Prudence, Altruism, and Curses

September 12, 2012 | 11 comments
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Prudence requires that we recognize the reality of times other than the present, specifically, future times.

Altruism requires that we recognize the reality of people other than ourselves.

Prudence allows us to delay gratification for our own future benefit. We budget, we plan ahead, we save for a rainy day.

Altruism allows us to do things unselfishly, for the good of others. If you accept Thomas Nagel’s structuralist case for altruism, you recognize that there is rational justification for doing good for others that is not dependent on ulterior motives. We are able to help others, even if it doesn’t make us feel good or benefit us in any way. Altruism runs the gamut from small things like holding a door open for someone or large ones, like risking our lives to save another from danger.

If we combine these two characteristics, we will find ourselves able to delay immediate personal gratification or even make sacrifices for the benefit of future people, perhaps even those who have not yet been born.

Prudence and altruism are required to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children (Malachi 4:6), but in this case, we are in the role of the fathers.

The sins of the fathers are visited upon future generations, not out of God’s malice, but as a natural consequence of the choices the fathers make (Number 14:18).

What sins are we bequeathing to the future? What curse do we give them for a birthright? If the earth is to be smitten with a curse, which our actions will call it down?

Are we selfishly taking advantage of all the resources available to those in our socio-economic status? If we can, are we eating, drinking and making merry, ungratefully consuming meat in abundance, and leaving mountains of plastic bottles in our wake as we seek to entertain ourselves with one expensively contrived diversion after another?

Are we being prudent, even for the foreseeable future span of our own lives? Are we being altruistic, giving any thought to the others who live now and our children who will inherit the future we are shaping for them?

How can we possibly make restitution to those who have not yet been harmed by our actions, but long after we die, will suffer the consequences of our choices? How can we repent when it is difficult to see, or when we refuse to see what the consequences of our sins will be? How can we ask forgiveness of our children who have not yet been born? I would to God that we consider them and act with more prudence and more altruism.

11 Responses to Prudence, Altruism, and Curses

  1. IDIAT on September 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Under your rationale, using even the slightest bit of resource beyond what our bodies need to survive would be a waste of resources to the detriment of those that follow. That seems rather harsh. The Greeks didn’t need to waste rock on temples; Michaelangelo didn’t need to waste paint on the Sistene Chapel, and a family can’t enjoy a fire camping. It’s the use of resources that has allowed other spirits to follow their forebearers to earth in mortality. The same plastic that finds its way into the landfill was used yesterday in an IV tube to save a child’s life. Yet, the making of that IV tube comes with a price. Should there be a wise and prudent and reasonable use of resources? Of course. We are all stewards of the natural resources the earth has to offer. But I don’t think the imperfect use of resources rises to the level of “sin.” Like anything else, it is a question of degree. And as much as natural consequences follow the acts of fathers, those acts may also bless the lives of future generations. I don’t think we can make restitution to our descenants for our bad choices any more than our descendants will be able to make restitution to us for our good choices.

  2. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    IDIAT, how do you read that in Rachel’s post? She’s not talking about consuming more than we need, she’s talking more broadly about overconsuming without defining what constitutes overconsumption. Speaking just for myself, I consume not only more than I need to to live, but more than I need to to live in a comfortable manner. At what point does my consumption become a harmful overconsumption? That’s a decent question to ask, and one that I’m not prepared definitively to answer. Moreover, what constitutes overconsumption depends on your assumptions about the increased (or decreased) future production, based on technological and other improvements.

    But our current levels of consumption clearly affect future generations, which may be an additional motivation for keeping an eye on our personal consumption.

  3. IDIAT on September 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    “She’s not talking about consuming more than we need, she’s talking more broadly about overconsuming without defining what constitutes overconsumption.” Huh? I thought, by definition, overconsuming is consuming more than we need. Anyway, I understand where she’s coming from. Obviously, the earth has a finite amount of certain resources since matter can’t be created. And since its highly unlikely more matter will drop from the sky of the kind we can use as resources, we have to exercise our dominion over the earth wisely. It could be that the Second Coming will occur because mankind has exhausted and used up earth’s resources, which will in turn trigger wars. I’ve always thought that if we’re here long enough, we’ll either develop technology that will take advantage of other resources not currently being used, and if not we’ll go back to the horse and buggy days.

  4. Rachel Whipple on September 12, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    “Under your rationale, using even the slightest bit of resource beyond what our bodies need to survive would be a waste of resources to the detriment of those that follow.” Not necessarily. I think we can be more virtuous in a Aristotelian sense in how we choose to use our resources. Just as thriftiness is the virtue that lies between the excessive vices of spendthrift (spendthriftiness?) and miserliness, we can develop a virtue of prudence with regard to our consumption that lies between strict self-deprivation/overly stringent conservation on the one hand and wasteful exploitation on the other.

    I’ve been reading the Book of Mormon in the mornings with my kids. Over and over the injunction to remember and keep in rememberance the fathers is repeated. That kind of venerated memory may be the way that future generations thank those past for their good choices. The corollary is that the Lamanites are not held completely accountable for their wickedness; that responsibility is placed on their fathers who handed down incorrect and hurtful traditions. And the fathers, in that case, Laman and Lemuel, were not able to make restitution to their descendants, even as the wickedness and suffering that would be laid at their feet continued to pile on. That is a daunting thought, that we will be held accountable for the consequences of our choices that continue past our own lives. And it certainly applies to this physical world we live in.

  5. Cameron N on September 12, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    I gratefully consume meat in abundance. Does that mean I’m covered?

    Perhaps our generation’s excess may lead to a future where depleted resources compel more people to be humble and accept the gospel? So I’m just doing my part to help society get humbled sooner!

    I think for most of us, the fault and difficulty lies in overcoming developed appetites and passions, and less because we seek to do long-term harm to resources, whatever amount of actual harm we do.

    I also think Mercy will apply heavily in spite of the generational principle. It’s hard enough to do better when we can’t see past daily bread. =)

  6. Rachel Whipple on September 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    “I think for most of us, the fault and difficulty lies in overcoming developed appetites and passions, and less because we seek to do long-term harm to resources, whatever amount of actual harm we do.” Absolutely. But don’t we still have an obligation to occasionally take stock of our actions and their potential and actual consequences, and then adjust our behavior to be more in line with our ideals? We need to recognize that the appetites we have developed may not be entirely beneficial for ourselves and others. It’s to say that we are deliberately causing harm to others; it’s that we are floating along on the status quo, unreflectively unaware. This is true of every aspect of our lives because we can’t be thinking about everything and everyone all of the time. So we focus on one thing at a time, and try to do that better, and then move on to the next, and hope that the patterns we’ve set in play are good enough to hold until it’s time to reconsider again.

  7. Jax on September 12, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Obviously, the earth has a finite amount of certain resources since matter can’t be created. And since its highly unlikely more matter will drop from the sky of the kind we can use as resources, we have to exercise our dominion over the earth wisely.

    This is entirely NOT true. Every year thousands of tons of matter are falling to the earth from space. Likewise every year the earth jettisons material back into space. But not only do we receive matter (resources) we also recieve energy, and just about the perfect amount of energy too. Not too much to cook us and not so little that we freeze.

    As for exhausting the earth’s resources… well we won’t run out of matter but we might run out of air. While we gain space dust every year the net exchange with space is negative (we lose more weight/mass than we gain); with most of the lost mass coming from lost helium. There really could be a shortage of that in distant generations… One scientific article I read said that if we really understood the value of the helium we were losing each year we would be selling those stupid balloons for $100 each.

  8. Cameron N. on September 12, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    Well said Rachel. I suppose what I meant to say is that better stewardship will be the natural byproduct of us learning to control our appetites. Our personal self-mastery will give us spiritual strength and then details and moderation habits kind of fall into place.

    I suppose that my stewardship habits are about on par with your own, maybe a bit less ambitious. I am a product designer (I make things look cool and work cool) so I understand well how wastefulness can be promoted through short-term myopic pressure.

    I think the zealous fulfillment of environmental stewardship in some ways attracts those who lack a relationship with God. A man devoted an entire year of his life to being carbon neutral, but he could have done much more good if he was more concerned about other things. Whereas someone approaching Godliness naturally approaches stewardship at the same time.

    I particularly like these scriptures as they apply to stewardship:
    “Care not for the body and the life of the body, but care for the life of the soul” – Paraphrasing Paul I believe.
    “Multiply and Replenish the Earth” – When I was younger I thought these were two separate things and that ‘replenish’ pertained to farming or something, but now I understand them to be the same thing. One meaning of replenish is to ‘fill up.’ Souls are the ultimate natural resource, and our stewardship of other resources should be guided by our efforts to help them progress. Ultimately, the spiritual effects of generational downfall are the greatest tragedy of failed stewardship.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 16, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Plastic bottles sre not pilrd up in mountains. To the extent they ate not tecycled into Patagonia flerce jackets and park benches tgat don’t rust, they are so thin that they compress down to hardly any volume in landfills, where much more volume is ten up by old telephone directories. But neither is a tragedy. Phonebooks in the ground is carbon that has been removed from the atmosphere. Plastic bottlrs.in the ground are a resource that can be mined in some future decade and reused. Why it is only water bottkes, and not soda bottkes and milk bottles thst are.under indictment, is a mystery.

    In truth, the last 50 years have greatly improved the health of the natural environment in the US and the developed world. Most of the rhetoric about shortage of natural resources is a rationale for government control of resources, and of people, not a legitimate crisis.

  10. Brian on September 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Raymond,

    If you can write something not “pilrd up” without education, nor “tecycled” propaganda, then “tgat” would be worth a considered response.

  11. Brian on September 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I hope those thoughts “sre” clear.

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