The famous question, "What has posterity ever done for me?" must be taken seriously. --- Kenneth Boulding
My friend, the irrepressible David Brin riffs on the theme of year-end giving with his recent call to non-billionaires to also act philanthropically, and to be intentional about it. It's a lovely affirmation of the fundamental needs of citizens in a free society to resist abdicating our social responsibilities to erstwhile purveyors of the public good and to preserve polycentrism of association, self-governance, and beneficence. David gets there by a mix of grateful and fiscally responsible patriotism (he confesses he has long sent a little contribution above his tax bill to help pay down the public debt); an affirmation of the division of labor (charities coordinate "proxy power" allowing some of us to work full time on behalf of social causes); and a call to eschew cynicism in favor of hope (David's hope is primarily of the Baconian rather than the Augustinian sort, but this is a conversation for another time).
Interestingly, David flips Boulding's question (What has posterity ever done for me?) on its head and asks us to consider instead why posterity would want to keep us around. David covers the bases here pretty well, jumping over our generation's famous dinner party question (If you could have dinner with anyone from history. . . ?) to contemplate why future generations would want to keep us around as sims, to note the concern a handful may have as to whether or not future generations will actually want to wake them up from their cryogenic sleep. (Personally, I'm betting that most folks depending on cryogenics for a few more years of earthly mischief would do better to count on commercial contracts than their heirs . . . what entanglements for the problem of perpetuities is brewing here!)
But at bottom, David's reflections still resonate with Boulding's.
You don't have to be reminded. Forward-looking folks know this time of year is when we reassess our annual donations and find ways to help tilt the scales toward a more favorable tomorrow. But is there an aspect of ultimate self-interest?
Consider. What criteria will future generations use, when they decide which people from our era to up/down/in-load or simulate or whatever tech-apotheosis you yearn for them to provide? Won't they factor in not only how interesting you would be to have around, but also how hard you tried to be -- in the words of Jonas Salk -- a good ancestor?
Making sacrifices for a distant posterity is clearly the purest form of grants economy that can be imagined, for there can be no vestige of exchange in it. [author's note: see problems of cryogenics above?] The only conceivable answer to this question is that in order to to establish a satisfactory identity, one must maintain some sort of community, however uncertain and discounted, not only with one's own day, but with the whole human race as it stretches out through time and space. Here one could perhaps appeal also to the principle of serial reciprocity. The present generation has received a large inheritance from its ancestors in capital, knowledge, artifacts, culture, organizations, and so on, which it could not possibly have created by itself. This gift creates a sense of obligation that can only be expressed by conserving and even increasing the heritage to be passed on to the next generation. This, again, however, supposes some kind of community extending over time. (The Economy of Love and Fear, 97)
In the end, David makes an important appeal for folks to step up to contribute to the growing of a good society.
Cynicism is for saps and indignation junkies and traitors to hope. It is an excuse for laziness, leaving to others the grown-up task of study and research and negotiation and hard work and innovating and saving the world. We can get there. I just showed you how easy, simple and cheap it is to do at least the minimum, choosing half a dozen groups to save the world for you! And thus you can go on record as one of the good guys.
Whether our community is primarily with our "godlike heirs," as David puts it at the heights of his Baconian fancy, or is more Burkean -- [Society] is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. -- it is our capacity for moral sympathy with others and moral and historical identification with members of a greater cloud of witnesses that grounds the possibility of philanthropic action.
David is correct that some of his year-end giving may go to causes contradictory to those you or I support with our charitable donations, but he's also right that in this, it's less the winning than the playing that ultimately matters.
As Richard Cornuelle put it,
In the end, a good society is not so much the result of grand designs and bold decisions, but of millions and millions of small caring acts, repeated day after day, until direct mutual action becomes second nature and to see a problem is to begin to wonder how best to act on it.
David shares some of his favorites with us, so here is a list of organizations on my radar at this and other times of year. If you are so inclined, let us know some of your favorites as well!
Finally, I would be remiss not to put in a plug for The Philanthropic Enterprise!