Recently, California announced that it will not sell gasoline-based cars starting in 2035. Like many political decisions surrounding climate change, it’s a decision that looks to help those that will come decades or centuries from now. So naturally, there is some pushback. Part of the reason addressing climate change is so hard is that we humans tend to focus on the challenges that are right in front of us, both physically and temporally – when real people are in danger or in need (or, to be honest, even just “in want”) right now, we often avoid thinking about the future effects. It’s hard to think long-term even about issues that directly affect us, and we struggle to balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future.
Mitzvot in Judaism are not just “good deeds” but obligations, and many (if not most) are focused on the needs of others. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, has more mitzvot than any other portion. Some deal with questions about immediate and basic needs. Day laborers, for example, need to be paid by the close of business. If a person uses their clothes as a pledge for debt, they need to be returned by sunset so they can sleep in them. And if any sheafs, olives or grapes drop into the field, you shouldn’t go back to get them – they become the property of “the stranger, the widow and the orphan,” both because they wouldn’t have protection otherwise, and because at that time, there was no refrigeration to keep the food fresh, meaning it would be best to collect it immediately.
Other mitzvot, however, concern the future. While today we wouldn’t command (or even allow for!) a man to marry his brother’s widow (Deuteronomy 25:5-6), the thought process was to keep the deceased’s family’s name and heritage alive. Or when the Israelites entered into the land, they were to blot out the name of Amalek, and to “not forget” how he attacked the weakest and most vulnerable. Indeed, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ book-long message was directed not just on the Israelites of that generation, or the previous generation, but on those who will exist in the future, as well.
The question of responsibility to the future is called “long-termism,” and is encapsulated in the new book What We Owe to the Future, by philosopher William MacAskill. The movement arose out of what’s called “effective altruism,” where resources are allocated where they can do the most good. If we think that every person is worthy of dignity, respect, health and livelihood, then we need to be able to expand our circle of concern beyond those closest to us. Effective altruism encourages us to see where help is needed, regardless of where they live.
But, as long-termers note, if we care about human beings, we also need to consider when people live, and we have a responsibility to future generations, as well. And as Sigal Samuel writes for Vox, these competing priorities raise a lot of moral questions:
How many resources should we devote to “longtermist” versus “near-termist” goals? Is the future a key moral priority or is it the key moral priority? Is trying to help future people – the hundreds of billions who could live – more important than definitely helping the smaller number of people who are suffering right now?
There are no easy questions to these moral quandaries, and some of these philosophical questions lead to unsettling consequences. For example, if you think artificial intelligence will lead to existential danger, or that an asteroid might hit the Earth and therefore we should colonize Mars, then you’d think it’s worth investing millions or billions of dollars to avert those catastrophes – but those funds wouldn’t be used to address hunger and poverty here and now. Which obligation takes precedence?
Perhaps one phrase from this week’s portion can help us reconsider issues: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children put to death for their parents: a person shall be put to death only for their own crimes.” (Deuteronomy 24:16). On one level, this is a prescriptive law – people should be held responsible only for their own crimes, not someone else’s. But on a deeper level, we can look at this as a more hopeful description of the future, because the choices we make now will affect future generations, and indeed, whether they live or perish. We may not know how these decisions will impact humanity, but we do need to think about not just our present responsibilities to ourselves and our contemporaries, but to those who have yet to come.
We inherently care more about those closest to us – physically, emotionally and temporally. And in many ways, that’s how it should be. We care about our friends and family not because they represent an abstract good, but because we are connected to them. But we also need to think of those we don’t see, that may not be on our radar screen, and even of those who have yet to exist. And if we don’t act now, then when? We may not know the impact of our actions, but just as we can use different lenses to zoom in or out of the pictures we want to see, we can attempt to zoom our vision into the future – and at a whole range of different scales.