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There is also a lesson here for those who think that unless there is a personal afterlife, their lives lack any meaning or purpose. What is necessary to underwrite the perceived significance of what we do, it seems, is not a belief in the afterlife but rather a belief that humanity will survive, at least for a good long time.
But will humanity survive for a good long time? Although we normally assume that others will live on after we ourselves have died, we also know that there are serious threats to humanity’s survival. Not all of these threats are human-made, but some of the most pressing certainly are, like those posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation. People who worry about these problems often urge us to remember our obligations to future generations, whose fate depends so heavily on what we do today. We are obligated, they stress, not to make the Earth uninhabitable or to degrade the environment in which our descendants will live.
I agree. But there is also another side to the story. Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants.
We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: It is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.
Samuel Scheffler, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Death and the Afterlife.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.