global civilization

Teleology and Deontology

In moral theory we distinguish between teleological ethical systems and deontological ethical systems. Teleological ethics (also called consequentialism, in reference to consequences) focus on the end of an action, i.e., that actual result, as that which makes an action praiseworthy or blameworthy. The word “teleological” comes from the Greek telos (τέλος), which means end, goal, or purpose. Deontological ethics focus on the motivation for undertaking an action, and is sometimes referred to as “duty-based” ethics; the word “deontological” derives from the Greek deon (δέον), meaning “duty.”

John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian moral philosopher, and, by extension, teleologist.

John Stuart Mill, the great utilitarian moral philosopher, and, by extension, teleologist.

The philosophical literature on teleology and deontology is vast. From this vast literature the history of moral philosophy gives us several well known examples of both teleological and deontological ethics. Utilitarianism is often cited as a paradigmatic example of teleological ethics, as utilitarianism (in one of its many forms) holds that an action is to be judged by its ability to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons (also known as the greatest happiness principle). Kantian ethics is usually cited as the paradigmatic case of deontological ethics; Kant placed great emphasis upon duty, and held that nothing is good in itself except the good will. These philosophical expressions of the ideas of teleology and deontology also have vernacular expressions that largely coincide with them, as, for example, when teleological views are expressed as, “the ends justify the means,” or when deontological views are expressed as “justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of all deontological ethics.

Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of all deontological ethics.

The vast literature on deontology and teleological also points to many examples that show these categories of ethical thought to be overly schematic and, in some cases, to cut across each other. For example, if we characterize teleological ethics in terms of the aim to be achieved by an action, a distinction can be made between the actual consequences of an action and the intended consequences of an action. The intended consequences of an action may be understood deontologically as the motivation for undertaking an action. Part of this problem can be addressed by tightening up the terminology and the logic of the argument, but, as has been noted, the literature is vast and many sophisticated arguments have been advanced to demonstrate the interpenetration of teleological and deontological conceptions. We must, then, regard this distinction as a rough-and-ready classification that admits of exceptions.

Teleology and Deontology in a Social Context

We can take these ideas of teleological and deontological ethics and apply them not only to individual action but to social action, and thus speak of the actions of social groups of human beings in teleological or deontological terms, i.e., we can speak in terms of the coordinated actions of a group being undertaken primarily in order to achieve some end, or actions undertaken as ends-in-themselves. This suggests the extrapolation of teleological and deontological conceptions to the largest social formations, and the largest social formation known to us is civilization. Can a civilizaiton entire be teleological or deontological in its outlook? Does a civilization have a moral outlook?

I will assume, without arguing in detail, that a civilization can have a moral outlook, understanding that this is a generalization that holds across a civilization, and that the generalization admits of numerous important exceptions. Elsewhere I have noted the Darwinian perspective that any social group of animals that lives together in sufficient density for a sufficient period of time will evolve social customs for interaction. (This is a position that has been further explored in our time by Frans de Waal and Soshichi Uchii.) The lifeway of a particular people is coextensive with social conventions necessary for a social species to live together in a reasonable degree of harmony; what distinguishes regional permutations of lifeways are the climate and available domesticates. Both ethics and civilization grow from this common root, hence the xenophobia of traditionalist civilizations that unproblematically equate the peculiarities of a particular regional civilization with the good in and of itself.

Can this synthesis of lifeways and ethos that marks out a regional civilization (and which is consolidated in the process of axialization) be characterized as overall teleological or deontological orientation in some particular cases? This is a more difficult question, and rather than tackling it directly, I will discuss the question from various perspectives drawn from an overview of the history of civilization.

Teleology and Deontology in Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization

The emergence of settled agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization presents us with an archaeological horizon that appears globally in widely dispersed locations but at approximately the same time. (An archaeological horizon is “a widely disseminated level of common art and artifacts.” Wikipedia) Prior to an actual horizon, there are a great many suggestive sites that imply both domestication and semi-settled lifeways, but at a certain level (between 9 and 11 thousand years before present) the traces of large scale settlement and domestication of plants and animals becomes common. This is the horizon of civilization (or, more narrowly, the horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).

The horizon of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization exhibits global characteristics that eventually culminate in the Axial Age, when regional civilizations are given definitive expression in mythological terms. Through separately emergent, these civilizations exhibit common features of settlement, division of labor, social hierarchy, a conception of the world, of human nature, and of the relation between the two that are expressed in mythological form, which in being made systematic (an early manifestation of the human condition made rigorous) become the central organizing idea of the civilizations that followed. This period represents the bulk of human civilization history to date, a period lasting almost ten thousand years.

Recently on my other blog I undertook a series on religious experiences and religious observances from hunter-gatherer nomadism through contemporary industrial-technological civilization and on into the future — cf. Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience, Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization, Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization, and Responding to the World we Find — and thinking of religious observances emergent from human religious experience it is difficult to say whether these ritual observances are performed in the spirit of teleology or deontology, i.e., whether it is the consequences of the ritual that matters, or if the ritual has intrinsic value and ought to be conducted regardless of consequences. This may be one of the many cases in which teleological and deontological categories cut across each other. Agrarian-eccleasiastical civilization at times seems to formulate its central organizing principle of religious observance in terms of the intrinsic value of the observance, and in times in terms of the efficacious consequences of these observances.

We can understand religion (by which I mean the central organizing principle of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations) as an existential risk mitigation strategy for pre-technological peoples, who have no method to address personal mortality or the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations (i.e., civilizational mortality) other than the propitiation of gods; once the transition is made from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization, the methods of procedural rationality that are the organizing principle of the latter can be brought to bear on existential questions, and it finally becomes possible for existential threats to be assessed and addressed on the level of naturalistic human action. It would not have been possible to conceptualize existential risk in terms of naturalistic human action prior to the technological expansion of effective human action.

Teleology and Deontology in Global Industrial-Technological Civilization

Civilization is an historical reality that exhibits change and development over time. The particular change in civilization that we see at the present time is a transition from regional civilizations, reflecting the coevolution of human beings and domesticates (both plant and animal) ecologically suited to a particular geographical region, to a global industrial-technological civilization that is largely indifferent to local and regional ecological and climatological conditions, because a global trade network provides goods and services from any region to any other region, which means that the maintenance of civilization is no longer dependent upon local or regional constraints.

This development of global industrial-technological civilization is likely to dominate civilization until civilization either fails (i.e., civilization experiences extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, or subsequent ruination) or expands beyond Earth and a self-sustaining center of civilization emerges in space or on another planetary body. In order for the latter to occur, human travel in space must move beyond exploratory forays and become commonplace, that is to say, we would have to see a horizon of space travel. I have called the horizon of human space travel extraterrestrialization. Until that time, civilization remains bound by the finite surface of Earth, and this means that our civilization is growing intensively rather than extensively. The intensive growth of regional civilizations exhaustively covering the surface of Earth means the closer integration of these civilizations (sometimes called globalization), and it is this process that is pushing regional civilizations (e.g., Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, European civilization, etc.) toward integration into a single global industrial-technological civilization.

The spatial constraint of the Earth’s surface together with the expansion and consolidation of settled industrial-technological civilization forces these civilizations into integration, even if only at the margins where their borders meet. Is this de facto constraint upon planetary civilization a mere contingency pushing civilization in a particular direction (which in evolutionary terms could be called civilizational directional selection), or may be think of these constraints in non-contingent terms as a “destiny” of planetary civilization? We find both conceptions represented in contemporary thought.

To think of civilization in terms of destiny is to think in teleological terms. If civilization has a destiny apart from the purposes of individuals and societies, that destiny is the telos of that civilization. But we would not likely refer to an historical accident that selects civilization as “destiny,” even if it shapes our civilization decisively. If we reject the idea of a contingent destiny forced upon us by de facto constraints upon growth and development, then we are implicitly thinking of civilization in terms of practices pursued for their own ends, which is an deontological conception of civilization.

The contemporary idea of a transition to a sustainable civilization — the transition from an industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to an industrial infrastructure based on sustainable and renewable sources of fuel — is clearly a deontological conception of the development of civilization, i.e., that such a transition needs to take place for its own sake, but this deontological ideal of a civilization that lives within its means also implies for many who hold this idea a vision of future civilization that has been revamped to avoid the morally catastrophic mistakes of the past, and in this sense the conception is clearly teleological.

The Historico-Temporal Structure of Human Life

One of the most distinctive features of human consciousness is its time consciousness that extends into an explicit understanding of the future and its relationship to present action, and which developed and iterated becomes historical consciousness, in which the individual and the social group understands himself or itself to stand in relation to a past that preceded the present, and a future that will follow from the present. This historico-temporal structure of human life, both individual and communal, means that human beings plan ahead and make provision for the future in a much more systematic way than any other terrestrial species. This consideration alone suggests that the primary ethical category for understanding human action must be teleological. But this presents us with certain problems.

Civilization itself, and the great processes of civilization such as the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, urbanization, and industrialization, were unplanned developments that just happened. No one planned to build a civilization, and no one planned for regional civilizations to run into planetary constraints and thus to begin to integrate into a global civilization. So although human beings have the ability to plan and the carry out long term projects, many of the historical human realities that are among the most significant in shaping our lives both individually and collectively were not planned. In the future we may be able to plan a civilization or civilizational process and bring this plan to a successful conclusion, but nothing like this has yet been accomplished in the history of civilization. The closest we have come to this is to build planned communities or cities, and this falls far short of the construction of an entire civilization. Until we can do more, we are subject to a limited teleological civilizational ethos at most.

Teleological and Deontological Sources of Civilization

While agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization tends to organize around an eschtological destiny, and is therefore profoundly teleological in outlook, and industrial-technological civilization tends to organize around procedural rationality, and is therefore profoundly deontological in outlook, we can think of a prehistoric past that is the source of both of these paradigms of civilization as either essentially teleological or deontological.

The basic historico-temporal properties of human life noted above, iterated, extended, and eventually made systematic culminate in an organized and communal way of life for a social species, and this telos of human activity is civilization. Civilization on this view is inherent in human nature. This can be expressed in non-naturalistic, eschatological terms, and this probably the form in which this conception is most familiar to us, but it can also be expressed in scientific terms. Here is Carl Sagan’s expression of this idea:

The cerebral cortex, where matter is transformed into consciousness, is the point of embarkation for all our cosmic voyages. Comprising more than two-thirds of the brain mass, it is the realm of both intuition and critical analysis. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations, here that we read and write, here that we do mathematics and compose music. The cortex regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XI, “The Persistence of Memory”

In my post 2014 IBHA Conference Day 2 I mentioned the presentation of William Katerberg, in which he characterized ideas of inevitability and impossibility as forms of teleology in scientific historiography. While Sagan may not be asserting the inevitability of civilization emerging from the cerebral cortex, all of these conceptions belong under the overarching umbrella of teleology, whether weakly teleological or strongly teleological.

When we consider the highest expressions of the human mind in intellectual and aesthetic production, it is not at all clear if these monuments of human thought are undertaken for their intrinsic value as ends in themselves, or if they have been pursued with an eye to some end beyond the construction of the monument. Consider the pyramids: are these monuments to glorify the Pharaoh, and thus by extension to glorify Egyptian civilization as an end in itself, or are these monuments to secure the eternal reign of the Pharaoh in the afterlife? Many of the mysterious monuments that remain from past civilizations — Stonehenge, Carnac, Göbekli Tepe, the Moai of Easter Island, and the Sphinx, inter alia — have this ambiguous character.

We can imagine a civilization of the prehistorical past essentially called into being by the great effort to create one of these monoliths. The site of Göbekli Tepe is one of the more recent and interesting discoveries from the Neolithic, and some archaeologists that suggested that the site points to civilization coming into being for the purpose of constructing and maintaining this ritual site (something I mentioned in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion).

Teleology, Deontology, and a Philosophy of History

Teleology has been subject to much abuse in the history of human thought, as I have noted on many occasions. There is a strong desire to believe in meaning and purpose that transcends the individual, if not the entire species. The essentially incoherent desire for an meaning or purpose coming from outside the world entire, entering into the world from outside and giving a purpose to mundane actions that these actions cannot derive from any source within the world, is an imperfectly expressed theme of almost all religious thought. Logically, this is the desire for a constructive foundation for meaning and purpose; finding meaning or purpose for the world from within the world is an inherently non-constructive conception that leaves a vaguely dissatisfied feeling rarely brought to logical clarification.

The first great work in western philosophy of history, Saint Augustine’s City of God, is a thoroughly teleological conception of history culminating in the -. Perhaps the next most influential philosophy of history after Augustine was that of Hegel, and, again, Hegel’s philosophy of history is pervasively teleological in spirit. A particular philosophical effort is required to conceive of human history (and human civilization) in non-Augustinian, non-Hegelian terms.

Does there even exist, in the Western philosophical tradition, a deontological philosophy of civilization? In light of the discussion above, I have to examine my own efforts in the philosophy of history, as I realize now that some of my formulations could be interpreted as implying that civilization is the telos of human history. Does human history culminate in human civilization? Is civilization the destiny of humanity? If so, this should be made explicit. If not, a more careful formulation of the relationship of civilization to human history is in order.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It is difficult to find an authentic expression of horror, due to its close resemblance to both fear and disgust, but one readily recognizes horror when one sees it.

It is difficult to find an authentic expression of horror, due to its close resemblance to both fear and disgust, but one readily recognizes horror when one sees it.

In several posts I have referred to moral horror and the power of moral horror to shape our lives and even to shape our history and our civilization (cf., e.g., Cosmic Hubris or Cosmic Humility?, Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror, and Against Natural History, Right and Left). Being horrified on a uniquely moral level is a sui generis experience that cannot be reduced to any other experience, or any other kind of experience. Thus the experience of moral horror must not be denied (which would constitute an instance of failing to do justice to our intuitions), but at the same time it cannot be uncritically accepted as definitive of the moral life of humanity.

Our moral intuitions tell us what is right and wrong, but they do not tell us what is or is not (i.e., what exists or what does not exist). This is the upshot of the is-ought distinction, which, like moral horror, must not be taken as an absolute principle, even if it is a rough and ready guide in our thinking. It is perfectly consistent, if discomfiting, to explicitly acknowledge the moral horrors of the world, and not to deny that they exist even while acknowledging that they are horrific. Sometimes the claim is made that the world itself is a moral horror. Joseph Campbell attributes this view to Schopenhauer, saying that according to Schopenhauer the world is something that never should have been.

Apart from the horrors of the world as a central theme of mythology, it is also to be found in science. There is a famous quote from Darwin that illustrates the acknowledgement of moral horror:

“There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Letter from Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860

This quote from Darwin underlines another point repeatedly made by Joseph Campbell: that different individuals and different societies draw different lessons from the same world. For some, the sufferings of the world constitute an affirmation of divinity, while for Darwin and others, the sufferings of the world constitute a denial of divinity. That being said, it is not the point I would like to make today.

Far more common than the acceptance of the world’s moral horrors as they are is the denial of moral horrors, and especially the denial that moral horrors will occur in the future. On one level, a pragmatic level, we like to believe that we have learned our lessons from the horrors of our past, and that we will not repeat them precisely because we have perpetrated horrors in past and came to realize that they were horrors.

To insist that moral horrors can’t happen because it would offend our sensibilities to acknowledge such a moral horror is a fallacy. Specifically, the moral horror fallacy is a special case of the argumentum ad baculum (argument to the cudgel or appeal to the stick), which is in turn a special case of the argumentum ad consequentiam (appeal to consequences).

Here is one way to formulate the fallacy:

Such-and-such constitutes a moral horror,
It would be unconscionable for a moral horror to take place,
Therefore, such-and-such will not take place.

For “such-and-such” you can substitute “transhumanism” or “nuclear war” or “human extinction” and so on. The inference is fallacious only when the shift is made from is to ought or from ought to is. If confine our inference exclusively either to what is or what ought to be, we do not have a fallacy. For example:

Such-and-such constitutes a moral horror,
It would be unconscionable for a moral horror to take place,
Therefore, we must not allow such-and-such to take place.

…is not fallacious. It is, rather, a moral imperative. If you do not want a moral horror to occur, then you must not allow it to occur. This is what Kant called a hypothetical imperative. This is a formulation entirely in terms of what ought to be. We can also formulate this in terms of what is:

Such-and-such constitutes a moral horror,
Moral horrors do not occur,
Therefore, such-and-such does not occur.

This is a valid inference, although it is false. That is to say, this is not a formal fallacy but a material fallacy. Moral horrors do, in fact, occur, so the premise stating that moral horrors do not occur is a false premise, and the conclusion drawn from this false premise is a false conclusion. (If one denies that moral horrors do, in fact, take place, then one argues for the truth of this inference.)

Moral horrors can and do happen. They are even visited upon us numerous times. After the Holocaust everyone said “never again,” yet subsequent history has not spared us further genocides. Nor will it spare us further genocides and atrocities in the future. We cannot infer from our desire to be spared further genocides and atrocities that they will not come to pass.

More interesting than the fact that moral horrors continue to be perpetrated by the enlightened and technologically advanced human societies of the twenty-first century is the fact that the moral life of humanity evolves, and it often is the case that the moral horrors of the future, to which we look forward with fear and trembling, sometimes cease to be moral horrors by the time they are upon us.

Malthus famously argued that, because human population growth outstrips the production of food (and Malthus was particularly concerned with human beings, but he held this to be a universal law affecting all life) that humanity must end in misery or vice. By “misery” Malthus understood mass starvation — which I am sure that most of us today would agree is misery — and by “vice” Malthus meant birth control. In other words, Malthus viewed birth control as a moral horror comparable to mass starvation. This is not a view that is widely held today.

A great many unprecedented events have occurred since Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population. The industrialization of agriculture not only provided the world with plenty of food for an unprecedented increase in human population, it did so while farming was reduced to a marginal sector of the economy. And in the meantime birth control has become commonplace — we speak of it today as an aspect of “reproductive rights” — and few regard it as a moral horror. However, in the midst of this moral change and abundance, starvation continues to be a problem, and perhaps even more of a moral horror because there is plenty of food in the world today. Where people are starving, it is only a matter of distribution, and this is primarily a matter of politics.

I think that in the coming decades and centuries that there will be many developments that we today regard as moral horrors, but when we experience them they will not be quite as horrific as we thought. Take, for instance, transhumanism. Francis Fukuyama wrote a short essay in Foreign Policy magazine, Transhumanism, in which he identified transhumanism as the world’s most dangerous idea. While Fukuyama does not commit the moral horror fallacy in any explicit way, it is clear that he sees transhumanism as a moral horror. In fact, many do. But in the fullness of time, when our minds will have changed as much as our bodies, if not more, transhumanism is not likely to appear so horrific.

On the other hand, as I noted above, we will continue to experience moral horrors of unprecedented kinds, and probably also on an unprecedented scope and scale. With the human population at seven billion and climbing, our civilization may well experience wars and diseases and famines that kill billions even while civilization itself continues despite such depredations.

We should, then, be prepared for moral horrors — for some that are truly horrific, and others that turn out to be less than horrific once they are upon us. What we should not try to do is to infer from our desires and preferences in the present what must be or what will be. And the good news in all of this is that we have the power to change future events, to make the moral horrors that occur less horrific than they might have been, and to prepare ourselves intellectually to accept change that might have, once upon a time, been considered a moral horror.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Morally Distinguishable Outcomes in

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Global Catastrophic Scenarios

Below is Nick Bostrom’s table of qualitative categories of risk. Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković have together edited a book on Global Catastrophic Risks, which includes this table. Existential risks, that is to say, risk that could result in human extinction, are identified as “an especially severe subset” of global catastrophic risks.

qualitative categories of risk

Of existential risks and their potential consequences I recently wrote this:

“When we think about what this means for us, our other ‘priorities’ pale by comparison. Nothing else matters, no matter how apparently pressing, if we are made extinct by an accident of local cosmology.”

Thinking of this further, I realized that there are many ethical presuppositions implicit in my formulation, and that (at least some of) these presuppositions can be spelled out and made explicit.

Bostrom’s table of qualitative risk categories suggest possibilities of scope and intensity beyond those comprised by global catastrophic risk and existential risk, and on the margin of the table we see “Cosmic?” as a possible scope beyond “pan-generational” and “Hellish?” as a potential intensity beyond “Terminal.” Thus what is cosmic and hellish is a qualitative risk category beyond even that of existential risk. I think that there are moral intuitions from catastrophic outcomes that correspond to these almost unthinkable scenarios.

While it would seem that there is little worse that could happen (from a human perspective, i.e., fully informed by anthropic bias) than human extinction, even given our anthropic bias and therefore our desire to avoid human extinction there are morally distinguishable outcomes in many different scenarios of global catastrophe and human extinction, and where there is the possibility of morally distinguishable outcomes there also will be the possibility of ranking these moral outcomes from the least awful possibility to the worst of all possibilities. There is also the likelihood of moral disagreements on these rankings, and these moral disagreements over prioritizing existential risk mitigation could prove crucial in future debates over the allocation of civilizational resources to existential risk mitigation. Thus even if existential risk comes to be seen as an overriding priority for human beings and civilization, this is not yet the convergence of human moral effort; room for profound disagreement yet remains.

Considering a range of devastating and catastrophic events that could compromise human life and human civilization, possibly to the point of their extinction, I can think of six scenarios in order of severity:

1. Massive but survivable catastrophe A global catastrophic risk realized that results in the loss of millions or billions of lives and deals a major setback to civilization, without either extinguishing human beings or human civilization (in Bostrom’s table of qualitative risks these would include global, trans-generational, and pan-generational endurable risks).

2. Catastrophic failure of civilization A global catastrophic risk realized that resulted in the catastrophic failure of civilization, but does not result in the extinction of human beings. The human population might be drastically reduced to paleolithic population levels, but potentially could rebound. There remains the possibility that civilization might be reconstituted, but this is likely to take hundreds if not thousands of years. (“Global dark age” in the table above.)

3. Human extinction The first level of human extinction I will call simple extinction, which is an existential risk realized, which however leaves the Earth intact, and the legacy of human civilization intact. I add this latter qualification because it is possible, even if human beings become extinct, that human civilization might leave monuments that could be appreciated by other sentient species that could visit the Earth. It is even possible (however unlikely) that other species might appreciate the human record of civilization more than we appreciate it ourselves. Thus human extinction need not mean the loss of human cultural legacy. A pandemic that killed only human beings could have this result. (X marks the spot in the table above.)

4. Human extinction with the extirpation of all human legacy The second level of human extinction I will call compound extinction, which is an existential risk realized that results in human extinction and the elimination of all (or almost all) signs of human presence, but which leaves the biosphere largely intact, and the ordinary business of terrestrial life continues largely unchanged. (This is human extinction coupled with “destruction of cultural heritage.”)

5. Catastrophic compromise of the biosphere The third level of human extinction involves not only the extinction of human beings and all human legacy, but also the extinction of all complex life on the Earth. Terrestrial life continues, but is reduced to single celled organisms. Thus there remains the possibility that life on Earth may recover, but this would probably require billions of years and result in very different life forms.

6. Terrestrial sterilization The most radical form of realized existential risk is terrestrial sterilization which results in human extinction, the extirpation of all human legacy, and the elimination of all terrestrial life, i.e., complete catastrophic failure of the biosphere. From this point there is nothing that can be recovered and no human legacy remains.

I tried to arrange these various morally distinct outcomes on an expanded version of Bostrom’s table of qualitative risk categories, but couldn’t yet find a conceptually neat and straight-forward way to do so. Further thought is needed here. I don’t think there is a need to distinguish further qualitative categories of risk beyond existential risk — in other words, we can refer to all of these morally distinct outcomes as outcomes of existential risk, as realized in distinct scenarios. However, one could make such distinctions if it were helpful to do so.

The most radical moral imperative of existential risk is to take existential risk as absolute and as trumping all other concerns, which is what I clearly implied when I wrote that, “…our other ‘priorities’ pale by comparison. Nothing else matters, no matter how apparently pressing…” if we are made (or make ourselves) extinct. This radical position has profound and discomfiting implications.

If we survey the evils of the world, we would be forced to acknowledge that it is better that any or all of these evils continue than that human life should be permanently extinguished, because the continuation of these evils is consistent with the continuation of human life and human civilization. The end of all human life would also mean the end of all the cruelties and inhumanity that we inflict upon our fellow man, and this would be a good and indeed a desirable state of affairs, but from a radical perspective on existential risk we would have to affirm that, as good a state of affairs as this represents, it would not be as morally good as the state of affairs that involves the perpetuation of these evils together with the perpetuation of human life and civilization.

Of course, under most conceivable scenarios there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that we had to choose between the perpetuation of all the evils of the world and human extinction. That is to say, there is no reason that we cannot work toward the elimination of human evils and the mitigation of existential risks. As a moral thought experiment, however, we can employ the method of isolation and ask whether the survival of human beings and human civilization, together with all the evils this entails is better than the annihilation of human beings and human civilization, so that neither human good nor human evil remains.

While I would be willing to assert that existential risk mitigation trumps all other concerns, even in a thought experiment in which human evils remain unmitigated, I can easily imagine that there are many who would disagree with this judgment. Moral diversity is a fact of human life, and we must recognize that if some among us (myself included) would be willing to explicitly affirm the radical moral consequences of prioritizing existential risk mitigation, there will be others who will equally explicitly reject a radical prioritization of existential risk mitigation, and who will affirm that it is better that the world should come to an end than that the manifold evils of our time should persist. From this point of view, in view of the limited resources available to human beings, we would do better to direct these resources to the mitigation of human evils than to direct these resources to the mitigation of existential risk.

It is entirely possible that someone might affirm that it is a good thing civilization should be ended, and the idea has incredible romantic appeal that cannot be denied and should not be ignored. Many are the science fiction books and films (for example, think of Logan’s Run or 12 Monkeys) that depict a world empty of human beings and populated only by collapsing buildings and animals hunting in the ruins. This scenario is depicted, for example, in Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.

The idea that civilization is evil can easily be extended to the idea that humanity is evil in and of itself. The predictions of the original Club of Rome report of 1972, The Limits to Growth, have been widely discussed on its recent 40th anniversary, but what has not been remarked is the language and tone of that original document (which you will not find on the internet, despite the millions of used copies kicking around). The report boldly asserted, “The earth has cancer and the cancer is Man.” This kind of rhetoric, which is less common today, can easily play into a principled denial of the moral value of humanity.

And it is easy to understand why. The world is filled with evils, and the most horrific evils are those that human beings perpetrate upon other human beings — homo homini lupus. If we prioritize existential risk mitigation over the mitigation of human evils, we find ourselves forced into the uncomfortable position of tolerating Kantian radical evil, Marilyn McCord Adams’ conception of horrendous evils, and Claudia Card’s atrocities. Imagine the horrors of genocide, torture, and industrialized warfare and then imagine being forced to admit that it is better than genocides occur, better that torture continues, and better that industrialized warfare persists than that an existential risk be realized. This is a hard saying; nevertheless, this is the argument that must be made, and it is always best to face a hard argument directly than to attempt to avoid it.

In Marilyn McCord Adams’ exposition of what she calls “horrendous evils” in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God Adams wrote:

“Among the evils that infect this world, some are worse than others. I want to try to capture the most pernicious of them within the category of horrendous evils, which I define (for present purposes) as ‘evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.’ The class of paradigm horrors includes both individual and massive collective suffering…”

Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 26.

She went on to add in the next section:

“I believe most people would agree that such evils as listed above constitute reason to doubt whether the participants’ life can be world living, because it is so difficult humanly to conceive how such evils could be overcome.”

Loc. cit.

In the last paragraph of her paper of the same title, Adams again suggests that horrendous evils call into question the possibility of having a life worth living:

“I would go one step further: assuming the pragmatic and/or moral (I would prefer to say, broadly speaking, religious) importance of believing that (one’s own) human life is worth living, the ability of Christianity to exhibit how this could be so despite human vulnerability to horrendous evil, constitutes a pragmatic/moral/religious consideration in its favour, relative to value schemes that do not.”

Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Anthologized in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 221.

A generalization of Adams’ argument could easily bring us from the point where horrendous evils make the individual doubt or question that one’s life is worth living to the point where humanity on the whole legitimately, and on principle, questions whether any human life at all is worth living. If humanity comes to decide that horrendous evils overwhelm all value in the world and make human existence utterly meaningless and pointless, then the mitigation of existential risk can come to seem like an evil or an impiety.

Adams finds her answer to this in Christianity; we naturalists cannot appeal to supernaturalistic validation or justification: we must take human evil on its face along with human good, and if we prioritize the mitigation of existential risk (and therefore the continuity of humanity and human civilization), we do so knowing that human evils will continue and are probably ineradicable if not inseparable from human history.

We can actively seek to mitigate human evils, and the effort has intrinsic value, but the intrinsic value of the mitigation of suffering and mundane meliorism can only continue in the case that humanity and organized human activity continue. Therefore the prioritization of the mitigation of existential risk is what makes possible the realization of the intrinsic value of the mitigation of suffering and efforts toward meliorism. With the end of humanity would also come not only an end to all intrinsic goods of human life, but also an end to the intrinsic good of the mitigation of suffering and the effort to make the world a better place.

We can only create a better civilization if civilization continues. If we are perfectibilists, we may believe in the perfectibility of man and indeed even the perfectibility of civilization. This project cannot even be undertaken if humanity and human civilization are cut short in their imperfect state.

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Pulp-O-Mizer existential risk

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The Kantian Continuum

19 September 2012


Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Kantian Continuum of Means and Ends in Personhood

While Kant’s second critique, the Critique of Practical Reason, gives a systematic account of his moral philosophy, not surprisingly it is Kant’s shorter work of 1785, his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, that has been the more widely read and influential. In this little book Kant has this to say about our relation to other persons:

“Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.”


“For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

I have cited this passage previously (in Being Valued by the Other) and noted that while we cannot avoid using other persons as means to an end in the ordinary business of life, the crucial sense of this passage is that even when we are forced to deal with other persons as a means, that they must also also be considered as ends in themselves. This is simply a philosophical formulation of the intuitive idea that all persons are due respect and dignity regardless of their condition, and if we must routinely use others as a means to obtaining our contingent ends, we also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge at the same time that these others are ends in themselves, so that our contingent business with them must be conducted with respect and dignity.

When I was thinking about this passage from Kant this morning I thought of it in relation to Edith Wyschogrod’s conception of sainthood in her book Saints and Postmodernism:

“I shall, however, define the saint — the subject of hagiographic narrative — as one whose adult life in its entirety is devoted to the alleviation of sorrow (the psychological suffering) and pain (the physical suffering) that afflicts other persons without distinction of rank or group or, alternatively, that afflicts sentient beings, whatever the cost to the saint in pain or sorrow.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy, p. 34

In brief, the saint is that individual who has devoted his or her life to the other. The Kantian formulation of his would be that the saint always regards the other as an end in himself, to the exclusion of the use of the other as a means to an end.

It seems to me that, whether or not we are skeptical of sainthood, and whether or not we accept Wyschogrod’s definition of the saint, we must at least recognize the theoretical possibility of acting purely on the other’s personhood as an end in itself. As soon as we recognize this ideal possibility recognizing others as ends in themselves, we immediately see the all-too-real possibility of the anti-saint who acts purely on the other’s personhood as a means to an end (and which end is entirely independent of the other’s personhood).

The extremes of the as-an-end-only relation to others and the as-a-means-only relation to others defines a continuum of possibilities, along which continuum the ordinary business of life can be located as it approximates one extreme or the other, or balances the two and inhabits the middle portion of the continuum. Thus what I am here calling the Kantian continuum is that continuum of gradations between relating to others purely as as ends in themselves through relating to others purely as means to an end. Between these two extremes are circumstances when we mostly treat others as ends but also a little as means, when we treat others equally as ends and means, and when we primarily treat others as means to an end and only as an afterthought also treat them as ends in themselves.

Think of the situations and circumstances that one routinely encounters in the course of the ordinary business of life, as, for example, when one enters an establishment that still has living human clerks (as opposed to automated check out terminals) and you conduct a mundane exchange of money for goods, and perhaps acknowledge the clerk with a nod or a few scraps of conversation. This is a relationship that is primarily instrumental, and only as an afterthought do we knowledge the personhood of the other. While the purely instrumental approach to life probably belongs to pathology and is gratifyingly rare, the sort of transaction I have described is quite common in industrial-technological civilization.

At the other end of the scale, short of ideal sainthood but still at the altruistic end of the spectrum, our relationships with friends and family are primarily person-centered relationships that are very much constituted by the meaning and value that these others have for us as persons. It is only as an afterthought that we ask them to do something for us, and the doing of the task is usually accomplished in a way the the personhood of all involved is fully engaged. In fact, in so far as we ask something of those who love us, they may well enjoy serving us or be eager to provide for our needs, and vice versa if we are being asked to provide for those that we love.

One of the central concepts of Kant’s ethics is that of the “kingdom of ends.” Kant characterizes the kingdom of ends in this way:

“By a kingdom I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws. Now since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole (including both rational beings as ends in themselves, and also the special ends which each may propose to himself), that is to say, we can conceive a kingdom of ends, which on the preceding principles is possible.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

It seems to me that Kant’s kingdom of ends comprises the whole of the Kantian continuum with the exception of the extreme end point of using persons exclusively as means and not at the same time as an end in themselves. Clearly, it is using others that is excluded in Kantian ethics. While I suspect that most will follow Kant in this, the implicit sanctioning of personhood as an afterthought, near the as-a-means-only end of the Kantian continuum, contains in embryo much of that which has made life in industrial-technological civilization so dehumanizing and depersonalizing.

I am not here trying to censure Kant, or to find him responsible for the failings of modern society — there are a great many philosophers who have vigorously taken up the critique of Kantian ethics, and ably so — but I only wish to illustration how the Enlightenment universalism of Kant so easily passes over into its other. The very off-handedness of a recognition of one’s personhood as an afterthought is itself something less than full personhood — and, often, we feel it, but at the same time we understand it, so it does not often injure us.

It is difficult to point a finger at any individual as particularly responsible for the affronts to human dignity that assail us every day in industrial-technological civilization, since it is all-too-easy to understand how things became the way that they are now, and how difficult it would be to change them.

If, when engaged in some trivial transaction of contemporary life, one were to attempt to engage with the other first as a person, one’s actions would probably immediately elicit suspicion. Some few have the gift of engaging in a genuine way with others, even for a brief period of time, but it is not found all that often.

The bureaucratization of society that so marks industrial-technological civilization incorporates a pro forma recognition of the personhood of the other, in deference to our moral intuitions of the respect and dignity due to all persons, but it is precisely the pro forma character of the recognition that drains it of human meaning. Many have commented on the formalism of Kant’s ethics, and in the passage I quoted above Kant says we must, “abstract from the personal differences of rational beings,” yet it is the personal touch that most often breaks through as a recognition of personhood in otherwise anonymous transactions.

How many times in life does it happen that we are engaged in the formal courtesies required of us by society when someone accidentally goes “off script” and all present laugh at the deviation and suddenly there is a more relaxed feeling and people feel freer to be themselves and to express themselves? This, too, is a mutual recognition of personhood — of the concrete and fallible dimension of personhood that makes us human — and it is perhaps this kind of recognition of personhood that is most valued informally because it doesn’t come across as odd or strained like some ham-handed attempts to engage others.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pascal:

“When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man. Whereas those who have good taste, and who seeing a book expect to find a man, are quite surprised to find an author. Plus poetice quam humane locutus es.”

There is not only a natural style in literature, but also a natural style in personal comportment, and when we encounter this natural style in manners we are astonished and delighted, for we expected to find a type, a cipher, an official, a bureaucrat, and instead we find a man. We also find ourselves, and feel a little freer to be human in the presence of such an other.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sartre’s lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” has had a significant influence on my thinking. I’ve read it many times, and I have thought about its themes throughout my adult life.

Here is a passage from the lecture that has struck me in particular, where Sartre has just told a story of how a student came to him to ask whether he should stay at home to be a comfort to his mother or if he should leave to join the resistance:

“…I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

It was saying things like this that gave Sartre in particular (and existentialism in general) a reputation for being amoral. Is that all there is to say — invent?

Thinking of this recently I realized that a rough distinction can be made between what I will call existential choices and moral choices. Of moral choices we can reasonably (and coherently) ask whether the choice an individual makes is right or wrong. I will define existential choices as those choices of which it is not as reasonable, or perhaps even incoherent, to ask whether the choice, once made, was right or wrong.

An existential choice might fail to have a right or wrong response because there are moral (and presumably equal) reasons on both sides of the question. This is obviously an instance of moral choice and existential choice overlapping. It is important that we recognize such a category of choices, because so much of life consists of choices regarding which there are moral claims on both sides of the question, and no one side or the other is obviously the side of greater good or lesser harm. I will call these choices impure existential choices.

The scenario that Sartre outlines in his lecture is, as I see it, an impure existential choice. There are valid moral reasons for the student to remain to support his mother, and there are valid moral reasons for the student to leave to join the resistance. Neither the reasons on one side of the other, however, seem to preponderate.

Pure existential choices, on the other hand, are when moral issues are not at stake (or, at least, not so clearly at stake). Those pure existential choices that involve life-altering events are obviously of most interest to us. When you choose to marry, if you do so choose, and whom you choose to marry, is an existential choice. There is no right or wrong answer, and it would be misleading in most cases to identify marriage as a moral choice. But it is a life-altering choice, and that makes it an existential choice of some moment. And we can see from the example of marriage that trying to transform an existential choice into a moral choice is probably a mistake. Imagine saying to yourself, “I ought to marry this person,” rather than, “I would love to marry this person.” It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a marriage contracted under moral duress, i.e., obligation, could be a happy or successful marriage.

If you consider the possibility of self-imposed exile or of staying in your country of origin, this is a pure existential choice, and if you do choose self-imposed exile, you must then also choose a destination for your exile, and this is another pure existential choice. You will have a profoundly different experience of life if go to India or if you go to Peru, thus the choice marks a bifurcation in life, and it is difficult (or misleading) to invoke moral reasons for the choice made.

A pure existential choice is a bifurcation in life. A small bifurcation constitutes what philosophers formerly called the “liberty of indifference,” such as whether you sleep on your right side or your left side. Such existential choices may leave the rest of one’s life intact and largely untouched.

A great bifurcation changes everything that follows. A pure existential choice in an important matter sets the course for the rest of your life; it also turns aside from unexercised options in life that pass into the twilight of unactualized possibilities: experiences we never had, people we never met, places we never went, meals we never ate, music we never listened to. This is the domain of sentiment, of yearning, and of regret.

Pure moral choices do not preclude the possibility of pure existential choices, and vice versa: pure existential choices do not preclude the possibility of pure moral choices.

Most of the choices we make is life are mixed — so mixed as to make them impossible to classify. What I want to do here is simply explicitly recognize the possibility of pure existential choice as a domain of human experience.

It is perhaps paradoxical to point out that theory choice is often an existential choice. This is significant, not least because theory choice has come to play a significant role in philosophy at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions. One of the controversial conclusions that Kuhn’s theory was taken to imply was that choice among theories was essentially irrational. But if theory choice in science is arbitrary, how can it maintained that science is a more-or-less accurate explanation of the world? I hope that the paradoxical character of the assertion that theory choice is an existential choice will become obvious in what follows.

If a theory is chosen on the basis not of its truth but on its presumed moral merits (with “moral” understood in the narrow sense of virtues specific to human beings), we know intuitively that such a theory lacks the minimum theoretical legitimacy one would require of a theory. A theory must be chosen for theoretical reasons, or it is no theory worthy of the term.

This is an important point, because it implicitly plays and has played a prominent role in the political debates of our time. Social, political, and economic theories have been advanced and advocated on the presumed benefits of their moral merits, and not on the basis of the merits of these theories as theories. This has almost always been the case with theories of utopian social organization that in practice become dystopian horrors. Favoring a theory for its presumed (and narrowly defined) moral consequences may not be necessarily bad for theory and bad for the moral condition of humanity, but I can’t think of a particular instance when such a choice was anything other than bad.

However, we can say that a good theory is a true theory (or an objective theory, or that it possesses some other theoretical virtue), in which case a theory chosen on the basis of its moral merit — i.e., on the basis of its specifically theoretical virtues — possesses the theoretical legitimacy to pass muster as a theory. In recognizing this (if, in fact, one does recognize this), we recognize that theory choice is an existential choice, not a moral choice.

If we consider, for example, various theories of justice — retributive, distributive, procedural, restorative, organizational (which I would prefer to call institutional), and transformational — each has its advantages and disadvantages (moral and otherwise). It is very difficult to say, on the whole, whether any one theory of justice is morally better than another. So we choose our theory of justice on the merits, as they say.

This makes a choice of a theory of justice an impure existential choice, with moral considerations weighing in on both sides of any theory of justice, but no clear preponderance of moral weight on one side of the question of the other. Lacking clear moral preponderance, the choice of a theory of justice to adopt, while freighted with moral concerns becomes a de facto existential choice in which it is incoherent to ask whether the choice was right or wrong.

To sharpen the counter-intuitive paradox this can be made even more personal by considering theories of ethics: each ethical theory has advantages and disadvantages. Also, we cannot coherently step outside ethics and ask which of these ethical theories is right or wrong, for to ask whether something is right or wrong is to presuppose an ethical theory, and if we have presupposed an ethical theory we can, in turn, inquire about the choice of this theory.

Thus ethical theory choice is a pure existential choice. In so far as you choose a particular ethical theory (and in so far as you organize your moral experience you have a moral theory, whether or not you know it), you make an existential choice in which it is logically impossible to invoke moral reasons for the choice without becoming involved in an infinite regress.

When we move on to less personally poignant classes of theories — physical theories, mathematical theories, metaphysical theories, and so on — our choice of theory is only rarely (if ever) a moral choice. Theory choice is primarily an existential choice, and that is as much as to say that it is a rigorously amoral choice.

Theories shape our world. Theories organize our knowledge and experience, and in so doing organize our lives. In so far as theories shape our world and organize our lives, it would be difficult to name any more profound decision an individual makes than the theories that they adopt, and yet these theoretical choices are mostly existential choices.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Today I had my opportunity to speak at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium. Prior to arriving, nothing was said about the length of individual presentations, or about the number of one’s PowerPoint slides. Upon arrival, my first contact with organization staff consisted of being scolded for the number of slides I had prepared (132). Also, the speakers were held to a close 20 minute time limit, with no appreciable time between speakers.

As a consequence, I had far too much material. I had to talk fast in order to give the better part of my presentation, and I had to skip over a good deal of material. So this was dissatisfying. My sister suggested that I gestured too much with the remote control for the slides, that I didn’t look at the audience enough but rather looked at the screen, and that I said “so” too many times. These constructive criticisms were welcome, as they were valid.

The result was that my talk was less than optimal, but I still managed to get my point across in a few areas. Given my near total lack of experience in public speaking, if I judge myself leniently for my inexperience, I could say that I didn’t do too badly. But it could have been much better. A couple of people approached me after I spoke and expressed an interest in what I had to say, which was rewarding.

Beyond my own presentation, which was the very last of the philosophical and religious talks which were held in one room (which was the poor cousin of the room where technical talks were held, in which latter there was standing room only), there were several other speakers. The most intellectually rigorous presentations were given by two German Protestant theologians, C. Weidemann and M. Waltemathe, both from Ruhr-Universität Bochum, who presented, respectfully, “Did Jesus Die for Klingons Too?” and “A Religious Vision for Interstellar Travel?”

In his exposition of the principle of mediocrity, C. Weidemann made an analogy with a lottery ticket, which was both insightful and a fruitful way to think about mediocrity after the Copernican Revolution (which is something I think about often). He suggested that most holders of a lottery ticket realize that they hold the “average” ticket, which is to say that they don’t win the prize. However, with further investigation you may discover that you have in fact won the prize and that the ticket you hold is an exception to the mediocre rule. This incorporates a perspective of increasing knowledge into the formulation of the principle of mediocrity, which corresponds better to our actual epistemic perspective than an unstated assumption of static knowledge.

In another talk, as well as in remarks following the presentations, K. Denning of York University offered another good example of a highly optimistic estimate of the accuracy of futurist predictions, which is something that I discussed previously in Synchronicities of Futurism. Professor Denning in particular cited H. G. Wells’ 1908 work The War in the Air as preternaturally accurate futurism.

I should emphasize that this was not the focus of Professor Dennning’s talk, but only a comment made in passing, but I think that this is revelatory of a particular conception of history, as I also had in mind when I mentioned this in connection with Michio Kaku and the Tofflers. If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.

A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.

Perhaps it is only when I see this perspective up close that I realize how different it is from my own point of view. When I originally formulated the idea of the political conception of history I saw much of myself in it, but now that I realize that it corresponds to a commitment to the accuracy of futurism, I see in concrete detail why I must reject it except for special cases that are the exception to the rule.

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The political conception of history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Becoming What We Are

18 January 2010


Today is not the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King jr., but it is the day that his birthday is celebrated in the United States as a national holiday, so we will take this occasion to consider an aspect of King’s thought, but only by way of an unlikely digression.

One of the great themes in Nietzsche’s thought is that of becoming what one is. Nietzsche conceived this as the ultimate quest and fulfillment of individuality. The Übermensch is a man who has become what he is. Nietzsche’s intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo, was subtitled, “How One Becomes What One Is.” In Ecce Homo Nietzsche wrote:

The fact that one becomes what one is, presupposes that one has not the remotest suspicion of what one is. From this standpoint even the blunders of one’s life have their own meaning and value, the temporary deviations and aberrations, the moments of hesitation and of modesty, the earnestness wasted upon duties that lie outside the actual life-task.

One recognizes in this passage many of the familiar devices that Nietzsche uses to shock the reader into thinking for himself, to question not only the conventions of society but also to question the conventions that one tacitly sets up for oneself. Such questions must be asked if one is ever to become what one is. Complacency spells the end of all becoming.

One would not say that Dr. Martin Luther King jr. was a Nietzschean figure. He had to have been energetic and driven to achieve what he did achieve, but King was apparently sincere in his Christianity and African-American Christian churches and traditions were central to the civil rights struggle in the US.

King belonged to a very different intellectual tradition than Nietzsche. Indeed, it would be interesting to know in detail what figures like King and Gandhi thought of Nietzsche, if they ever expressed themselves on the topic, and it is amusing to imagine how Nietzsche might have characterized or even caricatured men like King and Gandhi.

Despite the chasm between King’s Biblically-inspired thought and his American-inspired rhetoric and Nietzsche’s classically-inspired thought and European rhetoric, however, I see at least one common thread: becoming what one is.

King made the motif of becoming what one is central to one of his most famous speeches, the “I Have a Dream” speech, an address delivered at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963. But there is a twist: King’s conception is a communal reformulation of Nietzsche’s individualist imperative of becoming what one is. Nietzsche’s becoming what one is became with King becoming what we are:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

And later,

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

There is, ringing in King’s words, the imperative of becoming, of becoming what we are. For America to “…live out the true meaning of its creed…” would be for America to become what it is. And I would argue that for any society or community of people to become what is it to become, that the several individuals that constitute that society or community must each and every one become what they are. With this in mind we are better prepared to understand the continuation of the passage from Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo quoted above:

Expressed morally, to love one’s neighbor and to live for others and for other things may be the means of protection employed to maintain the hardest kind of egoism. This is the exceptional case in which I, contrary to my principle and conviction, take the side of the altruistic instincts; for here they are concerned in subserving selfishness and self-discipline.

Thus, even in Nietzsche himself, becoming what one is and becoming what we are would seem to be integral developments.

Now for a step even farther afield. There is a figure in Buddhist thought known as a Bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism (less so in Theravada Buddhism) a Bodhisattva is a partially enlightened being that chooses to delay its own attainment of ultimate enlightenment in order to conduct others on the path to enlightenment. I am fascinated by the very idea, and I cannot think of a similar conception realized in any other tradition. But that does not mean that we cannot appropriate the idea of a Bodhisattva for our own thought.

In the context of becoming what one is, figures like King and Gandhi are secular Bodhisattvas who have taken a non-egoistic path, delaying their own opportunity to become what they are, in order to guide communities toward becoming what they are, and, in so doing, the Bodhisattva and the community so guided together become what we are.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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