problems. In fact in one respect we are far too kind with old people. There are drugs that cost over $100,000 annually, and prolong life on average for 1-2 months. A large part of Medicare is devoted to the final months in a person’s life. We can’t afford it.

    I think peak oil will bring us down before environmental apocalypse. You don’t need much…a 10%-20% absolute shortage, and the world economy is in big trouble. And the fight for resources will make life vicious.

    If it’s not one thing it’s another. As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say “Well, Jane, it just goes to show you, it’s always something.”

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