Mankind’s Responsibility for the Future

Let me begin by telling you what I am not going to do in this paper. I will not be discussing various philosophical theories about responsibil­ity. My purpose is much more specific. I want to try to map out the main areas where our responsibility for the future is at stake and thus indicate how we may assume our responsibility.

Before I turn to this limited task of locating our responsibility, there is one philosophical problem to which I want to draw your attention. It concerns the relationship between responsibility and freedom. Only a being who can make free decisions can be responsible. In that sense freedom is a necessary condition for responsibility – for example, infants are not considered to be responsible for their behavior. But at the same time, in order to make free decisions, a person must already be respon­sible and thus answerable for his or her decisions. This fact explains that we can be accused, rightly or wrongly, of not assuming our responsi­bilities when we make decisions. Simply stated, freedom and responsi­bility seem to derive from one another.

This dilemma may be solved by saying that freedom and responsibil­ity are born together, that they are fundamentally one and the same phe­nomenon or, if you prefer, that they are the opposed sides of the same coin. This was Immanuel Kant’s solution to our problem: Freedom is the principle that makes us know the moral law and the moral law is the principle which turns us into free beings. In other words, we realize our freedom by assuming our moral responsibility – and we become re­sponsible by making free decisions.

But this solution presents a serious problem. When mak­ing free decisions, we quite often deny or even reject our responsibility. We under­stand our freedom as the power we have to act without taking our duties or obligations into account, that is without any respect for the moral law. How is such irresponsibility to be explained?

Two answers immediately come to mind. Firstly, we are ir­responsible because we do not care about our duties and obligations and make decisions out of bad intentions, such as pure egoism. Secondly, we are irresponsible because we do not know how to shoulder our responsibilities. We may feel strongly that we ought to as­sume our responsibilities, but we are at a loss to specify in detail what tasks that involves.

Although much may be said about the first answer, my concern here is mostly with the second one. It reveals, I believe, a very important feature of our moral situation: We are called upon to be responsible be­fore we know our responsibilities, and this ignorance explains a large share of our irresponsible actions. All ethical research and teaching is intended to remedy this situation. We are taught by wise people how to behave and we learn to use our moral judgment about right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and bad, when making decisions. And progressively, as we get to know the world better, we grow up as responsible human beings assuming our specific duties and obligations in our societies as they have come to be. And when we fail to do so it is mostly because we have not been careful enough in considering the sit­uation, and not that we have bad intentions, although such intentions may also be at work.

However, in recent times the situation has been changing rapidly for an ob­vious but still confusing reason: Our societies are heading for a future of which we know almost nothing except that it is going to be radically dif­ferent from our past and present condition. But at the same time we real­ize that we are, by our decisions, shaping this very future of which we know so little.

The need to talk about “responsibility for the future” is a clear indica­tion of this condition of ignorance which is one of the main causes of ir­responsible actions. It has been taken as common sense until now that to be responsible is to be responsible for the future – but in a specific sense, namely to be accountable for the consequences of one’s actions, although they have not been expressly intended or foreseen. The term “responsibility for the future” implies a change in this way of thinking: It implies that we have to consider ourselves as answerable for consequences that exceed what we can possibly foresee. According to the well-know philosopher Hans Jonas, the “principle of responsibility” that is needed for our times means that we must act in such a way that the conse­quences of our actions will be that humanity exists in the future on a habitable earth. But given our basic condition of ignorance, how can we possibly assume such responsibility for the future?

Now, it may appear that I am making too much of our present condi­tion of ignorance about the future and the consequences of our actions. In fact we know a lot about what is going on – but our most serious ignorance consists, not in a lack of information, but in a lack of understanding of how the various issues we are facing are intercon­nected. We must not only define specific problem-areas, we must also obtain a global view of the present situation so as to move in our thoughts and discussions from one issue to another without losing sight of the overall picture. Our problem is to see the forest when looking at the trees. (Since there are rather few forests in Iceland this is not really a prob­lem here!)

I have been working on a model that might prove helpful for this specific purpose. This model is a systematic way of mapping out, first, the areas of reality for which we may want to take responsibility, second, the forces that are shaping the future, and third, the factors on which we can concentrate when making decisions concerning the future.

Before describing this model, let me tell you that the construction of such models is a specific, conceptual task, which has to be criticized on the basis of what it is intended for. Its only ambition is to provide, not a solution to any specific practical problem, but a network of ideas inviting a rational discussion of our practical problems and possibilities. And allow me to add one comment: The material for the construction of this model is common sense. In other words, the model is intended to reveal a ra­tionality that is already there, not to create something out of the blue by using pure imagi­nation.

The model is generated out of three questions:

(1) To what extent can we take responsibility for the future? (2) What are the main forces that shape the future? (3) On which factors should we concentrate when we make decisions concerning the future?

My answer to each of these questions consists of four levels and there is a correspondence between all the levels. (There is no logical starting point. In presenting the framework I could start with any one of the questions and then proceed to the others.) I will proceed by giving you a quick overview of all the levels and of the correspondence between them and then discuss some specific issues involved.

Let us start with the first question: To what extent can we take respon­sibility for the future? The answer to this question depends on whose future we have in mind. Here we have four possibilities: (1) The future of life on this planet, (2) the future of humanity, (3) the future of a certain society, e.g. our own, (4) the future of the individual human being.







life on earth

natural conditions

science and technol­ogy








democratic state

individual person






The second question was: What are the main forces that shape the future? The answer to this question depends, again, on whose future we have in mind. (1) If we are thinking of life on earth the main forces are the natural conditions that determine the course of evolution. (2) If we are thinking of the future of mankind the main forces are the social, economical and political systems that determine the course of history. (3) If we have the future of a certain society in mind, the main forces are the society’s abilities to cope with new situations without losing its unity. (4) And finally, if we are thinking of the individual human being the main forces are its desires or passions, its intelligence and physical capabilities.

The third question was: On which factors should we concentrate when we make decisions concerning the future? The answer, yet again, depends on whose future we are thinking of. (1) If we have in mind life on earth and the natural conditions that determine its evolution, the fac­tors which are decisive for us have to do with science and technology; we must strive for scientific knowledge and the appropriate technology when preparing our decisions concerning the future. (2) If we are thinking of the future of humanity, the factors which are decisive have to do with our possibility to make common decisions about the running of the world economy and political systems; a cosmopolitanism, based upon moral principles such as human rights, is what we should work for when we try to be responsible for the future of humanity. (3) When we are dealing with the future of a certain society or nation, the decisive factors concern its own culture and government; a democratic state that cares for the flourishing of each of its individual members is what we should concentrate on when we make decisions concerning the future of a nation or society. (4) And finally, when the future of the individual hu­man being is at stake, the main factor to be considered is its education as a reasonable person, capable of making sound and well-grounded deci­sions.

For the rest of this paper I will be dealing with specific problems which have to do with my answer to the third question – and mostly with the status of science and technology which play a dominant role in the framework I have presented to you. If I am correct, a responsible atti­tude towards the future must concentrate on science and technology – and also on moral cosmopolitanism, on the democratic state and on the education of the individual person.

I want to emphasize this point, because it is the core of the argument I will now be developing. To take a responsible attitude towards the future means that instead of concentrating on each of these factors in isolation, we bring them together and let them support one another. To take an ex­ample, when we concentrate on the conditions for the future of the indi­vidual person we should not think of his or her education in isolation from the other factors, but also take into account the culture of his or her society, the importance of thinking in a cosmopolitical fashion and also the world of science and technology. To take another example, when we concentrate on ethical cosmopolitanism, including the value of human rights and international laws, we must also stress the importance of scientific and technological thinking, the respect for specific national cultures and the flourishing of the individual person.

Now it seems to me that the condition of ignorance of which I spoke earlier – the fact that we lack understanding of how we can assume our responsibility in shaping the future – appears most clearly in our diffi­culties in seeing these connections and keeping them in mind. We can get excellent results in particular domains of science and technology; we can have fine moral plans for the building of an international community based upon human rights and moral respect; we may also have good theories about culture and the development of the individual person. And we may seem quite responsible within each of these domains. But if we are to work systematically at shaping the future life of humans and other living beings on this planet we need to have all these factors in mind at the same time because they are connected and they interact constantly.

How are we to do so? Before I tackle this question, let me remind you of a well-known explanation of our present difficulties. It refers to a certain conception of rationality which has become dominant all over the world. This rationality is at work in the various systems we create in our environment. The clearest examples of it are to be found in science and technology, but the same kind of rationality inhabits economical sys­tems of production and consumption and perhaps all social and politi­cal systems where people make use of ideas and inventions of sci­ence and technology. In fact, this rationality is responsible for the exis­tence of what is now commonly called “universal civilisation” of which the Internet is one of the latest manifestations – following the tele­phone and the washing machine. And this rationality is also the basis for the tremendous development of mankind in this century in all domains, population-wise as well as regarding the production of new medicines.

There is of course nothing original in this: Scientific and technological rationality has lead mankind to the present situation with all its incerti­tudes and problems of which we are all aware. And now I am stating, as so many people have done before, that this same rationality is incapable of providing us with answers and solutions which might enable us to be responsible for the future of life on earth!

The questions that now have to be raised are these: Do we need an­other type of rationality in order to be or to become responsible for the future? And how would that rationality differ from the rationality of science and technology?

I cannot answer these questions in any satisfactory way. I am not even certain that any satisfactory answers could be given, even if bril­liant philosophers of this century and the last have tried to do so, following in the footsteps of great thinkers like Immanuel Kant. Nevertheless I believe that there are several signs which indicate that a radical change in the dominant conception of rationality is underway. What the outcome will be remains to be seen, and perhaps I am just dreaming as most philosophers do when they have lost hold of reality.

My dream – if I may tell you about it – is about the world of science and technology. It is about a radical change of thinking within the world of research, of innovations and creation, of understanding and theories. Let us consider this world for a moment. For the last three centuries, after the great discoveries of modern science, science and technology have consistently and continuously isolated themselves from the rest of the world in order to concentrate exclusively on their own problems and theories. The reason for this is clear. People of science and technology wanted freedom from all interference of political or religious authorities which had, since the middle ages, dictated to them what to do. And they obtained this freedom by making a deal. They said: “If you – kings and worldly powers – leave us in peace, we will not interfere in your domain; and moreover we will pay you back by providing you with wonderful tools and instruments to do whatever you want in ruling the world – as long as you leave us to do what we want to achieve.” This deal was and still is the famous slogan of the neutrality of science and technology: Science and technology shall be concerned with objective facts of reality – poli­tics and religion shall settle disputes about subjective values among people and within society.

The results of this deal have been of an enormous importance. Science and technology have flourished – but the fields of religion and politics have lagged behind, prisoners of an uncritical way of thinking. When a step forward has been made in political thought or religious thinking, that has been achieved thanks to a healthy influence of critical thought deriving from science or technology. And of course industry and all other domains of society have constantly made use of ideas and instruments coming from the world of science and technology. Their rationality has been continuously swept into human society, making the latter to an ever-increasing degree the product of scientific and technological imagination.

There is nothing wrong with this – believe me – except one thing which I will try to explain to you. Scientific and technological rationality is quite marvelous. It aims at clarity, consistency and effectivity. And it pro­vides solutions to all kinds of problems of life and death. But – and this is a fact of great importance – science and technology stand for a non-re­sponsible rationality, a rationality which consistently and continuously refuses to assume responsibility for its decisions and consequences which shape our future. People of science and technology still stand behind the screen of neutrality. They only tell us what to do – if and only if we want to do what they are telling us we can do. It is as if our desires and decisions had nothing to do with rationality, that we were absolutely free to do whatever we fancy without thinking about our reasons or the consequences of our actions.

The great French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, turned this type of irrespon­sible thinking into one of the most powerful philosophical theories of the 20th century. We are – each and everybody – absolutely free, without the guidance of any moral law that binds us together. Or if there is a law, it is the law of freedom itself to which we are condemned and for which, he claimed, we must be responsible as absolute individual beings, al­though we have no means of knowing how to assume our respon­sibility. Sartre was the first to recognize the weakness of his own theory and worked for years on finding ways out of this impasse of freedom but failed in his effort.

The reason for his failure is an essential part of our history. It con­sists precisely in cutting the cord between freedom and responsibility of which I spoke at the beginning of my lecture. I have taken the domain of science and technology as an important example of this denial of the congenital bond between freedom and responsibility, because I believe that the possibility of our taking a responsible attitude towards the future de­pends – as I said earlier – on a radical change in the community of sci­ence and technology. This radical change would mean that people in the powerful and rational community of science and technology become responsible and work not only for results in their specific fields of re­search in isolation from the rest of reality but also for the development of cosmopolitanism, for the democratic state and for the flourishing of the individual human beings.

I know that this may be a romantic dream. But let me tell you why I believe it may come true. One obvious reason is that at present, the academic com­munity feels threatened by what is going on in the rest of the world and it realizes that it has been losing its independence from the polit­ical and economic authorities which are progressively reestablishing themselves and taking over the running of science and technology, seeking to subject them exclu­sively to serving economic and political interests. This pres­sure on science and technology is felt all over the world because the worldly powers know that they depend more and more on results from science and technology in all their decision-making.

The only sensible reaction to this pressure is for people of science and technology to recognize their social and political obligations and apply their rational critical thinking to the domains of politics and economics. Of course, many scientists have been doing just this – economists criticize the running of economic systems, biologists criticize our modifications of eco-systems and so on. But they are and have been doing so in­dividually and only on the basis of their specific disciplines – without a global vision of the issues which we face in reality. What is needed is a responsible critical thinking which is developed systematically and globally within the decision-making process in the domain of interna­tional as well as national politics and economic systems. What is needed is a responsible rationality which tries to get hold of all the fac­tors that determine the future of life. And the only people who are capa­ble of leading the global rational discussion of what is to be done are people trained to think critically as people do in science and technology.

But there is also another reason why I believe that the community of science and technology is going to assume its responsibility for the fu­ture. This reason has to do with an internal development of scientific and technological thinking. Science and technology have been progressively losing touch with the real world and have been dealing, not with reality as it is given independently of our thinking, but with reality as it is re­constructed within the domain of scientific theories and technological systems. And this leads in the end to a deep and dangerous frustration, because what we want to understand and get in touch with is the real it­self which exists and develops by its own laws and forces. And the only motivation for trying to understand reality is that we recognize its pro­found and ultimate mystery, that we fear it, that we respect it and that we love it – as if behind what we can see and understand there is a higher power which conducts the show.

I believe that the community of science and technology will rediscover this basic source of our wonder and worries. And then re­sponsible rationality, which we so desperately need in order to make the earth habitable for generations to come, will enter all the areas where our responsibility for the future is at stake.

Páll Skúlason

University of Iceland

September 13, 1996



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