Purpose directs decision making. Even so, most of us start our careers and live our lives having no specific goal in mind. Perhaps as a consequence, many of us seem to actually like being told where we should be going and what we should be doing. We see this during election campaigns, and in the organizations we work for. We look for leaders with vision, people who can imagine possible futures, describe desirable ideals, then tell us how they might be achieved. We see it again in our religions: the current split between revision and tradition is all about direction. It is also pervasive in the advertisements that surround us; these wouldn’t be effective if we weren’t receptive to instruction and influence. Our willingness to accept direction in almost all walks of life suggests that many, if not most, may actually prefer to be told what to think, how to behave, and what to buy. Being told, I suppose, simplifies life.
If this is so, then perhaps the first reason why we should develop an overarching purpose is that the world today is arguably without united moral direction, and being in this position is disquieting. Religious dogmatists sense this void and are responding with an oft-surprising militancy. In that fundamentalism seeks to return us to the ways and notions of many centuries past, the possibility that a fundamentalist Protestant, Catholic, Islamist, or other extremist might generate enough support to globalize his or her religious views is rather alarming. Such an outcome would exclude the last thousand years’ of progress in all fields of knowledge, and spawn an oppressive future. The world is not what it used to be—it no longer naturally overflows with abundant resources, and a population of six billion can only be sustained using the products of modern technology.
There are additional good reasons to seek and select a guiding universal purpose. For instance, heads of governments and large multinational corporations make decisions that cross many boundaries, affect the lives of multitudes, and determine how vast resources are spent. In our current society, these decisions are usually made as though each was entirely unrelated to any kind of a broader picture. (Moreover, and this would be worse, the organization’s “bigger picture” could be completely at odds with the one that the majority of us would like to see.) If humanity’s goal for life is to be more than just wandering and squandering, exhausting the world’s resources toward trivial ends, perhaps even harming rather than helping our collective future, then we must find a way to speak with a united voice.
Another, quite different, reason for individuals to adopt a universal purpose is that following one can provide an extra degree of personal meaning, something above and beyond that which we may already possess.
Fully one-fifth of the population (and, very probably, many more, once acknowledging ones adherence to atheism or agnosticism becomes acceptable in general society) openly states that they do not believe in the existence of a god who involves himself in the affairs of humankind. These individuals, and I am one of them, make moral decisions without referring to the guiding purpose a religion provides. Rather, we support a variety of purposes (commonly those that would be called moral or ethical) instead of just one: helping people or animals, working to improve communities or the environment, contributing to charities, and so on. Following such purposes and personally behaving in a manner consistent with these goals provides meaning. But none of these purposes, individually, can bring as much meaning as would following a single, all-encompassing, universal purpose—particularly one accepted and supported by the majority.
However, perhaps the most compelling reason to develop a universal purpose is that, for the first time in history, we now have the knowledge and power to direct our future by genetically manipulating life. This must not be allowed to happen haphazardly, driven this way or that by commercial or quasi-religious immoderates and their organizations, as such interventions represent the desires of only small portions of humankind. All must be heard in matters of such importance, for we are about to recreate ourselves in our own image.
This new-found ability was mentioned earlier, when we noted that survival has meant adapting to changes in the environment. In effect, life’s future used to be (and much still is) externally determined. But our human future is about to become whatever we decide to make it, and we must proceed with great care. One mistake, and we may produce a virus a thousandfold worse than smallpox or HIV. We may introduce factors that migrate between species, or that mutate, then decimate entire biomes, and return life’s whole matrix to an ancestral form comprising little more than bacteria.Our present and future actions in gene manipulation are fraught with danger, but they are also magnificently full of opportunities. We cannot ignore these technological and medical advances. We must learn fully the science of genetics, but we must also carefully control the use of what we learn. Only by everyone, at all levels of these endeavours, adopting, developing and maintaining a conscientious awareness of an appropriate humanity-guiding universal purpose, might this degree of control be achievable (a premise to be expanded upon in the next chapter).
The concerned rational among us must be the ones to take the initiative. We should adopt or define a judicious guiding purpose while we may, or in its absence someone will certainly come along and sell us theirs and it may become too late to make a rational choice. History provides us with many examples of this. Whenever we have found ourselves greatly dissatisfied, as a group or as a nation, someone offers leadership, then takes command. This is how Stalin, Hitler, Yeltsin, Milošević, and Bin Laden gained or consolidated their power, to name just a few examples from recent history.
Humanity needs, I think, a collective purpose. This would be in addition to our many individual and religious purposes. Under such a unified objective, individual moral behaviour not harmful to the collective good would properly remain individual choice, accruing concomitant rewards as believed to come before or after that individual’s death. However, the world’s collective guidance is a different matter. It should be obtained from a purpose positioned far beyond any one individual’s reach. This purpose should shine as a beacon to nations, guiding many generations. And its rewards should accrue to the living, not the dead, enriching the lives of all.
While no one should be expected to abandon their inherited or chosen religion, none should be prevented from adopting an additional universal purpose to guide their moral behaviour. No one should be asked to change what they have come to believe about themselves and their ultimate individual destiny, or to deny the god they worship. But an overarching universal purpose, used to guide humanity’s collective behaviour should also exist—something that clearly helps ensure our species’ and life’s well-being and continuance.
Return to Why Bother?, Introduction
Why Choose Life's Possible Endpoint?
== Footnotes ==