Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession






By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

From Responsibilities to Future Generations
Ed. Partridge, (Prometheus Books, 1981)

Professors Heilbroner, Thompson, and Hardin(1) variously pose a question that is central to any discussion of the issues of the duty to posterity. The question is this: Are human beings, for the most part, capable of caring for the remote future? Thompson's answer to this question is starkly and uncompromisingly negative, and thus his challenge is the most likely to arouse intuitive discomfort and opposition. But his answer has the merit of reaching to the heart of the problem of whether human beings are the sort of creatures that are capable of caring for their remote posterity.

Professor Thompson's challenge (as well as those of Heilbroner and Hardin) draw their significance from a fundamental criterion of moral responsibility: stability. This criterion (examined and defended with considerable care by John Rawls in his monumental work, A Theory of Justice), states that no moral principle can claim our allegiance unless human beings are generally capable of obeying the principle, unless, as Rawls puts it, the principle can withstand "the strains of commitment."(2)

The criterion, in turn, follows from the metaethical rule that "ought implies can."


In this paper I will accept Rawls's criterion of stability and will argue, against Thompson, not only that it is possible to care about the remote future, but, even more, that failure to do so exacts a considerable cost in well-being to those individuals and those societies that disavow any care for the future.(3)

There is, I believe, a persuasive empirical case against the claim that human beings are disinclined to care for the future, much less to act upon such cares. We need only consider the present existence of national parks and forests, trust funds, donated public buildings, educational and charitable foundations, and numerous other specific examples of care and provision for "future others."(4)

But while empirical evidence is abundant, it is not my task to cite such evidence. Instead, through a series of speculations in moral psychology, I wish to suggest not only that humans commonly display a concern for future others, but also that it is both morally correct to do so and, even more, that such interest is grounded in identifiable and rational features of human social, personal, and moral life -- features that reflect and manifest fundamental aspects of human nature and development. Accordingly, if one feels no concern for the quality of life of his successors, he is not only lacking a moral sense but is also seriously impoverishing his life. He is, that is to say, not only to be blamed; his is also to be pitied.

The alleged need of a well-functioning person to care for the future beyond his own lifetime rests upon a more basic need that I will call "self transcendence." In short, then, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that we have sound personal and social, as well as moral, reasons to care about our impact upon the living conditions of both our contemporaries and of successor generations.


The Concept of Self Transcendence. By claiming that there is a basic human need for "self transcendence," I am proposing that, as a result of the psychodevelopmental sources of the self and the fundamental dynamics of social experience, well- functioning human beings identify with, and seek to further, the well-being, preservation, and endurance of communities, locations, causes, artifacts, institutions, ideals, and so on, that are outside themselves and that they hope will flourish beyond their own lifetimes. If this is so, then John Donne spoke for all mankind when he wrote: "No man is an island, entire of itself." Thus we cannot regard our decisions and the values that we hold to be restricted to and isolated within our lifetimes.

This claim has a reverse side to it, namely, that individuals who lack a sense of self transcendence are acutely impoverished in that they lack significant, fundamental, and widespread capacities and features of human moral and social experience. Such individuals are said to be alienated, both from themselves and from their communities. If such individuals lack concern for self-transcending projects and ideals because of a total absorption with themselves, they are said to be narcissistic personalities.

"Self transcendence" describes a class of feelings that give rise to a variety of activities. It is no small ingredient in the production of great works of art and literature, in the choice of careers in public service, education, scientific research, and so forth. In all this variety, however, there is a central, generic motive, namely, for the self to be part of, to favorably effect, and to value for itself, the well-being and endurance of something that is not itself.

An awareness of this need for self transcendence might be evoked (among those who have and acknowledge this need) by a simple thought-experiment. Suppose that astronomers were to determine, to the degree of virtual certainty, that in two hundred years the sun would become a nova and extinguish all life and traces of human culture from the face of the earth. In the words of the poet Robinson Jeffers:

. . . These tall

Green Trees would become a moment's torches, the

oceans would explode into steam,

The ships and the great whales fall through them like flaming

meteors into the emptied abysm, the six mile

Hollows of the Pacific sea bed might smoke for a moment

the earth would be like a pale proud moon,

Nothing but vitrified sand and rock

would be left on the earth.

Suppose, then, that this were known to be, in two hundred years, the fate of our planet. Would not this knowledge and this awareness profoundly affect the temperature and the moral activity of those persons now living who need not fear, for themselves or for anyone they might love or come to live, personal destruction in this eventual final obliteration? How, in fact, is the reader affected by the mere contemplation of this (literal) catastrophe?

For most, I believe, it would be dreadful to contemplate the total annihilation of human life and culture even two hundred years hence. But if, in fact, most persons would be saddened by this thought, we might ask why this obliteration is so dreadful to contemplate. We need not care personally, and yet we do care. We are not indifferent to the fate of future persons unknown and unknowable to us, or to the future career of institutions, species, places, and objects that precede and survive our brief acquaintance thereof. Furthermore, we seem to feel that, if without exorbitant cost we can preserve and enhance natural areas or human artifacts and institutions for the use and enjoyment of future generations, we have a prima facie reason to do so.

Apparently, our pride of community, of culture, and of self is enhanced by the assurance that, having accepted the gift of civilization, we have, through our involvement with self- transcending projects, increases its value to our successors. We wish, that is, to perceive ourselves in the stream of history not only as recipients of a culture and a tradition, but also as builders of the future, as determiners of the condition of future lives. "To the extent that men are purposive," writes Delattre:

The destruction of the future is suicidal by virtue of its radical alteration of the significance and possibilities of the present. The meaning of the present depends upon the vision of the future as well as the remembrance of the past. This is so in part because all projects require the future, and to foreclose projects is effectively to reduce the present to emptiness.(6)

Thus it is likely that we would feel a most profound malaise were we to be confronted with the certain knowledge that, beyond our lifetimes but early in the future of our civilization, an exploding sun would cause an abrupt, final and complete end to the career of humanity and to all traces thereof. Fortunately, the available scientific evidence indicates that the sun will burn safely and constantly for several more billions of years. But whatever the solar contingencies, the physics of the sun is quite beyond our present or projected control. On the other hand, current social policies and technological developments are within our control, and many now being contemplated and enacted may bear portentous implications for the conditions of life for generations yet unborn. Among these developments are nuclear power and genetic engineering (examined by Hardy Jones and the Routleys later in this anthology). In addition, our generation might significantly affect the future through the continuing use of chloro-fluorocarbons (e.g., aerosol propellants), which could deplete the stratospheric ozone, or through the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons (e.g., DDT), which could permanently damage the integrity of the world ecosystem. Each of these practices, and many others both current and projected, pose enduring threats to the earth's biosphere and thus to the security and abundance of life for future generations. Surely we of this generation wield and unprecedented power to enhance or to diminish the life prospects of our posterity. With this power comes dreadful responsibility; we may choose to ignore it, but we cannot evade it. To paraphrase Lincoln, we of this generation will be held accountable in spite of ourselves. Who cares? Most of us, I dare say, do care. We care about the remote effects of our voluntary and informed choices and policies -- even effects so remote in time that they will take place beyond the span of our own lives and the lives or our children and grandchildren. Furthermore, those who feel and manifest this concern display psychological health and well-being, while those who lack such concern are personally impoverished and genuinely deserving of pity.


The Self and Society. It is time, now, to attempt to justify these bold claims. First, is "self transcendence," as I contend, essential to the very nature of a well-functioning human personality? A strong case for this position is to be found in the writings of George Herbert Mead and John Dewey.(7)

(I will focus most of my attention on Mead, mindful that Dewey's position is, in most significant respects, quite similar.) Mead suggests, in effect, that the notion of a totally isolated self is a virtual contradiction. The self, he argues, has its origin, nurture, and sustenance in social acts. Furthermore, says Mead, the mind emerges through the acquisition, in social acts, of communication skills and the consequent absorption of the medium of "significant symbols" known as language. Accordingly, the self is defined and identified (i.e., "self conscious") only in terms of social experience and the consequent perception of a "generalized other" (or, roughly speaking, internalized norms or "conscience"). Moreover, even in moments of solitary reflection, the mind employs, in silent soliloquy, the fund of meanings (i.e., the language) of the community.

The upshot of the position of Mead and Dewey would seem to be that the self, by its very origin and nature, transcends the physical locus (of body, of sense impressions, and of behavior) that identifies the individual. "Self transcendence" becomes, then, not a moral desideratum but a basic fact of the human condition. To be sure, some persons may withdraw from human society and claim to be unconcerned with their effects upon others and with the future fate of mankind. However, Mead and Dewey would argue, those who claim total psychic and moral autonomy are deceived. For, despite this manifest autonomy, their personality and selfhood have their origin in social acts and contexts, and their denial of this nature is a symptom of personality disorder. In brief, to be a healthy, well-functioning person is to have "significant others" in one's life and to wish to be significant to others and to affect consequences for others. Furthermore, this desire to extend one's self to others (either directly or through institutions and words) does not require that the significant persons, things, and events be physically proximate or contemporary with one's lifetime. The self, then, from the earliest origins in infancy, is essentially "transcendent." To be human is to "relate out," to identify with others, and to show concern for the well-being and endurance of (at least some) communal values, artifacts, and institutions.

If this admittedly impressionistic account is roughly accurate (both of Mead's and Dewey's position, and of human motivation), its significance is clear: "self transcendence" is not a more-or-less occasional and accidental characteristic of individuals and cultures. It is a consequence of universal conditions and circumstances of individual human development. A sense and expression of self-transcendence is thus as necessary for mental health as is exercise for physical health.


The Law of Import Transference. A second approach to self transcendence is suggested by George Santayana's account of "beauty" as "pleasure objectified."(8)

By this Santayana means that, when an object is perceived as beautiful, the pleasure of the aesthetic experience is projected into the object and interpreted as a quality thereof. While I do not wish either to defend or criticize this controversial theory, I find it quite illustrative of a psychological phenomenon that is widespread, familiar, and most significant to our account an defense of the motive of self transcendence. This psychological phenomenon may be summarized by what I will call "the law of import transference." The law states that if a person P feels that X (e.g., an institution, place, organization, principle, etc.) matters to him, P will also feel that X matters objectively and intrinsically. In other words, the significance and importance of an object to the agent is interpreted by the agent as a quality of the object itself. Thus the well-being and endurance of the significant object apart from, and beyond the lifetime of, the agent may become a concern of and a value to the agent -- a part of his inventory of personal interests or goods. John Passmore expresses the point quite eloquently:

When men act for the sake of a future they will not live to see, it is for the most part out of love for persons, places, and forms of activity, a cherishing of them, nothing more grandiose. It is indeed self-contradictory to say: "I love him or her or that place or that institution or that activity, but I don't care what happens to it after my death." To love is, amongst other things, to care about the future of what we love.... This is most obvious when we love our wife, our children, our grandchildren. But it is also true in the case of our more impersonal loves: our love for places, institutions and forms of activity.

The application of this point to posterity, then, is quite clear:

There is ... no novelty in a concern for posterity, when posterity is thought of not abstractly -- as "the future of mankind" -- but as a world inhabited by individuals we love or feel a special interest in, a world containing institutions, social movements, forms of life to which we are devoted -- or even, a world made up of persons some of whom might admire us.(9)

The "law of import transference," I suggest, describes a universal phenomenon familiar to all of us. It is manifested in acts and observances of patriotism, and in the donation of time, talent, and substance to various causes, places, and institutions. It is also seen in posthumous trusts and bequests. Most dramatically, import transference is found in the willingness of a hero or a saint to die for the sake of other persons, his country, his religious beliefs, or his ideals.

"Unfortunately," the critic may reply, "there are still other cases of import transference that may not manifest a motive for 'self transcendence,' or at least not the kind of 'transcendence' that would encourage just provision for future persons." For example, the miser "transfers import" to money to the degree that this normally instrumentally good medium of exchange becomes, to him, an intrinsic good. He desires to own and to hoard money (something other than himself) for the sake of ownership alone and not for whatever might be purchased therewith. More generally, the selfish and acquisitive person (e.g., the landowner who "locks up" his holdings, or the art collector who keeps his collection in a vault, not for investment but for mere possession itself) does not fail to value things for themselves. Surely he does value them, but, in addition, he desires to own them.

The difference, I suggest, is that in the case of the selfish individual, the "transfer of import" is partial, while, for the artist, scholar, or philanthropist enjoying self transcendence in his work or in his benefactions, the transference is more complete. How is this so? Because the selfish person desires the well-being of other-than-self (e.g., his money, his land, or his art objects) for his sake. The "transcending" individual desires the well-being of the other-than-self (e.g., institution, artifact, place, ideal, etc.) for its sake, or perhaps for the sake of other persons who might benefit thereby. Thus we may suppose that the miser cares or thinks little of the fate of his hoard after his death (except, perchance, to wish that he could "take it with him"), while to the artist the anticipated fate of his creations after his death is of great interest and concern. In short, we may say that one is "fully self- transcendent" when (a) he regards something other than himself as good in itself, and (b) when he desires the well-being and endurance of this "something else" for its own sake, apart form its future contingent effects upon him. Though the selfish person may fulfill the first condition, he fails the second.

We are left with an unsettled problem of no small significance. Even if we assume the truth of the law of import transference, we find that this law gives rise either to selfish behavior or to "fully self transcendent" concern and involvement. (The possibility of still other results has not been excluded.) It follows, then, that of itself this "law" can supply no proof of a basic "need" for self transcendence. In other words, "import transference" is apparently not a sufficient cause of a motive for self transcendence. It may, however, be a necessary condition, in which case self transcendence may be said to be "grounded in," or supported by, this alleged behavioral law. We thus find ourselves at the threshold of a difficult ethical challenge; we must show that rational, informed persons would prefer a mode of life with self-transcendent concerns (in the "full" sense) to a life that is wholly selfish. Later in this paper, I will attempt to show that it is, paradoxically, in our own best present interest to anticipate, care about, and prepare for a remote future that we will never see or enjoy.


Significance and Mortality. Another, somewhat existential account of the motive of self-transcendence is based upon the universal human awareness of physical mortality -- a price that each person must pay for his rationally and self-consciousness. Despite an abundance of religious and metaphysical doctrines of spiritual immortality and of physical resurrection, the time of personal presence and efficacy in the affairs of familiar and significant persons, places, and institutions is universally acknowledged to be coterminous with one's physical life-span.

Surely I need not argue that the finitude of human life is a source of much preoccupation and regret. A myriad of religious doctrines and philosophical systems have been devised to offer hope, consolation, or at least perspective in the face of this common fate. All this is obvious and commonplace and thus can be set aside. However, there is one response to the awareness of mortality that is of considerable importance to our analysis, namely, the investment and devotion of time, talent, concern, loyalty, and financial substance in behalf of enduring and permanent causes, ideals, and institutions.

While there are, of course, many possible motives for these kinds of activities, I would like to focus upon one motive in particular, namely,+the desire to extend the term of one's influence and significance well beyond the term of one's lifetime -- a desire evident in arrangements for posthumous publications, in bequests and wills, in perpetual trusts (such as the Nobel Prize), and so forth. In such acts and provisions, we find clear manifestations of a will to transcend the limits of personal mortality by extending one's self and influence into things, associations, and ideals that endure. Nicolai Hartmannn offers an eloquent expression of this need to transcend the limits of one's immediate life and circumstances:

In such a [self-transcending] life is fulfilled something of man's destiny, which is to become a participant in the creation of the world. . . . But what will that signify, if [a person's] life-work dies with him, or soon after? It is just such work that requires permanence, continuation, a living energy of its own. It inheres in the nature of all effort that looks to an objective value, to go on beyond the life and enterprise of the individual, into a future which he can no longer enjoy. It is not only the fate but also the pride of a creative mind and is inseparable from this task, that his work survives him, and therefore passes from him to others, in whose life he has no part.

. . . The content of a fruitful ideal necessarily lies beyond the momentary actual. And because it reaches beyond the limits of an individual life, it naturally reduces the individual to a link in the chain of life, which connects the past with the future. Man sees himself caught up into a larger providence, which looks beyond him and yet is his own.(10)

With the awareness of mortality comes existential anguish and dread -- the heavy price we pay for self-awareness, time-perception, and abstract knowledge of the external world and our place in it. But a consciousness of mortality also evokes some of our finer moral qualities. For instance, mindful of our finitude, we make provision for a future beyond our own lifetimes, and, conversely, we feel morally obligated to honor the wills and reputations of the deceased. But both the preparing and the honoring or wills would make no sense if we egoistically confined all import and values to our own experiences and satisfactions. Yet provision for a posthumous future and respect for the previously recorded wishes of those now dead is commonplace and universally sanctioned. Such behavior is possible only in a community of individuals who share and exercise capacities for self-consciousness, hypothetical reflection, self-transcending interests, and abstract moral reasoning. Given these capacities, and through them an operative and effective provision for the posthumous future, the personal, moral, social, and material well-being of the community is significantly enhanced form generation to generation. For, just as our lives are enriched by the knowledge that we might make provision for our children and grandchildren (not to mention unrelated members of future generations), so too has each of us benefited from the private and public bequests that have followed from our predecessors' desires to benefit those who would live after them.(11)

Alienation: The Self Alone. I have, to this point, attempted to indicate that self-transcendence is a basic and virtually universal human need. In defense of this assertion, I have cited what seem to be necessary and general conditions of human development, evaluation, and awareness. I would like now to examine the issue of self-transcendence from a different perspective. Specifically, I would like to examine the results of even a partial deprivation of the alleged "need" for self- transcendence. If, as I have suggested, this need is basic to human nature, a denial thereof should produce clear and dramatic results.

In much contemporary sociological and psychological literature, this denial of self-transcendence has been described as "alienation," In the Introduction to their anthology Man Alone, Eric and Mary Josephson present a vivid account of the broad range of sources and manifestations of alienation in contemporary life:

Confused as to his place in the scheme of a world growing each day closer yet more impersonal, more densely populated yet in face-to-face relations more dehumanizing; a world appealing ever more widely for his concern and sympathy with unknown masses of men, yet fundamentally alienating him even from his next neighbor, today Western man has become mechanized, routinized, made comfortable as an object; but in the profound sense displaced and thrown off balance as the subjective creator and power. This theme of the alienation of modern man runs through the literature and drama of two continents; it can be traced in the content as well as the form of modern art; it preoccupies theologians and philosophers and to many psychologists and sociologists, it is the central problem of our time. In various ways they tell us that ties have snapped that formerly bound Western man to himself and to the world about him. In diverse language they say that man in his modern industrial societies is rapidly becoming detached from nature, from his old gods, from the technology that has transformed his environment and now threatens to destroy it; from his work and its products and from his leisure; from the complex social institutions that presumably serve but are more likely to manipulate him; from the community in which he lives; and above all from himself -- from his body and his sex, from his feelings of love and tenderness, and from his art -- his creative and productive potential.(12)

Clearly, the Josephsons have described here a sizable array of social and personal disorders. I should not, and will not, attempt to respond to more than a few of them. Most of the symptoms that I will discuss fall under the category of personal or psychological alienation.

Erich Fromm eloquently describes personal alienation as "a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. He has become, one might say, estranged from himself. He does not experience himself as the center of the world, as the creator of his own acts -- but his acts and their consequences have become his masters, whom he obeys, or whom he may even worship." In other words, says Fromm, an alienated person "does not experience himself as the active bearer of his own powers and richness, but as an impoverished 'thing,' dependent on powers outside of himself, unto whom he has projected his living substance."(13)

It is all too easy to find examples of alienation in contemporary life. For example, the worker finds that he, or she, is a replaceable part in the assembly line or ship. His job activity is governed by machines (most ubiquitously, the clock). The product of his labor shows no evidence of his distinct personality or skills. Even if he wears a white collar and brings an inventory or acquired professional skills to his work, me may perform as a faceless functionary, with little personal style evident or required in his task. The management of his household, his shopping habits, travel arrangements, even his leisure activities, are mechanized and impersonal. The utilities and services that sustain his life and creature comforts are themselves maintained by an unfathomable network or electronic, mechanical, and cybernetic devices that at any moment could collapse from the weight of their own complexity. Economic and political forces that may radically disrupt his life are unresponsive to his needs and beyond his control; indeed, they may even be beyond the conscious and deliberate control of any persons, either in public or in private offices.

In brief, the alienated person shrinks into himself. He loses control over the social, economic, and political forces that determine his destiny. With loss of control comes indifference and apathy. Because, in his social contacts, he is responded to ever more in terms of his functions, and ever less in terms of his personality and autonomy, he becomes estranged from the wellsprings of his own unique personal being. He becomes, that is, alienated from himself. He is left aimless, vulnerable, insignificant, solitary, and finite. In such a condition not only does he lose his self-respect; even worse, he is hard-pressed to recognize and define the identity of his own self.

In alienation we find the very antithesis of self transcendence. There is no feeling, within a state of alienation of a personal contribution to grand projects, no sense of involvement in significant events, no investment and expansion of one's self and substance into enduring causes and institutions. Surrounded by institutions, machines, individuals, social trends, for which he has no significance and to which he can thus "transfer" no "import," one truly lives in an alien world. Surely alienation is a dreadful condition, made no less so by its widespread and growing manifestations in contemporary society. It is a condition that no rational person would happily wish upon himself.

And what is the alternative, even more the remedy, for this dismal condition? Clearly it would appear to be a life committed to self-transcending concerns and interests. Such a life, writes Kenneth Kenniston, displays "human wholeness," by which he means "a capacity for commitment, dedication, passionate concern, and care -- a capacity for wholeheartedness, and single-mindedness, for abandon without fear of self-annihilation and loss of identity."(14)

For Erich Fromm, the commonplace word "love" describes the transcending reach from self to another self, or to an ideal.

There is only one passion which satisfies man's need to unite himself with the world, and to acquire at the same time a sense of integrity and individuality, and this is love. Love is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one's own self. It is an experience of sharing, of communion, which permits the full unfolding of one's own inner activity. The experience of love does away with the necessity of illusions. . . [T]he reality of active sharing and loving permits me to transcend my individualized existence, and at the same time to experience myself as the bearer of the active powers which constitute the act of loving.(15)

Furthermore, writes Fromm, the self-transcending lover, as "the bearer of active powers," is a creator, for "in the act of creation man transcends himself beyond the passivity and accidentalness of his existence into the realm of purposefulness and freedom. In man's need for transcendence lies one of the roots for love, as well as for art, religion, and material production."(16)

Narcissism: The Self Contained. A lack of self-transcending concern is also a feature of narcissism, a personality disorder that is currently attracting widespread attention and interest in the social and behavioral sciences.(17) In his popular and provocative book The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch describes the narcissist as one who experiences

intense feelings of emptiness and inauthenticity. Although the narcissist can function in the everyday world and often charms other people . . . , his devaluation of others, together with his lack of curiosity about them, impoverishes his personal life and reinforces the "subjective experience of emptiness." Lacking any real intellectual engagement with the world -- notwithstanding a frequently inflated estimate of his own intellectual abilities -- he has little capacity for sublimation. He therefore depends on others for constant infusions of approval and admiration. He "must attach [himself] to someone, living an almost parasitic" existence. At the same time, his fear of emotional dependence, together with his manipulative, exploitative approach to personal relations, makes these relations bland, superficial, and deeply unsatisfying.(18)

The essence of narcissism, writes Fromm, is "a failure of relatedness." In fact, "one understands fully man's need to be related only if one considers the outcome of the failure of any kind of relatedness, if one appreciates the meaning of narcissism. Narcissism is the essence of all severe psychic pathology. For the narcissistically involved person, there is only one reality, that of his own thought processes, feelings and needs. The world outside in not experienced or perceived objectively, i.e., as existing in its own terms. . . . Narcissism is the opposite pole to objectivity, reason and love . . . The fact that utter failure to relate oneself to the world is insanity, points to the other fact: that some form of relatedness is the condition for any kind of sane living."(19)

Of particular interest to our analysis is the effect of the narcissistic orientation of our culture upon "the sense of historical time." We live these days for ourselves, writes Lasch, and "not for [our] predecessors or posterity." We are, he claims, "fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future."(20)

This loss of historical consciousness, couple with a general lack of self- transcending concern, exacts a heavy penalty as one approaches the second half of his life. For at mid-life, writes Lasch, "the usual defenses against the ravages of age -- identification with ethical or artistic values beyond one's immediate interests [!], intellectual curiosity, the consoling emotional warmth derived from happy relationships in the past -- can do nothing for the narcissist." And he is "unable to derive whatever comfort comes from identification with historical continuity."(21)

Lash quotes Kernberg, who observes that "to be able to enjoy life in a process involving in a growing identification with other people's happiness and achievements is tragically beyond the capacity for narcissistic personalities."(22)

And so, "the fear of death takes on a new intensity in a society that has deprived itself of religion and shows little interest in posterity."(23)

In contrast, the "traditional consolations of old age" are available to those with an authentic and active sense of self- transcendent concern. Of these consolations, "the most important . . . is the belief that future generations will in some sense carry on [one's] life work. Love and work unite in a concern for posterity, and specifically in an attempt to equip the younger generation to carry on the tasks of the older. The thought that we live on vicariously in our children (more broadly, in the future generations) reconciles us to our own supercession."(24)

Is self-transcendent concern an appropriate "prescription" for the narcissist? Perhaps. But that simple answer, and even worse that simple question, may be wholly inadequate and inappropriate in the face of the complexity of the issue of narcissism.(25)

Some narcissists may be beyond relief. At best, narcissism appears to be one of the more difficult personality disorders to treat (due, in part, to the narcissist's virtuoso skills at manipulation, evasion, and self-deceit).(26)

But these considerations are of psychiatric interest. Our question is more fundamental: Is "self-transcendent concern" essential to a healthy and fulfilling human life? And, conversely, is a life without such concern a basically impoverished life -- a life that a rational disinterested person would not choose for himself? This brief sketch of the psychopathology of narcissism suggests that an examination of this personality disorder gives us further reason to suppose that to be a healthy, happy, fulfilled person, on needs self-transcending interests and concerns. Beyond that, human sympathy and concern should lead us to support efforts to prevent narcissistic disorders (e.g., through social reform, moral education, etc.) and to support efforts to treat those who, nonetheless, suffer from this disorder. But, while these are worthy objectives, a discussion thereof would lead us away from the topic of this paper.


Two Contrary Cases: The Recluse and the Playboy. Earlier it was suggested that alienation is "the very antithesis of self- transcendence." But isn't this an overstatement? Might we not find cases of individuals who appear to be both "self- transcendent" and alienated, and still other cases of individuals (e.g., narcissists) who appear to be neither self-transcendent nor alienated.(27)

In the first case, consider such solitary persons as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Though these individuals voluntarily withdrew from their communities, surely their lives cannot be said to have been unproductive and without purpose. Indeed, in their own views and that of others, Thoreau and Muir pursued lives of transcending significance. However, they were not alienated. To be sure, while Thoreau was alienated from the commonplace, commercial, and civic routines of Concord, he nevertheless perceived himself as a member of a community of ideas and, of course, a community of nature. He shunned the way of life of his neighbors not because he felt his life had no significance but because he sought a variant and, he believed, a deeper significance. He chose, that is, to "march to the sound of a different drummer." He did not refuse to "march" at all. His writing is directed to causes, issues, and times that extend far beyond his immediate circumstances. Thoreau's life supplies eloquent evidence that solitude need not imply alienation.

But can a life display neither self transcendence nor alienation? Consider the "playboy," the self-indulgent, narcissistic hedonist who "takes no care for the morrow," much less posterity. If such a person is healthy, wealthy, personable, and attractive can he be said to be "alienated"? It would seem, quite to the contrary, that he is living not in an "alien" world but in a world quite friendly to his tastes and whims. And if the playboy is not alienated, then isn't he, necessarily, the opposite, that is, self-transcendent? But how could this be so? Or might he not, in fact, be neither alienated nor self- transcendent, and yet, for all that, lead an enviable life?

These questions lead us to an important point, namely, that a life not filled during every waking moment with self- transcendent causes and projects is not necessarily an alienated life. Neither is a person who is occasionally self-absorbed a narcissist. While there are appropriate times in any life for simple, trivial, egoistic, self-sufficient activities and pleasures, a life totally devoid of any awareness of, concern for, involvement with, or valuing of things, persons, institutions, and ideals, for the sake thereof, would in fact be an alienated life, and a person totally absorbed in his self- interested concerns would be properly described as a narcissist. Consider, then, that paradigmatic hedonist, Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy magazine. Is he "alienated?" Apparently not, for despite all his mansions, jets, hi-fis, and bunnies, Hefner has also established "The Playboy Foundation" (which is involved in such public issues as civil liberties), he has published a "playboy philosophy" (a philosophical position, of sorts), and he has contributed generously to various social and political causes. All of these enterprises and benefactions would seem to manifest a desire for self transcendence.

If not even Hugh Hefner presents a refuting case, let us then concoct an extreme paradigm. Imagine a person with health, wealth, sophistication, social grace, and so on, who cares for nothing in life but his own personal satisfaction, and values nothing except as it immediately contributes to this satisfaction -- in other words, a textbook example of a narcissist. Assume, further, that, with his generous endowments, his selfish interests are routinely satisfied. Would such a person, having no concern for the well-being of anything else (for its own sake), lead an enviable life -- the sort of life that a rationally self-interested individual would desire for himself?

Despite all his good fortune and opportunity, such a person might, I suspect, be inclined to feel that his life was confined and confining. By hypothesis, nothing would matter to him, unless it had impact upon the course of his personal life plan. He would have no interest in persons he would never meet, places he would never see, and events and circumstances outside the span of his lifetime. In other words, those persons, places, and events with which he was not directly involved would be "alien" to him. With all significant events confined to the span of his lifetime, the consciousness of his own mortality would be especially burdensome.(28)

While this is a life-style that we might be tempted to try for a while (given the chance), I wonder if we could bear it for a lifetime. ("A great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.") If, as I suspect, such a life does not "wear well," this might explain why it seems that those new to wealth are more inclined to indulge themselves with gadgetry, diversion, and opulence, while those born to wealth generally involve themselves with such self-transcendent concerns as philanthropy, the arts, social work, and political issues.

I have said that I "suspect" that an opulent, self-centered, narcissistic life would be confining and, concerning all things outside the small egocentric confinement, alienating. Unfortunately, we shall have to close with nothing more substantial than this "suspicion." Surely much literary and psychological evidence might be brought to bear upon the question of the relationship between self-indulgence and alienation. Furthermore, one might conceive of some sort of direct empirical study of the issue, albeit the execution of such study might be a trifle awkward (e.g., "tell me, Donald Trump, are you really happy?"). All this, however, is beyond the scope of this inquiry. What remains is the tentative conclusion that, while an enlightened egoist might prefer the life of the alienated, narcissistic millionaire to that of some other possible choices, given the additional happy option he would, I believe, much prefer to utilize the millionaire's resources and circumstances in a life containing self-transcending projects and concerns.


The Paradox of Morality. Throughout these explorations of the proposed "need for self-transcendence," we have found manifestation of evidence of what is often called "the paradox of morality." Briefly, the paradox is found in the common circumstances that one appears to live best for oneself when one lives for the sake of others. While the rule may seem pious and banal, it points to a profound and recurring theme in religion and moral philosophy, a theme that is especially prominent in the writings of contract theorists from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls.(29)

Statements of the moral paradox are abundant in the writings of contemporary philosophers. For instance Kai Nielsen writes: "There are good Hobbesian reasons for rational and self-interested people to accept the moral point of view. A rational egoist will naturally desire the most extensive liberty compatible with his own self-interest, but he will also see that this is the most fully achievable in a context of community life where the moral point of view prevails."(30)

Consider also Michael Scriven's position:

Each citizen's chances of a satisfying life for himself are increased by a process of conditioning all citizens not to treat their own satisfaction as the most important goal. Specifically, a system which inculcates genuine concern for the welfare of the others, it will be argued, the most effective system for increasing the welfare of each individual. Put paradoxically, there are circumstances in which one can give a selfish justification for unselfishness.(31)

"The paradox of morality," then, supplies still another argument for self-transcendence. But it is an argument with a difference. In our earlier discussion of the motive of self transcendence we adopted a psychological approach; that is, we considered the need for self-transcendence from the perspective of its origin and sustenance in human experience and behavior. Thus a life "transcended" is perceived to be a healthy life, while an alienated or narcissistic life is perceived to be impoverished. In contrast, the argument form the moral paradox directly recommends self-transcendence (in the form of "the moral point of view") as a more prudent policy for achieving self- enrichment and personal satisfaction.

At the outset of this discussion of "the paradox of morality," I admitted that, on first encounter, this principle seemed "pious and banal." I hope I have, in the intervening paragraphs, added some substance to the notion. Perhaps the paradox seems less "pious and banal," and is given a more severe testing, when it is applied to the question of the duty to posterity. In such a case, those who defend such a duty and urge thoughtful and responsible provision for the future might wish to affirm that life is immediately enriched by the collective agreement of the living to provide for the well-being of the unborn. This is the position of economist Kenneth Boulding:

Why should we not maximize the welfare of this generation at the cost of posterity? Apres nous le deluge has been the motto of not insignificant numbers of human societies. The only answer to this as far as I can see, is to point out that the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future. . . . This whole problem is linked up with the much larger one of the determinants of the moral, legitimacy, and "nerve" of a society, and there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with the present problems and soon falls apart.(32)

If I interpret Boulding correctly, he is saying, in essence, that we need the future, now.


"Self-transcendence": A Summary. In this paper I have tried to defend the position that healthy, well-functioning human beings have a basic and pervasive need to transcend themselves; that is, to identify themselves as a part of larger, ongoing, and enduring processes, projects, institutions, and ideals. Furthermore, I have contended that, if persons are deceived into believing that they can live in and for themselves alone, they will suffer for it both individually and communally. If my presentation of the concept of "self-transcendence" has been even moderately successful, we may be prepared to answer the cynic's taunt, "Why should we care about posterity; what has posterity ever done for us?" Our duty to make just provision for the future, I contend, is not of the form of an obligation -- not, that is, a contractual agreement to exchange favors or services. To be sure, posterity does not actually exist now. Even so, in a strangely abstract and metaphorical sense, posterity may extend profound favors for the living. For posterity exists as an idea, a potentiality, and a valid object of transpersonal devotion, concern, purpose, and commitment. Without this idea and potentiality, our lives would be confining, empty, bleak, pointless, and morally impoverished. In acting for posterity's good we act for our own as well. Paradoxically, we owe it to ourselves to be duty-bound to posterity, in a manner that genuinely focuses upon future needs rather than our own. By fulfilling our just duties to posterity, we may now earn and enjoy, in our self-fulfillment, the favors of posterity.(33)

Copyright 1980 by Ernest Partridge



1. The papers referred to here appeared in the anthology, Responsibilities to Future Generations (ed. Partridge, Prometheus, 1981), from which this essay is taken.

2. 2. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 145, 176.

3. It is, I think, a bit unsporting for an editor to invite a paper, only to prop it up as a target for his own polemic. It is especially so when the author of the target has no opportunity for rebuttal. And so, rather than abuse my advantage, I shall simply point out my differences with Professor Thompson in these opening paragraphs and then make no further mention of his paper during the remainder of this piece.

4. Apparently this is not a rare or trivial statement, for, as Peter Laslett points out, "no little portion of political life rests upon" the premise that we have moral duties toward the yet- unborn. He continues:

The speeches of ministers, the propaganda of parties, the actions of planners, the demands of administrators, unhesitatingly assume that men ordinarily recognize the right of generations to come. The additional and significant paradox here is that this assumption is well founded in behavior. We do in fact respond quite spontaneously to an appeal on behalf of the future. (Peter Laslett, "The Conversation Between the Generations," in The Proper Study, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, vol 4 (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 78.

5. Robinson Jeffers, "Nova," The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (New York: Random House, 1927), p. 597.

6. Edwin Delattre, "Responsibilities and Future Persons," Ethics, 82 (April 1972), p. 256.

7. John Dewey, Experience and Nature (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1958), Chapter 6. George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: Phoenix, 1956). The social-psychological theories of Mead and Dewey are exceedingly complex (a circumstance aggravated but he obscurity of their writing styles), and I haven't the space even to attempt an adequate summary thereof.

8. George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (New York: Random House Modern Library, 1955).

9. John Passmore, Man's Responsibility for Nature (New York: Scribners, 1974), pp. 88-9.

10. Nicolai Hartmann, Ethics, vol. 2: Moral Values (New York: Macmillan, 1932), pp. 313, 324 [in this anthology, pp. 305-8]

11. The critical reader will justifiably object that I have presented in this paragraph a statement of position without much of a supporting argument. I should therefore point out that support for these conclusions, as well as an elaboration of this position, may be found in Parts 4-6 of my paper, "Posthumous Interests and Posthumous Respect," Ethics, 91 (January 1981).

12. Eric and Mary Josephson, Introduction to Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society (New York: Dell, 1962), pp 10-11.

13. Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Fawcett, 1955), pp 111, 114.

14. Kenneth Kenniston, The Uncommitted (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1960), p. 441.

15. Fromm, pp. 36-7.

16. Ibid.

17. How is narcissism related to alienation? Is narcissism a type of alienation? A cause of alienation? Are they otherwise related? These are complicated and interesting questions whose resolutions rest upon differing definitions of these terms, different theories of their etiology, and different accounts of their symptomatology. We cannot, and fortunately need not, devote much space to these question. It suffices for our purposes to note that both alienation and narcissism are unenviable conditions and are characterized by a lack of self-transcending concern.

18. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1978), pp. 39-40. The quotations within are from Otto Kernberg. Kernberg's primary work on this topic is Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New York: Jason Aronson, 1975).

19. Erich Fromm, pp. 39-41. It should be noted that Lasch is quite impatient with Fromm's habit of expanding the scope of the concept of "narcissism," thus "drain[ing] the idea of its clinical meaning" (Lasch, p. 31). Even so, I believe that the passage from Fromm, quoted above, serves my purpose well without seriously compromising Lasch's sense of the term "narcissism."

20. Lasch, p. 5.

21. Lasch, p. 41.

22. Otto Kernberg, quoted in Lasch, p. 41.

23. Lasch, p. 208.

24. Lasch, p. 210.

25. Even so, "transcendence" seems to be a favored treatment strategy of some psychotherapists. For instance, Lasch cites Heinz Kohut in this regard: "Useful, creative work, which confronts the individual with unsolved intellectual and aesthetic problems' and thereby mobilizes narcissism on behalf of activities outside the self provides the narcissist with the beset hope of transcending his predicament" (, p. 17n). the source from Kohut is The Analysis of the Self... (New York: International Universities Press, 1971), p. 315.

26. Lasch p. 40-1.

27. Even if we conclude that alienation and self-transcendence are antitheses," there is no contradiction in stating that a person is transcendent with regard to some X, while at the same time alienated from a distinct Y. The life of Thoreau seems to be a case in point.

28. As we have seen, this seems to be precisely the fate of the narcissistic personality.

29. Thus Jesus said: "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25). In a contemporary paraphrase of this scripture, William Frankena writes:

If we believe psychologists like Erich Fromm and others, ... for one's life to be the best possible, even in the non- moral sense of best, the activities and experiences which form one side of life must (1) be largely concerned with objects or causes other than one's own welfare and (2) must be such as to give one sense of achievement and excellence. Otherwise its goodness will remain truncated and incomplete. He that loses his life in sense (1) shall find it in sense (2). [Ethics, 1st ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice- Hall, 1963), pp. 76-7.]

For a suggestive and influential application of "the moral paradox" to ecological issues, see Garrett Hardin's justly celebrated essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, 162 (1968), 1243-8.

30. Kai Nielsen, "Problems of Ethics," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan & Free Press, 1967), p. 132.

31. Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 240.

32. Kenneth Boulding, "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth," in The Environmental Handbook, ed. Garrett de Bell (New York: Ballantine, 1970), pp. 99-100.

33. Over half of this paper appeared originally in Section 42 of my doctoral dissertation, Rawls and the Duty to Posterity (University of Utah, 1976). This version was prepared especially for this anthology. I am grateful to Dr. R. Jan Stout for advising me of the appropriateness of my use of psychiatric terms and concepts in this version. Much of the final work on this paper was accomplished during the term of a Fellowship in environmental Affairs from the Rockefeller Foundation. I am grateful to the Foundation for this support.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .