The Morality Of The Future
Jeffrey Israel has taught religion and political philosophy at Northwestern
University and Rutgers University. He currently teaches Jewish history at Eugene
Lang College of The New School in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.
The future is mysterious, but not entirely. It is tangible in the promises that a person makes and in the unspoken responsibility one has to others. However much a person may enjoy whimsical fantasies about the future or disinterested predictions, the future will inevitably weigh most heavily on the present as a moral concept.
In what follows, I will explore the future-orientation of parenting, which is very much a part of my own everyday life. Through this exploration I will also reflect more generally on the moral dimension of “the future.”
This is the fourth and last of a series of posts on the nexus of temporality, self-understanding, and politics. In the first post (Are You A Paster, Presentist, Or Futurian?) I explored the possibility of dividing people according to their temporal orientation, rather than, say, according to their religion, ethnicity, and so on. In the second post (Are You Related To George Washington, Like I Am?) I reflected further on what it means to be a Paster. In last week’s post I wrote about being a Presentist (How To Stop Time). In this final post I will explain why, throughout, I have proclaimed that I am in fact a Futurian.
Earlier in this series I suggested that Futurians often seem particularly preoccupied with technology. For the Utopian Futurian, I noted, things like smart phones, smart cars, and smart houses can function as reverse echoes emanating from the future, revelations of our utopian potential. On the other hand, I also noted that a Dystopian Futurian might passionately foreswear all technology – fearing that it may be the cause of an impending apocalyptic nightmare.
While I am certainly a Futurian, I have no such relationship to technology. It doesn’t move me. I tend only to relate to technology as a convenience.
For instance, I have very few gadgets. But I do have a smart phone. And I love it because it solves problems that were previously very inconvenient. Here’s an example: I have a knack for getting lost and having no idea where I am even when I am somewhere that I have been many times before. Having lived in New York City for several years, it was only when I got an iPhone that I could turn left or right after emerging from the subway on the basis of something more than a bewildered guess.
I have a similarly reductionist view of technology as it relates to parenting. I do not spend a lot of time worrying about how television, movies, video games, etc., are going to impact my son’s life. All of them merely offer opportunities for play, rest, interpretation, and the exercise of judgment that are not significantly different from other such opportunities in the rest of life.
Of course, there are all kinds of studies suggesting that watching television, and so forth, negatively impacts children’s development. I just can’t imagine how such studies could ever fully take into consideration the truly pertinent background information: like, whether or not the child’s household also includes a first edition copy of Martin Buber’s Ich Und Du.
Technology is merely a derivative concern. The quality of fundamental relationships and interactions is paramount.
The love of a parent should be expressed with sensitivity and attention to the child’s experience of the world at every moment. But it must also be at every moment a future-oriented love. It is the parent’s responsibility after all to raise the child, not only to meet the demands of each passing day.
When I reflect on my responsibility to my own son’s future, I hope more than anything else that I will enable him to grow up to be a mentsh.
Mentsh is a Yiddish word for a good person. But it does not refer to a high-minded, pious, self-righteous do-gooder. It does not refer to someone who “does all the right things.”
A mentsh is a thoughtful and compassionate person, who is reasonably reconciled to his own vulnerability and sensitive to the vulnerability of others, who wears the absurdity of life lightly, who is able to perceive the nuances of each new situation, and judges wisely when he is confronted with a dilemma.
A mentsh may or may not frequently watch TV or play video games. He has good judgment about roughly how much is appropriate of whatever he does.
Wealth, success, genius, fame, power – all well and good, but these are laughably pedestrian qualities by contrast to the virtue of being a mentsh.
When it comes to my own child, let him have no interest in philosophy or the American Founders, let him view his Jewishness as an uninteresting accident of birth, let him inadvertently use my first edition copy of Ich Und Du for kindling, let him – and now I’m really pushing my own limits – vote for a Republican! But let him be a mentsh and the future will have redeemed my hope, effort, and anxiety in the present.
What makes me a Futurian is that this is also more or less the way that I think about everyone around me, probably everyone in the world, and certainly myself. I want for us to do better, to be good. I’m an old-fashioned progressivist: I want us – as individuals and collectively in societies – to grow up to be mentshes. As much as I am congenitally devoted to ritual study for its own sake, I study religion and ethics because I want to help determine how well we’re doing and how we can do better.
The future is when we can be judged for how much moral progress we’ve made since right now. It is when you will be asked, fatefully: “were you a mentsh?” This is the future that preoccupies me and makes me a Futurian.