Morality and Time

Let’s consider the subjective sense of time that we each have. I don’t mean the sense that time flies or “I can’t believe it’s already August,” or that kind of thing. I mean the way we think of our lives as a whole.

We all know we’re going to die, and yet in our daily life we think of this project or that event as if we’re going to live forever. We can lapse into thinking that what we do doesn’t matter in the long run. But of course, there is no “long run” in which we keep our current perspective. We die. There is an ongoing tension in each of us, between living as if there is no tomorrow, and as if tomorrow is infinite.

This psychological tension is what is often meant by the phrase “time horizon.” Put simply, it is the degree to which we can project our future. I don’t mean be clairvoyant about things over which we have no control. I mean the degree to which, at this moment, I place my present thoughts and actions in a continuum that stretches into the future.

Young Man

Let’s say I’m 25 years old. God willing, most of my life is ahead of me. It mostly hasn’t happened yet. It’s more difficult to sustain a long time horizon, because so much of my life to now has been contingent – occurring this way and not that because of things I don’t control. At 25 it’s hard to correlate today’s actions to my state of being tomorrow.

The farther that “tomorrow,” the harder it is to imagine. I can picture my life at 26, but it’s much harder to picture being 40. Too many variables. So while I might connect my actions today to its consequences next year, 15 years out may be beyond my range. It might as well be another lifetime, happening to someone else. We would say my time horizon at 25 is somewhere short of 15 years.

Older Man

I invoke authorial privilege to note that what I’m saying about subjective appreciation of one’s life-span naturally feels different for someone who is, oh, say 60. I have a time horizon, too, but my time horizon goes beyond my date of death. Even though I don’t know the day or the hour, I know that it’s within the range of my present time horizon.

This induces a note of alarm, I don’t mind telling you. I begin to see my life lived as a whole, such that I’m not concerned only with the past that has already happened and cannot be changed, but also with the future, all of which is inside my time horizon. You might take a look at Life as Story, in this connection. In it I’m talking about life in its completeness as being like the contents of a box, rather than sequential events on a time-line. The point was: what to make of the content of the box in its entirety?

Morality and Time

Let’s merge this subjective way of thinking about the time-line of our life, to the concept of time in the abstract. We know that physical reality is composed of space and time, operating according to natural forces. The three dimensions of space and the dimension of time together comprise what are sometimes referred to as the four dimensions.

(Stand by for old guy station identification: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets, and love, love will steer the stars.” Aquarius, The 5th Dimension, 1969. We now return to regular programming.)

An interesting side note is that in this conventional rendering of the four dimensions, the forces of nature are entirely left out. These include gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Also left out are the laws by which these forces act on stuff in predictable ways. A complete understanding of physical reality would have to take into account these phenomena, too, and I’m not sure the conventional ways of thinking of physics does. Certainly it isn’t by the atheist apologists. Usually we’re treated to the “how” of these phenomena, but not to the origins; still less the “why.”

But back to our topic. There is a connection between morality and time. I’m saying “morality” to be generic as to source. Whether you think God decrees what is moral and immoral, or whether you think morality is merely a set of evolved predilections based on fitness for survival, no one seriously disputes that there is such a thing as morality. We may disagree about what is good or bad, and what makes something good or bad, but we don’t disagree that there is good, and that there is bad.

The connection between morality and time is tied in to this concept of “time horizon.” My proposition is that misbehavior is often the result of a short time horizon. I don’t mean that a short time horizon is the only reason for immoral behavior, mind. But I’m speaking from experience as a judge encountering one sad case after another of lives lived from impulse to impulse, with no wider view of meaning or purpose – passive, hapless people in and out of jail and addictions and self-induced oppressions, for whom life is nothing more than a meaningless series of one darned inexplicable thing after another.

Lest you think this is inapplicable because you’re not in jail, I’m only using an extreme example, for an extremely short time horizon. Yours may be longer. But it’s not long enough, if you still live in the body. You’re to strive to make it better, to make this life and the next one better, but you can’t make it perfect.

Stay tuned for the implications of this point, or if you want to read ahead, click here: Time Horizon.



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