Toward an Ethics of the Future
Modern societies suffer from a distorted relationship to time. It is as if the short term were the impassable horizon, whether it be the activities of the stock exchange, the date of the next elections, or the influence of the media. From communication to finance, transactions are now conducted at the speed of light. Real time, the absolute zero of temporal distance, is both a sign and an element of an exclusive preoccupation with the present. From the short term to what is immediate, from a restricted horizon to the absence of any horizon, such is the time scale which has underlain the closing years of the twentieth century.
Our relation to time has enormous economic, social, political, and ecological consequences. All over the world, the citizens of today are claiming rights over the citizens of tomorrow, threatening their well-being and at times their lives, and we are beginning to realize that we are jeopardizing the exercise by future generations of their human rights. Without proper attention, future generations are in danger of becoming the prisoners of unmanageable changes such as population growth, degradation of the global environment, growing inequalities between North and South and within societies, rampant social and urban apartheid, threats to democracy, and mafia control.
The Tyranny of Emergency
By giving precedence to the logic of “just in time” at the expense of any forwardlooking deliberation, within a context of ever faster technological transformation and exchange, our era is opening the way for the tyranny of emergency.
Emergency is a direct means of response which leaves no time for either analysis, forecasting, or prevention. It is an immediate protective reflex rather than a sober quest for long-term solutions. It neglects the fact that situations have to be put in perspective and that future events need to be anticipated. Devising any durable response to human problems such as environmental ones requires looking at a situation from a distance and thinking in terms of the future. Conversely, the logic of emergency responds to a need for immediate results and for the direct viability of the efforts made. As such, it has been set up as the quintessential paradigm of our times and an exclusive value of our societies. In a world governed by short-term efficacy, any long-term appraisal seems to bear the mark of obsolescence while any constructive gradual approach is condemned as pure speculation.
Consequently, the “temporal myopia” of our times is not merely a sign of disruption in our relationship with time, which could be the negative but inescapable outcome of technical and scientific change. It is the symptom of a more profound dysfunctioning, which affects our ability to achieve a clear perception of the future. The keener sense of emergency stems from both the primacy of real time and the absence of any reference to a collective aim. What has to be done, therefore, is to invert the logic of emergency, which governs the self-justification of current policies; it is not the emergency of problems which prevents the formulation of long-term plans but the absence of any plan that subjects us to the tyranny of emergency. Therefore, as in the words of Zaki Laïdi, emergency is well and truly “an active negation of utopia.”1
The Crisis of Utopia
Our era has seen the collapse of most ideologies founded on the definition of common salvation and the symbolic representation of a collective destiny. The destruction of the Berlin Wall was its most vivid illustration. We must, however, be wary of seeing this crisis in an ultimate goal as that of the Soviet model alone. The end of the Cold War would also seem to have tolled the knell of the ideology of Enlightenment based on the notion of progress. The disillusionment experienced by some of the Eastern bloc countries is particularly revealing in this regard. It illustrates, simultaneously, the death of utopia and the promising ideals of a great social upheaval and the emergence of an “instantaneous” concept of democracy seen as a due and not a reward for a particular trajectory, an itinerary pursued in time; in short, a transition. The market democracy, seen as a model of rapid gratification of needs and desires, has fascinated societies that were weary of making sacrifices in the name of a better future. Therefore, the crisis in representation resulting from the end of the Cold War derives from a divorce between ideological teleology and political authority—that is to say, between purpose and power.
In parallel to this collapse of an ideological utopianism, our societies have witnessed a crisis of scientific utopianism. The devotion to the Enlightenment has died away at the same time as the myth of an all-powerful science. That does not mean that science has ceased to extend its influence. Quite to the contrary, humanity, in accordance with the Cartesian ideal, has gradually become the “master and possessor of nature.” However, at the very time when humanity is extending its mastery, the lack of any “mastery of mastery,” to quote Michel Serres, is sorely felt. In fact, knowledge today is advancing at such a pace, with such technological progress, that the scientific community has been overtaken by its own discoveries. Science is therefore lagging behind power and has discovered the existence of two combined obstacles, complexity and uncertainty. Caught up in the fever of achieving immediate satisfaction for its power, modern humanity has forgotten to reappraise its expertise.
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This is a revised version of a paper presented at the international seminar on “The Ethics of the Future” (third meeting of the Agenda of the Millennium, Rio de Janeiro, 2 July 1997). The author wishes to express his thanks to Hugues de Jouvenel, Editor of Futuribles, which published a French version of this paper (Futuribles, no. 226 : 19–40).
- Zaki Laïdi, Un Monde privé de sens (Paris: Fayard, 1994), 15–34.