Opinion | Is being pessimistic about the future unethical?

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Today I would like to share with you a text I did not write. What will hopefully excuse such laziness on my part is that the text is of great social and scientific interest because it presumably denies basic rules of physics. It is a letter that was left outside of my apartment, and the sender said nothing about their identity except that their name is “22nd Century.” If the sender really is the 22nd century, then, in a way, the text has not been written yet. And yet, paradoxically, here it is:

“Dear Kamil Aftyka!

We hope that you are thinking a lot about us. After all, you recently identified theorizing as the surest way of broadening one’s horizons and expanding the kinds of things one can experience. We should have thus been on your mind. Only theoreticians can say things about the future, given that we have no empirical evidence from it except, perhaps, for this letter.

Our historical distance from your century allows us to say that the future is bright, and that your times were — pardon us! — are only slightly dimmer. In fact, this is why we are writing to you. We know you are trying to develop the idea that it is ridiculous and irresponsible to say that the world is doomed to apocalypse, but we also see you are young, your generation and your century are young and you might not have the tools and confidence to succinctly persuade anyone that your intuition is healthy and right.

Your contemporaries are so convinced that everything is going in a wrong direction, the planet will deteriorate to the point of no return, we will be hit by thousands of plagues, and political thought and action will be more and more appalling that they might even think that our testimony is fake.

Here is what you can say to them in the face of that: When we think that a certain course of events is necessary, is bound to happen, we are already altering our reality to make these events actually happen. What we call “reality” is far more dependent on our thought and will than we might have been taught. How we interpret reality changes how it appears to us and what actions we take respecting it.

The conviction that the world goes necessarily in the wrong direction — pessimism — is a perspective that contributes to making the world go in such direction. It is ultimately a position of conservatism. Many think that conservatism is just a position that things should stay as they are, but this position is, in most cases, only an effect of more hideous conservatism: believing that there is no good change possible, which effectively means opting for preserving the same state of affairs. On the other hand, the opposite conviction, optimism, is a necessary condition of progressive mindset. Only if I truly believe that my future is gay and bright can I actually make it such.

Kamil, we sympathize with you — we would not like to be in your position now, given how many objections the above sentences will raise: “But what about the scientific models! Everyone sees that the third world war must happen; we saw hundreds of movies about it! And your call for optimism is just childish naivety. The authority of Reason calls us to, in contrast, leave such idolatry, such tutelage — and just wait with canned tuna for the doomsday.”

Your accusers might have the authority of Reason behind them, but you will have the authority of the 22nd Century! And there are many things you can do in addressing this set of accusations — and because of such a multitude you would most likely ramble and falter. Could you perhaps let us give you the single good argument?

Optimism indeed is childish if by this we mean it is proper to the young. Pessimism, in contrast, is elderly. It would be inappropriate for you to say this, Kamil, so please say: “I do not think I fully agree, but the 22nd century thinks so and so.” Here is what we think: Pessimism is dominant among all generations in your times because the oldest generations have infected everyone with pessimism, and the young generations have trouble gaining independence from this mindset.

The original source of contemporary pessimism is not an overwhelming number of rationally developed predictions about the future. Rather, your contemporaries are devising those rational predictions for the most part because they were instilled to interpret the world in the fashion common to the elderly. And here is how we got there.

The old generation was born during the post-second-world-war boom. It quickly outnumbered its elders and took power from them in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, we have experienced fewer and fewer births in the West. The old generation was thus allowed to continue dominating in all spheres of our life.

Our democratic centuries are always frightened when a political party, not to say an entire generation, is in power for more than a couple of decades. Fewer and fewer checks and balances apply to it, it becomes less democratic and more tyrannical. The party gets overly focused on its own proceedings, on its own short-term pleasures, and wants everyone to think as it thinks. And when it gets very old, it loses energy, and grows tired and pessimistic.

But because it has most of the power in its hands, everyone listens to it; and the older generation itself starts to think that because everyone listens to it, its pessimism is an expression of broader, universal truth. And so, entangled by this “positive” feedback loop, the young start to think like the old.

For special effect, you can add that the reason why the 21st century is dimmer than the 22nd century is for the most part precisely because it must free itself from this pessimism and resulting inertia. But try to think about it this way: before you are some of the most difficult tasks humanity has ever faced — and you will still succeed excellently.

To motivate you, we are also attaching a few photographs and statistics from our century. 

Attachment 1 shows 0% unemployment. Work is no longer robotic but conducted by actual robots.

Attachment 2 shows that, also thanks to your own generation’s sensibility, birth rates are low yet steady across the globe. Everyone has enough space to grow to infinity and reach salvation of their souls.

Attachment 3 is a photograph of a few Joy Towers that are now being built in any larger city. They are high, full of libraries and societies and agendas, very ornamental — architects were patient to every detail. Although they are finite in height — we do not have unrealistic aspirations like the citizens of Babel, we have humility — in them, one feels they grow to heaven.

Your generation happens to inhabit exactly the whole century – you were born at the beginning of it, you will die at the end of it. But learn the lessons of the past, do not try to dominate your times, at least not for too long!

Yours,

The 22nd Century”

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