Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Future Lives in Everything: Care, Conatus and 'The Road' [2]

Much has been written about how the past is fading from the present of The Road. Just as nature seems incapable of sustaining life any more, so have the supports of individual identity in culture been lost, and even language itself seems to be under threat.
He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.
Without the webs of meaning that link objects and people together within a culture, the possibility of feeling what Martha Nussbaum has called the ‘upheaval of thought’, the disruption of identity consequent on loss of attachment and grief, is undermined.14 The symbolic dimension of the past is as prey to entropy as is the natural complexity produced by billions of years of evolution. For this reason, the stories that the father tells his son as a way of weaving a last thread of cultural continuity are, as he recognizes, hazardous at the same time as being necessary: becoming involved with the past, either through invoked memories or simply through imagination risks awakening dynamics of mourning or melancholy (in Freud’s sense) or mere fantasy.

The Future Lives in Everything: Care, Conatus and 'The Road' [1]

What place does the future have in human experience? A certain tradition, of which contemporary Western societies are the heirs, has long viewed it as a territory to be mapped, controlled, conquered. To this way of thinking, the future is most easily imagined as a linear axis along which the trajectories of economic variables, of social change, of and so on unfold. The future of planning, projection and forecasting feeds into our experience of the world around us. Yet this future co-exists with others, rooted in more intimate dimensions of experience. To uncover these dimensions and the kinds of future-orientation to which they give rise, it is necessary to reach down beneath the assumptions and habits of minds on which the planned, forecasted future rests and which mark it out as a more or less domesticated zone populated by our short- and long-term goals. To do this, a thought experiment is called for. And luckily, we have an example of such an experiment to hand.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On "risk thinking": risk as rationalization

To understand the relationship between technology, finitude and uncertainty, we need to appreciate how far the futures our use of technology creates are increasingly viewed through the lens of risk. The use of risk as a frame for representing the future to ourselves has become central to a wide range of areas of public life, including government and regulation, business, and health care. This has been largely a post-World War II phenomenon, becoming particularly evident during the decades since the 1970s, alongside the transition within industrialised societies from a consensual, essentially Keynesian socio-economic settlement (the age of centralised technocracies and welfarism, including the French régime général, the German Soziale Marktwirtschaft, the British Welfare State and later Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”) towards more fragmented, neo-liberal and initially monetarist social forms.

Risk Thinking
What Nikolas Rose has referred to as "risk thinking" is a loose collection of social practices and habits of mind which centre on the idea that social action can best be legitimated through the evaluation of probably consequences of actions. A substantial body of scholarship rooted in Science and Technology Studies has documented how a probabilistic and purportedly systematic view of potential future outcomes of action, drawing essentially on methods of failure management within engineering, became part of a wider social movement towards quantitative measurement and assessment of the outcomes of policy during the 1970s (Wynne 1992; Wynne 1996), drawing on a variety of developments in neo-classical economics, game theory, public choice theory and so on in a “search for new forms of legitimate order and authority” in a new neoliberal age (Wynne 1996, p. 78).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Technology, uncertainty and the human condition

In the previous post, I noted that, when we reflect on the nature of our relationship to future generations, it becomes apparent that we need to be careful not to view the unfamiliar too readily through the lens of the familiar. Employing familiar concepts analogically or metaphorically to map an unfamiliar territory may, of course, be helpful in some circumstances. But sometimes tension between the content of the metaphor and important features of the target domain is simply too obvious. This, I’ve suggested, is evident when we employ concepts of justice and parental care to get a handle on what is ethically significant about future generations.
What is missing, in both instances, is an appropriate understanding of how our actions, here and now, produce the future our successors will inhabit, and the limitations on how far we can understand the connection between what we do and how the future turns out. In other words, this is the problem of uncertainty. As I mentioned in the previous post, the link between present and future people is not direct. Between us stand the products of our efforts to transform the social and extra-social worlds. However we imagine our relationship to our successors, it requires us to also imagine the means by which this will be actualised: technologies to provide renewable energy, a sustainable welfare state, new medical techniques, more democratic forms of governance, more inclusive educational systems, and so on. Nonetheless, our grasp of what the consequences of our efforts are likely to be is clouded by uncertainty.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thinking about Care

In the last post, I introduced some issues arising from the unfamiliarity of intergenerational ethics.  We are used to thinking about the ethical and political significance of relationships between contemporaries. But when we try to apply these concepts to the relationships between present and (as yet) non-existent future people, we run into difficulties. Rawls points out that Hume’s circumstances of justice, for example, do not hold, and that therefore the idea of justice itself is somewhat problematic. Rawls tries to rescue the idea of intergenerational obligations, however – and unsuccessfully – but that’s a topic for another post. Here, I want to introduce an alternative way of thinking about intergenerational relationships, one which does not foreground justice, but privileges care instead

Monday, February 27, 2012

Future people and the circumstances of justice

What is the nature of our relationship to future generations? Since the 1960s, when what has become known as “intergenerational justice” became a topic of interest moral philosophers, this question has produced a lot of perplexity. Future people are nameless, faceless, purely potential people. When we consider the actual people with whom we share the planet, then we find they stand to us in a variety of personal  - friends, lovers, children, employers - and impersonal – fellow citizens, contractees, bearers of rights – relationships. With our contemporaries, we have relationships which may be taken to impose upon us duties of various kinds – the duty of care of a parent, the duty not to harm another’s interests or deprive them of their property and so on – which we either fulfil or not. Depending on how we bear ourselves towards these others, our relationship with them may change – possibly quite radically.