Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lamenting the past; changing the future

A walk on the beach - good place to think. M. Charlton

Time for another pondering. This one's a little harder to get your head round, but I promise it gets more interesting and relevant as it goes along. Stick with it and hopefully you'll see what I mean.

There have been lots of occasions for remembrance this year: in July, the last surviving soldier to see service in the First World War died; in September it was the 60 years since the end of World War II; in two weeks time it will be 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. Each, in its way, giving us cause to reflect on the more terrible events of the Twentieth Century.

It is common to hear people say these events 'should never have happened'; sometimes they go so far as, 'I wish it had never happened.' We understand the sentiment behind these words, but if you stand back a moment they are fraught with difficulty.

Let's take an example to illustrate - the First World War - and let's imagine you had the supernatural power to go back in time and change events. It might seem obvious that you ought to do everything possible to avoid the human suffering, to stop that terrible war from ever having started. But pause a moment before you raise your magic wand?

The First World War was undoubtedly human slaughter on a grand scale. But consider my question carefully, would you actually chose to change history? Before you decide, consider that altering history will always have an impact on the present. Or putting it more directly, if that terrible war had never taken place, it is a dead certainty that you would not be here now reading this blog - and neither would your children be alive or your grandchildren too. Do you still want to wave your wand?

The First World War may have been a terrible event, but it led to changes in society which led to your grandparents meeting, and later your mum meeting your dad, and the rest, as they say, is history... To answer my own question directly, I would not stop that war happening even if I had the power to do so; I love my own children too much.

Of course, when people say they wished that such and such an event 'had never happened', they don't mean it in quite that literal sense. They merely express their sadness at its consequences; and aside from anything else, they know they cannot go back and change history. So isn't this just a game of words - the kind of academic puzzle which only philosophers enjoy?

Well, not quite. Because if you apply the same principles to the future it gets more interesting, and it can take you to some unexpected and perhaps uncomfortable conclusions.

Take, for example, the contemporary issue of global warming. We all know that we need to do something about the environment before it is too late. If we don't there will be terrible consequences for future generations; people will die, the world will be a lesser place...

But hold on a moment. What if we took only minimal action to reduce carbon emissions; what if the earth heated up and we saw large scale climate change? How then would future generations look back on us? I suggest they would view the past much as we do the First World War - they would lament our folly, but unless their life was so terrible as to not be worth living, they would not logically want events to have actually been different.

The philosopher Jonathan Glover acknowledges this is a serious problem. For if we take this view to it's conclusion it suggests that there is no moral consequence to the actions we take today. Whatever the state of the environment we leave for future generations they would choose to keep it, because to change the past would mean - putting it bluntly - that they personally, would not be alive.

And yet this is so counter-intuitive - on this basis we would take no action at all.

The solution says Glover - and you may have got there already - is that we have to think about 'conceptual' people rather than 'real' people. We know the real people of the future - the people who actually exist in, say, 200 years time - would choose to leave the past unchanged no matter what we do. We know too that whatever actions we take today will affect which real people are born in the future. But Glover says it is not our responsibility to try and chose between different sets of real people who may or may not be born - frankly, we can't do that. Rather, he says it is our responsibility is to maximise the conditions for human flourishing, whoever those people may be.

In a sense what he is saying is blindingly obvious; we should try to make the future a better place - a place where people's well-being is maximised, where there opportunities for a rich and fulfilled life are the best they can be. That is what we all would want isn't it?

But the idea of maximising human flourishing can take us to some uncomfortable places when we apply it to areas that are more controversial than the environment. Glover, for example, discusses all of this in the context of the genetic engineering of children. His book, Choosing Children, is not an easy read, but I suggest it is worth a look by anyone going through the traumas of IVF or genetic issues associated with conception.

If we agree that our obligation to future generations is to maximise human flourishing, then where does this leave us with regard to engineering the genetics of individuals? There is widespread concern over technical advances in this area - we may shortly have the power to influence the genes of our children and yet progress towards this is strongly resisted in some quarters. But leaving aside religious objections, on what grounds can we deny, say, the development of techniques to improve intelligence or physical well-being? Surely these would improve human flourishing too? And this is just the start of our moral dilemmas.

Glover describes a particularly difficult case of a profoundly deaf couple who wanted to ensure their child had the best possible upbringing - and so decided they would like to engineer it to be born deaf! Their reasoning was that they were better placed as parents to bring up a deaf child, and that the benefits of their empathetic nurturing would outweigh any disadvantage of deafness - indeed, the child, when grown, would not logically wish to change their disability, just as we do not logically wish to alter the events of the First World War.

The case above is arguable either way, but there are many less controversial genetic interventions we could make, which, for the present, the law prevents us. There are also the equally difficult cases, such as those involving judgements about whether or not to abort a genetically abnormal foetus. Glover's point is that we need something to help guide us in these decisions - something beyond the individuals who will (or will not) be born as a result of the decisions we take. We need this because we know that the individuals of the future would not wish to change whatever decisions we made. His suggestion is that thinking in terms of 'human flourishing' is our best guide to a profoundly complex moral problem.

So it is interesting, I think, how one thought leads to another - and how apparently obvious principles are not quite so straight forward when applied in different circumstances. And though we might think it all very high brow - there are times when such decisions will affect us all. It is conceptual thinking which helps us through this maze. And a starting point, I think the idea of human flourishing, is a good one.

In concluding this piece I ought to make some things clear. I hope it is obvious that I do not think any less of the horrors of the past than the next person. Nor am I taking any particular stance in relation to abortion or genetic engineering. I have a particular interest in IVF because it touched me personally, but beyond that I am interested only in how we find our way through these issues. It seems to me that Glover has something valuable to offer, and that it is worthy of careful consideration. I hope you found it interesting too.

After thoughts

Reading this piece aloud to someone they said, 'The only thing I don't quite follow is why I wouldn't be alive if the First World War hadn't happened.' It occurred to me that this conclusion may not be as entirely obvious as I thought.

When you think about it, many lesser events could have led to you not being here; if your parents hadn't met at that dance, or they hadn't gone to bed early that night... Of course, someone else might be here instead , someone very similar - but not YOU!

We are all a consequence of the past - both the world changing events and the apparently inconsequential choices made by others. The First World War was merely an example of a terrible event which we might wish to have changed - I could have chosen others further back in time.

It comes back again to the real you, as opposed to the conceptual you - the person who might have been born had events turned out differently. It is odd that in the relation to the present we have a clear obligation to the former and can judge the consequences fairly straightforwardly, but in relation to future generations it is much, much more difficult.


  1. I found this interesting, bearing in mind I had been in introvertive mood lately, and talked about being true to me, being the REAL ME, as opposed to the one people/society expected me to be. As a mother I am expected to act a certain way, feel a certain way towards my children. (Though as they are nearly 40 it seems daft calling them that, but you know what I mean). I don't act or feel as I should, about them or my grandchildren, but there are reasons for that which are personal. I am considered 'odd' or 'snobbish' because I keep to myself, don't adhere to fashion but go my own way, keep to myself, am almost reclusive. But this is how I like it, I love my own company so why should I spoil it by inviting others in who I don't like half as much!! The only other person I want to spend time with these days is my husband, who is my best friend above all else and all others.
    As for the couple you mentioned who wanted their child born deaf? I think that a very selfish attitude, because of the problems he/she may encounter in later life. Far better to be born with normal hearing, and then perhaps he may be more tolerant towards people with deafness or other disabilities, when he reaches adulthood?

  2. Thank you. Introspection is good, I think, though everything in moderation...

    It is helpful, I find, to look beyond some of the ideas we take for granted, and understand what lies behind the way we think about the world. By doing so, we can apply our views more consistently, particularly to those things which matter most to us.

    I tend to agree about the deaf child though I think it is less obvious than it might at first seem. A hearing child with deaf parents would undoubtedly have its problems too.

  3. This made very interesting reading Mark. Got me thinking, the me that is here now - am I in replacement for another me that could have been here if history had been different? Or would I have been born anyway, somewhere? But that other not-born me would not know so would it matter? Bit like death or being unconscious - if you are 'no more' it won't matter because you won't know. I believe in past lives anyway and/or links to our ancestors so that might throw a spanner in the works.

    If you can make sense of my comment, well done. I know what I mean :-)

    As for the deaf child, that is horrendous. As is any king of designer genetic engineering.

    PS Strata Florida is quite an atmospheric place, would you agree? Glad the weather has been kind to you.

  4. PS

    I Love that picture, did you paint it?

  5. Yes I painted the picture - Newgale beach near my house in Wales.

    Strata Florida was atmospheric. Jane said as much the moment she walked through the archway.

  6. Your thesis brought to mind the word used so often when speaking about discarding something. People will say, "I threw it 'away.'"

    The problem with this is there is no "away." It is always somewhere.