The relationship between motherhood and one's commitment to the future made headlines this week in Britain. In reference to Theresa May--who became Prime Minister on Wednesday and happens to be childless--energy minister and rival Andrea Leadsom was quoted in The Times as saying “I feel that being a mum means you have a real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.” Leadsom soon apologized, claiming that the remarks misrepresented her views.
One response to the claim that motherhood provides a concrete link to the future comes in a thought experiment recently proposed by philosopher Samuel Scheffler. Scheffler invites us to imagine a doomsday scenario: he writes, “Suppose you knew that, although you yourself would live a normal life span, the earth would be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect your attitudes during the remainder of your life?” Few among us would be unmoved. We would lament the deaths of loved ones, of course. In addition, and crucially for Scheffler, we would mourn the disappearance of the “institutions, practices, activities, and ways of life” that we care about. Without a belief that humanity will live far beyond us, Scheffler says, our emotional investment in our everyday activities may weaken. Our attachment to projects—our interest in teaching or writing or researching for a cure for cancer—would dry up. The only activities that we might pursue with the same relish would relate to our direct comfort and pleasure.
Yet, in the course of our lives, we pursue all of these activities despite knowing that we are in fact mortal, and that we won’t live to see all of their consequences. We function quite well, even with the knowledge that everyone alive today will soon be dead. In other words, Scheffler argues, the existence of a "human afterlife"—knowing that human generations will live after us—“matters more to us than our own continued existence.” In fact, “the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of people we do know and love.”
According to Scheffler, this existence of a human afterlife is more fundamentally important to the meaning-making of our lives than any one particular project or activity we might undertake, including having children (or not). Scheffler continues: “Humanity itself as an ongoing, historical project provides the implicit frame of reference for most of our judgments about what matters. Remove that frame of reference, and our sense of importance—however individualistic it may be in its overt content—is destabilized and begins to erode. We need humanity to have a future if many of our own individual purposes are to matter to us now. Indeed…we need humanity to have a future for the very idea that things matter to retain a secure place in our conceptual repertoire.”
In other words: whether or not we have children, our stake in the future comes from our commitments to humanity as a whole and our belief that humanity will continue long into the future.
Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife, ed. by Niko Kolodny (New York: Oxford, 2013).