“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.”
In his 1951 book The Life We Prize, Quaker writer David Elton Trueblood presents this profound assertion of the discoverability of existential worth, achievable only in the context of legacy. By legacy, we do not here intend the eternal personal remembrance sought by Gilgamesh or Alexander; rather, legacy in this sense means that our actions today leave a better world for tomorrow. Consider the great domains of human activity, thought, and debate: politics, economics, business, religion. To what degree do our actions in these arenas today serve to fulfill short-sighted, selfish ends, rather than nurturing a prosperous world for our successors? It is tempting for we who are politically progressive to read in this question an accusation against the usual suspects of self-service: avaricious bankers and CEOs, predatory religious leaders, corrupt and power-hungry politicians. Let the activist beware, however; even the great struggles of human progress are meaningless, in the most pointed sense, if the aims of a movement seek only the satisfaction of the present without thought to the future. If, however, we maintain a far-seeing perspective, considering the consequences of our own actions great and small on the world we leave to those who follow after us, we come to understand the purpose and meaning of not only our activism, but of ourselves. What we do matters if, and only if, we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in the present for the sake of a future we may never see.
The idea of giving of oneself for the sake of offspring is a fundamental law of biology. According to Darwinian theories of selection, there are only two endgames for any species: reproduction and death. Biologically speaking, the meaning of life is self-perpetuation. By that logic, if an organism has offspring, but those offspring do not survive to reproduce themselves, the existence of the whole antecedent line is rendered null. Therefore, many species, including humans, endure great privation and suffering to ensure the well-being and prosperity of their offspring, sometimes for multiple generations. Looking out for our children and grandchildren is intrinsic to our human nature. Fascinatingly, we humans have also often looked to other species for symbolic representation of this principle. The Scottish clan Stewart, for example, has as its emblem an albatross pecking its own breast as its blood runs down to feed its nesting chicks. Although seabirds such as the albatross perform such acts only in mythology, it is nevertheless telling that human storytellers emulated this image as an example of virtue.
Yet for all this, our human societies have frequently lost sight of this fundamental principle, sacrificing the future for a more comfortable present. Nowhere is this more evident, and more repulsive, than in violent warfare. War is the most myopic of all human activities insofar as impact on subsequent generations is concerned. In war, particularly in the eras following Industrialization, the lives of young soldiers are thrown away en masseto achieve the objectives of the older generals and politicians. Land is ravaged, crops are ruined, infrastructure is destroyed, families are broken, children are orphaned, and a generation is lost.
Of course, warfare is not the only arena in which short-term profit overrides all other considerations. Perhaps the most frequently offending realm is that of finance, banking, and economics. As is well chronicled in Michael Lewis’s 2010 documentary novel The Big Short, hosts of brokers, bankers, realtors, investors, and others deceptively traded in sub-prime, unsustainable real estate deals in the decade leading up to 2008. The fraudulent actions of such faceless corporations as Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs resulted in the greatest global financial crisis since the Great Depression, preventing at least one generation from building wealth and participating in the economy as their parents and grandparents had. But why should any of the responsible parties feel remorse over these downstream effects? After all, each successive quarter increased shareholder value for over a decade before collapsing; billions of dollars were made from these deceitful practices. What matter if they later made home ownership a pipe dream for an entire age cohort, when those responsible suffered little and profited much? Similar practices, conditions, and attitudes underpin most, if not all, economic disasters of the modern world.
Curiously, there exists a sizeable and vocal portion of the population which not only accept but vociferously defend these short-term and selfish actions as reasonable and rational. In the United States, and to a lesser degree in other nations such as Australia, government programs that provide financial assistance to the unemployed, impoverished, or ill are decried as government overreach at best, or nefarious communist plots at worst. The same language is employed to demonize legislation that would hold financial institutions or corporations accountable, for example in regard to carbon emissions or humane conditions for animals raised for food.
Such seemingly inane sentiments have important philosophical roots, which must be untangled for the current outgrowth to be understood. The keystone to all of these, however, is the idea of the individual as sovereign. In the wake of Enlightenment skepticism and the abandonment of Christianity, at least among intellectual circles in Europe, there emerged a vacuum of existential meaning. Nietzsche identified this void (“God is dead,” famously), and also the subsequent threat of nihilism and despair, which remain prevalent forces even today. His answer to this threat was that human beings can create their own meaning through Self-Overcoming (selbstüberwindung), thus becoming the Superman (Übermensch). Whether or not his idea is valid is irrelevant; its salience is that it is profoundly individualistic.
This ontological idea dovetailed with other political and economic schools of thought. Enlightenment political theorists also championed the sovereignty of the individual, beginning perhaps with John Locke’s assertion of each person’s “unalienable rights” to life, liberty, and property. Later, economic thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, notable figures of the Austrian School, preached that individual freedom in economic and political senses leads invariably to general prosperity. The Chicago School of economic thought, intellectual heirs of the Austrians, took this ideology to its logical end with the formulation of the Friedman doctrine, named for Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman writes:
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
These economic ideas, now appended into the prevailing neo-liberalism of today, have led corporate executives, financiers, and bankers to act in the short term, valuing a higher stock price next quarter over anything in the long term – sometimes over the future of the corporation itself, such as in the case of Sears, a once massive corporation which filed for bankruptcy in October of 2018.
Finally, the cult of the individual finds full expression in Russian-American writer Ayn Rand. She, through the rambling monologues of her protagonists, ventures further than a defense of liberty; for Rand, selfishness is a virtue, and altruism for altruism’s sake is not only useless, but deplorable. In the appendix to her novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand states plainly that “[her] philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” This philosophy she named Objectivism, and it found enthusiastic support among certain circles, particularly in the United States.
Rand, Nietzsche, Mill, and the Austrian and Chicago economists continue to permeate American culture; billionaire Mark Cuban proudly boasts that he keeps a copy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on his bedside table. In light of these self-centered and individualistic worldviews, it is hardly mysterious that the political, financial, and cultural institutions of America, and others influenced by American cultural and economic hegemony, act almost exclusively in the interests of their present selves.
In contrast to the cult of the individual in the post-Industrial West, many traditional societies around the world have answered the question of existential meaning in an entirely different way. Many indigenous peoples of North America find a safeguard against nihilism or existential anxiety, not in individualism, but in social cohesion, environmental responsibility, and the prosperity of succeeding generations; many hold this as a central guiding principle in all their institutions. In fact, the oldest constitutional representative democracy in the Americas, that of the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederation), codified this idea in their legislative process. From the Great Law of the Iroquois:
“Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people, and have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
This clause has given birth to a movement known as Seven Generation Stewardship, in which collective actions and decisions should be considered vis à vis their ramifications on the next seven generations. Such far-sightedness provides a bulwark against greediness, laziness, and apathy in behavior and governance, and demands accountability and wisdom from all members of society.
For the Haudenosaunee, as for many non-Western peoples, ontology is holistic and integrated, encompassing the self, the ancestors, future descendants, the Earth, and plant and animal life. Contrast this with Randian Objectivism – cold, atomic, and selfish, with the individual resolutely disintegrated from his or her environmental and social surroundings. Conquest and colonization through the past half millennium have silenced the voices of traditional philosophy and wisdom, creating a world rife with the illnesses of modernity. Perhaps the remedy for these diseases and their symptoms lies in the teachings of those who were victims of modernism’s adherents.
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For all the ways in which neoliberal economic theory misses the mark, it does nevertheless correctly promote the idea that people respond to incentives and disincentives. In modern usage, this means that businesses attract quality employees through offering higher wages, or that higher taxes on cigarettes is an effective method of reducing smoking. Taken to one logical end, this principle supports the Friedman Doctrine; a corporation exists to be profitable and shall be, perhaps even must be, incentivized by profit above all else, “social responsibility” be damned.
Nevertheless, this narrow view of a principle of incentives lacks imagination. Human beings, complex and mysterious creatures that they are, act in response to incentives that are not readily apparent to the business major. People give freely of time, money, material goods, and affection, expecting nothing from the recipient. What, then, is their incentive for doing so? In some cases, it may be a hope for reciprocal gifts sometime in the future; in others, it may be self-congratulatory, where the giver is incentivized by the positive feeling of being a generous person. Sometimes, though, it is that a person is simply doing what they believe is the right thing for others.
Empathy is what makes us human; altruism is attested in our history every bit as much as selfishness. It is not a foolish thing to be driven by a desire for the welfare of all, even at the expense of self; nor is it irrational to advocate for such an attitude in the public forum. In fact, if we continually speak out in such a way, demonstrating that we are incentivized above all else by concern for the future, we will effect cultural change where this mindset becomes the norm. This, then, is our great responsibility as advocates for progress and sustainability.
In the present moment, the future is clouded in chaos and unpredictability. Globally, autocratic and authoritarian political figures are asserting themselves against free, democratic political systems. Climate change has reached a point of crisis, from which recovery is uncertain. In the United States, life expectancy has decreased for the second year in a row, exacerbated by an epidemic of opioid overdoses and suicide, both deaths of despair. In many ways, we are failing future generations. Therefore, it falls upon us to respond to these crises with decisiveness, wisdom, and tenacity. We must have a vision for a prosperous society, and work tirelessly towards its realization. In this great purpose, we may perhaps find an answer to our search for meaning: planting shade trees under which we know we may never sit. Finding once again wisdom in indigenous tradition, I am encouraged by the exhortation of Sitting Bull, last great chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, who admonishes us:
“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
Phil Stewart is a historian and educator based out of Texas, USA. He is an advocate of free speech and human rights, especially in marginalized communities.