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« Noël Carroll on Humour and Morality | Main | Michael Martin on Hume on Taste »

July 20, 2013



Resolution of the rational pressure to standardize our reactions to these two cases (world ends soon _vs._ world ends in billions of years) can be categorized in a number of ways, explored in this podcast:

1. Singer is right. Our life's work is pointless in either case.

2. Our feeling that a quick end to the world makes our life's work pointless is wrong, and the legacy of our life's work is equally valuable in both cases.

3. There is a relevant difference between the case that tells us we _should_ treat the cases differently, to wit:

3a. The eventual end of the world isn't assured because maybe someone smarter than us in many years will solve the problem--that each generation will postpone the world's demise by longer, on average, than one generation.

3b. We think the human race has a certain potential that will be realized between now and the end, as long as the end is sufficiently far in the future.

4. Our thoughts about the eventual end of the world are unreliable. We lack the capacity to think about things that will happen in billions of years.

I think there's a third way, besides 3a and 3b, to explain the relevant difference between the case that tells us we _should_ treat the cases differently, which is that in addition to the world surviving for some finite length of time after we're gone, so will our legacy last for a finite time, too. Whether we're figuring out how to beat cancer, or designing a better bridge, what we do in this life will last for some time after we're gone, but not an infinite time. We might think of our legacy as having a "half life" of, say, 300 (or 10 or 1000) years. The half life of citations of scientific papers is actually measured and cataloged, so it's fair to use the weighted average of these half lives as a decent measure of a scientist's legacy.

The point is: if I judge the half-life of my legacy to be longer than my expectation of the end of the world, then I would say, as Singer did, that schoolwork is pointless, and not otherwise.

Rebecca McMillan

Thanks for a this fine podcast. What a treat to hear Dr. Scheffler, from whom I took an ethics course at Berkeley back in 1984. I still remember and use much of what I learned in that course on a regular basis. Indeed, Rawls' veil of ignorance came up in conversation just the other day.

Thanks too for your good work in producing thoughtful content in bite size parcels. Well done!

Jim Vaughan

Ive been away from Philosophy Bites for a while, so it was great to come back to such an interesting topic which raised so many questions.

Why should we care what happens after our death?

Isn't this a Heideggerian thing? That Dasein, whose existence has significance for itself, is also worlded - immersed in, and a product of, the society into which we are thrown. In cultural evolution terms, we care about the continuation of our society, culture, values etc. because we are shaped by our society to care, just as our (selfish) genes have shaped us to care for relatives or reciprocate favours. We are a product of what successfully got handed on. So, our concerns are not limited to our individual existence - we are also expressions of our evolving culture.

Is that unsatisfying as an explanation? It probably sidesteps ethics as "first philosophy", and reduces it to a set of cultural (and genetic) norms.

I found the "Albi problem", also very interesting (and funny).
My answer to Albi would be we do not know for certain that humanity will cease to exist in the future, and this uncertainty I think determines our current concerns.

Doing his homework now is a more certain determinant of his future continuation to thrive - which has value in itself. (That there are better or worse existences is demonstrated by the fact that he is not neutral about doing his homework.)

Conversely, with climate change, my immediate needs are more sharply in focus, compared to the more vague consequences of global warming. What will it mean for the future of the planet? Who knows, but I know I need to drive to work today.

Maybe we should hedge our bets a little more....

Jenny Wren

The flip side of Mark Johnson's "Surviving Death". I thought of Derek Parfit's "bias towards the near" (in time) when you talked about why we don't care as much about the end of the world in the very far future. A great podcast!

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