“For our children’s children” is a nonsense cliche

There is nothing in my life or in my genetics or in my behaviour for which I blame my grandparents. Three of the four had passed away before I was born. But I had some interaction with my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I am thankful for a few pleasant memories I have of them. When my great-grandmother passed away, it was just a blip on my consciousness. When my grandmother passed away I remember a feeling of some relief that the suffering of her last few years had ended. But I have never felt any need to attribute any blame or credit to them – or their generation – for the state of the world or for my state in it. Should I blame my father or his generation for World War II? Or his father’s generation for World War I?

So I am mildly irritated when I hear arguments for this political policy or that, “for the sake of our children’s children”. Any generation has only a very vague idea – if any – of the challenges to be faced by the next. My grandfathers had no conception of the world even my father faced let alone the world that I live in. For any of my grandparents to have made decisions about their own lives for the “sake of their children’s children” would have been both arrogant and stupid. To predict the challenges to be faced by the next generation is imperfect enough that, trying to predict the challenges two generations hence, is both futile and arrogant. Every succeeding generation is inevitably better equipped with technology and knowledge (but not necessarily with brain power), to handle its own challenges than the previous one. Solutions available tomorrow, with the knowledge and technology of the day, are not available now.

Would the world be a better place if the dodo was not extinct? Or if World War II had not taken place? Or if aircraft had never been invented? The questions are meaningless. Decisions at the individual or the collective level must be made at the time, for that time, by that time. To anticipate the questions to be faced by future generations and make decisions now – to save future generations from some problem we predict for them – is just as meaningless. The majority of political predictions from just half a generation ago (10 years) were wrong. There is no doubt a causal link between what we do now and the challenges which will be faced by our descendants, but we can neither anticipate those problems nor are we better equipped to solve their problems than they will be. There is also no doubt that decisions taken now choose not only the path for the future but also those who will walk that path. But we cannot – now – walk that path for them. World War II terminated the path for many millions but also enabled the existence of all the survivors and their descendants. But whichever path it is, and whoever the travellers are, they will be better able to define and solve their problems than their grandparents.

Suppose that some decision made today leads to some catastrophic decline in human population. As happened before WW II. Suppose further that the survivors eventually thrive again. As the population is thriving today. Many possible children’s children will not – and did not – even see the light of day. But some thousands of years hence, the population of the day would have no blame to attach to the generation of today. It would have been the catastrophe which enabled their very existence. Just as the occurrence of WW II enabled the population and the world of today. And there is no blame to be attached to those who took the fateful decisions which led to WW II.

So when somebody tells me that he is doing something “for the sake of his children’s children”,

  1. I don’t believe him, and
  2. I think he’s finding a spurious argument for a position he cannot otherwise justify.

A politician who is stupid enough to propose some action for the sake “of our children’s children” should be ignored.


 

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