Who decides what’s right?

Recently I have had two separate and seemingly unrelated conversations that provoked me into a deep feeling of reflection upon the future of our civilization.

The first was dealt with concerns of overpopulation and an increasing sense of unsustainability, while the other had more to do with what legacy our time will leave generations that follow.

An old friend (who is childless with plans to remain so) asked me (the father of four children with plans to someday adopt) whether I thought humanity should continue.

Responding to recent studies showing plunging birth rates in Europe and parts of the United States, he wondered if it wasn’t “for the best,” that the profligate spread of humanity start to wane and the last vestiges of our culture begin to disappear.

I remarked that my perspective on the future would, out of necessity, be informed by my view of the past as well as the present. To quote the literary character Judah Ben-Hur: “I believe in the past of my people and in their future.”

To this, my friend brought up the matter of suffering, not only of a collective people but also of individuals. “What of someone born with a debilitating handicap, who lives a short time and dies […] or worse, lives a long life of misery?” he asked.

Of course, this is a crucial question, because it poses that non-existence is to be preferred over one where there is the potential for pain. An ethical matter, upon which my friend and I take opposing moral stances.

Then, just a few days later, a colleague and I were talking about parallels between the abolitionist movement in England during the 19th century and the anti-abortion movement in our present day.

“If you were to go forward in the future 50, or 100 years, what do you think our descendants will look at in our time as barbaric that we are oblivious to now?”

This is the sort of question that keeps me up nights. Not only do I lay in bed at night concerned about my children’s futures but those of my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. I think about them all the time, and they’ve not even been born yet!

Off the top of my head, I named three big ones: food, prisons, and seniors.

The ways and means with which we acquire our meat and produce needs considerable reform. One needn’t be a member of PETA to understand that whatever fiscal sense the cruel and inhumane conditions might make, there is more at stake than the bottom line.

So does it follow with the businesses of incarceration and senior care. The arguments used in our present day are a mirror image to those of the slaving industry. Economics is a science held to a standard of ethics, not the other way around.

Although these matters were discussed at different times with different friends of mine who (as far as I am aware) do not even know each other, I think there are common ideas they both share. In each issue is buried a set of assumptions about what’s important, what’s valuable, what’s right and good.

A vast population is only a burden if it is living in a way that lacks harmony with the world they were created to inhabit. Two irresponsible people are more of a burden than 100 conducting themselves responsibly.

Besides, who decides who’s a burden? Focus groups? Politicians?

The lessons of history show that what one culture considers “just” can easily be thought immoral by another. Child labor was a matter of course in the West during the Industrial Revolution. We know now the error of our ways, yet it still continues in many countries such as Gambia and Vietnam. Why is that?

Who decides? By what standard do we live and hold others accountable?

If we look to ourselves for the answer, we cannot help but fall far short. From humanity comes only more questions.

If we are to find immutable and universal standards, we must begin be looking to One that is both changeless and eternal.

Such, I believe, is the beginning of wisdom and, short of this, there are no answers to be found.


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