Timeless Either-Ors

In my last column, on "millennial moralists" (which yielded a few friendly complaints and started a few arguments, I’m told), I promised a prognostication of 10 ethical challenges for the next thousand years. It didn’t take long to realize how foolhardy such a proposal might be. Imagine someone from the year 1000 trying to propose the quandaries we humans have subsequently faced. Imagine, someone even guessing, in 1900, the huge ethical issues of our century. Atomic bombs, genetic mapping, gender bending, antibiotics and Internet porn were likely not even dreamed of.

And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some moral continuities, not only with 1899, but 999 as well. What generation has not confronted the choice of competing "life goals" the wielding of power, the accumulation of possessions and the exercise of pleasure? Our recent times might have formulated it: "Everyone’s out for a buck," "Looking out for No. 1," "Everybody’s out for kicks." Aristotle may have seen it as competing desires for inferior goods like trinkets, influence or indulgence. Medievalists wrote of concupiscence of the eyes, of the flesh and the pride of life.


Modern prophets, too, reduced everything to power and violence (Machiavelli, Hobbes and Nietzsche) or money and property (whether Karl Marx or Ayn Rand) or, with Freud and DeSade, pontificated on the primacy of the pleasure principle. Mario Puzo is reported to have said that every great story is about power, sex and money. I’ve always wondered if that’s connected to the fact that there are three corresponding ancient religious vows?

No matter what the inventions of the century ahead, consequently, I think there will remain, under diverse appearances, the perennial moral battlegrounds of ego, possession and pleasure.

The top 10 challenges, I propose, are really five "either-or" questions. The choices to which we give ourselves are what we will become. The values we embrace will define what kind of people we are to be.

1-2. Life versus Death. This choice goes back a long way; and it will be with us, literally, as long as we live. It will take the form of many debates, the core issue being a question: Will we continue on the horrific path of infanticide, rationalized suicide and eliminating the marginal or will we come to our senses and one day have our offspring wonder how we came so close to embracing such moral ugliness and finally, in courage, rejected it?

 3-4. Individualism versus Solidarity. "Am I my brother’s keeper?" This goes back a long way, too. Either the face of the other will become the face of the enemy and life will be reduced, finally, to warfare "all against all," or we will find in every mother’s child, whether in Venezuela, Saigon, Baghdad, Calcutta, Harare or Hoboken, our sisters and brothers. There is a great fright in the United States about "one-worldism." We must get over it. For we are one world and one humanity, and our treatment or neglect of the least will come down to the hardness or the greatness of our hearts.

5-6. Particular versus Universal. Race, nation, class, tribe, family, methe particularities of life indeed are what make us real. Yet if the particular becomes the only reality we acknowledge and honor, all others must be reduced to being mere satellites of our private egos or our temporarily mutual self-interest. The ethical theories that mirror social particularism are, of course, egoism and relativism. If there is no objective truth to be discovered and affirmed, then I can do anything I want. If there is no value other than what you see fit to value, then you can do anything you want. This means trouble.

 7-8. Exploitation versus Conservation. We cannot live, to be sure, without "using." In some way, all of our relationships, our work and play, and our encounter with the earth and all its species have a degree of instrumental value for us. We could not do anything if it did not in some way offer a promise of fulfillment, enhancement or happiness. Yet if we persist in seeing all beings as mere instruments for our desire, we will only destroy the very goods we need. If we fail to appreciate this earth, its splendid forms of life and its glory of persons in their intrinsic beauty and value, we are destined for self-extinction; and the last one of us will die from bitter aloneness.

 9-10. Nature versus Construct. The products of our hands indeed reveal our glory. Our artifice expresses our artistry, our culture embodies our genius. Institutions, invention, science and museums are the texts we write about ourselves. Yet if there are only constructs in our existence, if there is no "Nature and Nature’s God" from whom we come and to whom we go, we are left only with competing illusions. If we think we can fully refashion gender, sexuality and reproduction according to our latest private and political ache, we will destroy what they were. If we harness the human genome to eliminate our frailty, we will eliminate what we once were. That may be attractive to some. But underlying the dream of total human construction is a hidden rejection of our humanness, a great no to what our God, our fragile world and our ingenuity have made of us. Entertaining such dreams may lead to nightmares.

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