There is such a thing as the Wellbeing of the Future of Life on Earth.
I know it sounds a bit nuanced, but this may be one of the most important concepts. If there is such a thing as the wellbeing of the future, that means that we can possibly define it. If we can define it, then we can start to measure it.
What makes the future of life so important? Primarily that there are potentially so many generations within it: the future is such a tremendously long time that the number of those who may live in the future (both human and the rest of Earth) dwarf those of us alive today. This is not intuitive: the present day is very immediate and larger than life, whereas the future is quite distant, not yet existing, and difficult to think about. This makes it all the more important to deeply consider the sheer numbers involved.
The wellbeing of the Future is different than that of today
First, let us distinguish the future's wellbeing from the Wellbeing of Today
. If we confuse the wellbeing of the future with that of the present, then we will be unable to think about how one may be more important than the other, or how one affects the other. For example, the vague desire to "make the world a better place" often leads to charity
, which indeed does help others alive today, but the benefit it has to the future may be less than education
, even though charity may be more immediately pressing. This is the problem of weighing the wellbeing of today against the wellbeing of the future: the needs of today always seem more pressing.
Another example of confusing the wellbeing of today with that of the future (in this case, the near-term future) would be the development of a technology that saves a certain amount of people today but creates a small risk that it could be used by terrorists to kill a great number of people. The upside of this technology is immediate and concrete: we can cure 100 cancer patients a year. The downside of this technology is remote: the likelihood of it being used for evildoing is very small in any particular year, and does not become significant unless we add up how the risk accumulates over years. This example shows how the ability to think about the future's wellbeing requires that we learn to think about how things add up over years and ages.
The wellbeing of today is qualitatively different than the wellbeing of the future of life. Today is finite: it is populated by people, some of who we know. The future is indefinite: it is much harder to imagine or care about mere statistical possibilities.
The importance of being earnest
That there is
such a concept as "wellbeing of the future" is terribly important for us to recognise. Without this concept, we cannot begin to ask "what things contribute to the wellbeing of the future?" or "why would I want to value the wellbeing of the future?" People may disagree about these two questions, and this is good because disagreement can lead to more accurate understanding. But nobody should disagree that there is such a concept as a future of life on earth. If we do not even admit of such a concept, then we are blind to our greatest potential: to leave the world more full of life than the way we found it.
The dreadfully tragic bit about this concept is that, even though it seems so straightforward and commonplace, it's all too easy to disregard it, or to lump it together with a very different concept, the wellbeing of the present or of the near-future.
There are several related topics which are too big, and are thus covered in their own sites:
- some possible exact definitions of the wellbeing of the future (this site only deals with the concept as distinguished from the wellbeing of today)
- why it is moral to give first priority to the wellbeing of the future of life on earth
- how to care for the wellbeing of the future