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Human Futures

by Rick Lewis

Cross my palm with silver and I shall tell thee what the future portends. Do you want to know what destiny has in store for the human race? Whether your children’s children will be happy, healthy, or even recognisably human a thousand years hence?

So what does the future have in store for humanity? And how does this question have anything to do with philosophy? Isn’t it better tackled by Mystic Maureen in the Sunday newspapers, or by earnest futurologists with computers and graphs, rather than by philosophers? After all, we don’t have crystal balls (as Peter Singer once memorably said). But the future is shaped not just by blind chance and mechanical processes but also by the choices we make now. If things turn out badly, then generally the fault lies in ourselves, and not our stars. Picking this path or that is a matter of values and of reasoning, and those old friends are certainly rumoured to have some connection to philosophy. Therefore this issue is not so much about peering through the mists to see what will happen, but about what choices we should make, and what futures we could create if we want.

Raymond Tallis, who recently spoke about his hopes for the future on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Disks, discusses in his article whether we should adopt the various new technologies for enhancing human capacities and well-being even if they seem to change us in essential ways. Our short story, ‘Double Bubble’ by Alistair Fruish, is also about the medical enhancement of human abilities, but takes a bleaker, more dystopian view than the relatively optimistic Tallis. Eric Dietrich takes this theme of improving humanity quite a few steps further, arguing that we should phase ourselves out altogether, after replacing ourselves with highly moral and cultured robots who embody the best parts of human nature and not the worst. And Ellen Klein argues that the only way we can save our planet and our species is by an all-out effort to colonise other planets.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Mary Midgley patiently tries to reason people out of what she sees as some dangerous hang-ups. She explores what we mean by ‘Security’, what is wrong with the current conception and what implications this has for current debates about, for instance, upgrading nuclear missile systems. Our planet, she says, is in grave danger, and the answer is not to build more missiles but to tackle global warming.

Also in this issue, Professor Christopher Macann distills his recently-published magnum opus into an article. As his work takes in the whole sweep of the history of philosophy, and the development of human consciousness and perception, this is a rather impressive piece of compression. We are also very pleased to be carrying a previously unpublished short article by the late Paul Edwards, discussing Kant’s views on suicide. Camus once wrote that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” but relatively few modern thinkers have engaged with Kant’s trenchant views on that problem. Edwards was a thinker of great integrity and originality, a friend of Bertrand Russell and of humanity in general. We’re grateful to Prof. Edwards’ literary executor (Tim Madigan) for sending us this article after discovering it among his papers.

Immanuel Kant remains an incredibly influential philosopher when it comes to ethics. His famous categorical imperative says that we should “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” From this he derives the famous principle that we should always treat other people as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to achieving our own ends. But if ‘other people’ includes anyone affected by our actions, then it includes our descendants, even our remote descendants. If so, it is a Kantian duty to act in the interests of future generations, to treat them all as ends in themselves. This still leaves the question of how best to do this, and this is perhaps the real topic of this issue.

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