How We Depend On Our Descendents

Philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that, regardless of our individual views about a personal afterlife, we all have a stake in believing that others will live on after we’ve passed:

One thing that happens when you start to think about how you would feel if you knew that life would end shortly after your own death, lots of the things that you now do might come to seem pointless. Like, if you’re a cancer researcher, will you still find it meaningful or valuable to pursue cancer research? Quite likely not. I think we implicitly take it for granted that our activities belong to an ongoing temporal chain of human lives and generations, and that if we imagined that, you know, a giant asteroid were going to destroy the earth so there was no future for humanity, suddenly lots of what we now regard as valuable would seem pointless. …

Many people who believe in the afterlife as traditionally understood think that if there isn’t such an afterlife then the value or purpose or meaning of what we do here and now is diminished, or perhaps lost altogether.

I’m suggesting that if there isn’t an afterlife in my sense, that really would diminish the point and value and meaning of what we’re doing. The nice thing about my kind of afterlife is that we’re actually in a position to take steps to make it more likely that human beings will survive long into the future — or, unfortunately, less likely. …

I think we don’t take sufficiently seriously the importance of insuring that human life continues. And, you know, some people are trying to change that, but often they do it by appealing to some sense of moral obligation — “we owe it to our descendents.” I’m suggesting that it’s not just that they’re dependent on us — there’s also a sense in which we depend on them. Without them, if there are no future generations, the value of what we’re doing here and now is threatened.