Grumpy social critics have long decried a perceived erosion of the famed “Protestant ethic” of old time and its replacement by a culture – or cult – of mindless wallowing in instant gratification. It turns out they needn’t have worried – or, more likely, they have deceptively fretted over an ideologically expedient myth evoked to justify outdated forms of social oppression or regulation. This is the somewhat counterintuitive diagnosis offered by humanities professors Patricia Vieira and Michael Marder in an opinion piece posted on the philosophical blog of the NYT. In its title, they ask the fraught existential and practical question: “What Do We Owe the Future.” Their response, apparently, is that we obsess way too much over such counterproductive concerns.
Vieira and Marder issue a stern warning that by looking up to a non-existent, “otherworldly ideal,” we tend to “debase the world here below” – with even less justification than the metaphysical traditions which have committed a similar sin since time immemorial. Why is our current debasement of the world we are lucky to inhabit so much less warranted than previous faux idealistic visions? Because “the emerging metaphysical paradigm differs from its predecessors in that its fate is tied to historical becoming, rather than to the eternal principles of being. This temporal characteristic is illusory, since the future is postponed indefinitely. It always remains beyond the present, immune to contestation, much like the chimeras of old metaphysics.”
Most of Vieira’s and Marder’s essay is couched in this abstract phraseology, which seems willfully emptied of the weakest existential echo. Its apotheosis is perhaps even more strikingly unevocative: “A healthy dose of Epicureanism will go a long way toward curing the discursive inflation of the future. … The one defensible relation to this temporal modality would be to leave the greatest number of options available for generations to come… This minimalist approach would be sensitive to the future’s open-endedness and acknowledge our inability to do justice to its sheer otherness."