Moral Vision and Transcendence

Moral vision sees the suffering of others. It also requires you to extend your gaze beyond the present and into the future. To see the world morally you must look at things clearly, fairly, and compassionately. Morality also requires you to balance the needs of the near-at-hand with the demands of a distant horizon. That distant horizon offers a transcendent perspective on your life and your legacy.

Last week I wrote a column about speed, and our culture’s emphasis on quickness. Some things must be done quickly. But many good things—love, grief, and happiness—require us to slow down. The key is moderation, and knowing when to go quickly and when to go slow. Wisdom also requires us to balance short-term and long-term points of view.

It is common to distinguish between short-term and long-term thinking, goals, and ambitions. Ethical decision-making procedures typically emphasize this as part of cost-benefit analysis. This seems obvious. But what do we mean by short-term and long-term? How short is too short? And how long should long-term be? We are often confused about this. And quite a few things go wrong when we are not careful about how we judge the relative value of what’s close-at-hand and what’s far away.

We also tend to confuse long-term concerns with medium-term goals. We tend to ignore the really long-term. We can describe this as part of our general “moral myopia.” We are near-sighted about morality and the good life. This occurs most obviously, when our moral gaze does not extend beyond our own self-interest. Morality asks us to direct our attention and care to the suffering of others.

But which others should we focus on: those nearest, or those farther away? A balance is needed. This is true with regard to significant social and political issues such as climate change, or war and peace. We ought to focus on the costs and benefits in the near- and medium-term. But really long-term goals also matter. We should care about those who suffer from storms and floods today. But we should also take long-term steps to prevent catastrophic climate change. Compassion must be extended to those suffering from war today. But we must also work to create the conditions for lasting world peace.

And in our own lives, we must balance short-term and long-term needs and interests. Short-term thinking breeds corruption. It causes people to lie and cheat. It also explains why people fail to prepare for retirement, and why we struggle to correct destructive health habits. The intense pleasures of the moment can overwhelm our desire to do well in the long-run.

The utilitarian philosophers created a process called “the hedonic calculus” (sometimes called the felicific calculus) that helps balance short-term and long-term goals. The utilitarians tell us to consider the “intensity” of pleasures, their “propinquity” (nearness), their “fecundity” (the tendency of a pleasure to produce other pleasures), and the general social utility of our policies and choices.

The utilitarian calculus is useful for thinking about short- and medium-term goods. It reminds us that it is prudent to save for retirement and to eat healthily. It also shows that honesty and fidelity pay off. And the idea of general utility asks us to factor in the happiness of others both near and far.

But what about really long-term goods? We should add to the calculus the transcendent value of your entire life. Moral vision should consider the legacy you hope to leave behind. Transcendent goods extend beyond the simple trade-offs of cost-benefit analysis. When you view your life as a whole that even transcends your death, things begin to look differently. The transcendent vantage point asks you to imagine your entire biography, and the impact your life will have on your friends, family, and the world as a whole.

The transcendent long-term is important when thinking about the legacy of the present generation. We ought to ask ourselves how our lives will affect the next several generations. We ought to work to create a world for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, that is decent, healthy, peaceful, and free.

Ours is a short- and medium-term culture. The intense concerns of the moment encourages moral myopia. We’re often so busy with a, b, and c that we forget to look toward x, y, and z. But at some point, you will reach your last moment. And when you are gone, you ought to hope that those who come after will be grateful for who you were, what you created, and what you left behind.