Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Philosopher and Novelist, Winner MacArthur "Genius" Award and the National Humanities Medal Presented by President Obama
United States

Moral Monsters

“Wherever you are, struggling with whatever hostile conditions constraining the choices that we took for granted, you must look back at your ancestors—us—with outraged incredulity. How could we not have cared about you at all?”

Dear Descendants,

If you are reading this, then you must exist, and so my greatest fears haven’t been realized. We didn’t manage to eradicate our kind from the universe. In my darkest hours, routinely arriving at 4 in the morning, that’s what I feared, a universe in which our species had disappeared, taking along with it many other life forms that had once flourished on earth. I’d lie awake mourning all those life forms, but—call me anthropocentric—most especially the humans. A universe emptied of humans, with all of our fancies and follies, seemed to me an immeasurably reduced universe.   

So at least you exist—only under what conditions I can’t begin to imagine. I don’t know whether you’re reading this on earth and, if you are, whether you’re huddled inside an artificial environment to protect yourself from deadly radiation. Or perhaps you’ve colonized another planet or built a system of space stations, using your human ingenuity to adapt to an alien environment for which evolution didn’t naturally equip you. Perhaps you only know about what it was like to welcome each changing season on earth—smell the fecund moist earth of spring, feel the silky sultriness of summer nights, listen to the silence of snow falling heavily in the forest—by reading the writings of us ancients.

Wherever you are, struggling with whatever hostile conditions constraining the choices that we took for granted, you must look back at your ancestors—us—with outraged incredulity. How could we not have cared about you at all, you wonder? You are our kith and kin. Didn’t we consider that you deserved the same rights to flourish as we presumed for ourselves?

It’s ironic, because we often looked back at our ancestors with outraged incredulity, wondering how they couldn’t have seen, say, that slavery or misogyny were wrong.
Were they moral monsters, we’d wonder?

Do you wonder exactly the same about us?

Well, we weren’t monsters. Really, we weren’t. We were human, all too human. And being human we tended to prioritize our own lives, our own self-interest, over those of others. It’s not that other selves meant nothing at all to us. But our own selves always meant so much more. 

And here’s another feature of our evolution-shaped human nature that, through no malice at all, conspired to doom you. (You understand, I’m not justifying our behavior, just trying to explain it to you.) We discounted the future. The future seemed so hazy, so uncertain, while the present … well, it was present. The now was vividly pressing on us, always, real and fully formed. 

Our psychology evolved out of a past when human life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” And because we weren’t able to overcome that psychology, to think in ways larger and more generous, the future we’ve bequeathed you is at least as precarious as the past out of which we emerged. I fear it is unimaginably nasty.

You just weren’t very real to us, you others who didn’t even enjoy the privilege of existing. How could your claims, so ghostly as to be ungraspable, constrain our choices, reign in our desires? And we were so inventive in our technologies, which pelted us with more and more things to want, amusements to distract us from what we should have been thinking about—which was you.

And now it’s we who no longer exist. Perhaps you’d just as soon forget about our existence, as we forgot about yours. If only you could, I imagine you thinking. If only you could blot us out of your consciousness just as thoroughly as we blotted you out of ours. 

If there are still storytellers among you—if that’s a human capacity that you can still indulge—then do a better job then we did in making the lives of others felt—each and every life, when its time comes, a towering importance.

May you flourish. May you forgive us.

A philosopher and novelist, Goldstein won a MacArthur "Genius" grant and was recently presented the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.