There’s a Tom Lehrer song is entitled “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.” In it Lehrer manages to humorously describe the end of the world in a nuclear meltdown. Serling’s “Midnight Sun” was written at about the same time – the early Sixties, a time when we were preoccupied by the possibility of a global death sentence. We all die, but we do so in succession. What’s the difference between the prospect our individual deaths and the prospect of our coordinated simultaneous demise?
In “Midnight Sun” we see two New York City residents holding on to life and suffering the consequences of a change in the earth’s orbit that brings it ever closer to the sun. This is global warming with a vengeance. There was no warning and there is no escape. Residents are fleeing the city, but there’s no place on the planet where one can find relief from the sun. Everyone, everything, will perish, and soon. Of course this is an accurate prediction for all of us – individually and collectively. Each individual will die, and it seems ever more certain, not that life on earth will end – since that is indeed certain, but that it will end sooner than we might think. Though it was not intended as such, this episode could serve as the poster child for our very real but relatively recent concerns about global warming.
Just as it is common to fear one’s own death, we may share a common fear, or dread, of the extinction of all life on our planet, or, at the very least, we may share the belief that an apocalypse of the kind represented in “The Midnight Sun” would be a bad thing. It would be bad because it would bring about the kind of suffering that is portrayed here, and the pure futility of trying to survive the what can’t be survived. Serling describes the predicament as representing “the poles of our fear.” We could be wiped out by the planet burning up or by the planet freezing up, by the lack of water or by too much water, or by one or more of any other polar extremes.
Among first responders and other health care professionals, the prescription: “First do no harm” is well-known. As a principle in moral theory, Baier refers to it as the “Person-Affecting Principle.” Recognizing “The Midnight Sun” as a representation of the likely harm to persons in future generations, the question naturally arises: Are we first doing no harm to these future persons? Are there yet-unborn selves whose plight will be something like that of Norma Smith and her neighbor, Mrs. Bronson? Are we harming them, and could we avoid such harm?
The question of whether we have obligations, such as the obligation to do no harm, to future generations is a rich and thorny philosophical one. We can make sense of obligations to actual persons, but does it make sense to talk about obligations to persons who don’t exist? First, it’s not certain that there will be future persons, but if there are, we don’t know who those persons will be, how many of them there will be, what they will be like, what they will want, and what they can reasonably expect us to have done for them. Second, as Baier points out, which persons will exist in the future depends on contingent features of the present over which we may have no control, and no understanding of how those features will affect the existence and conditions of future persons. An accidental throwing of a switch causing a major power outage in a city may lead to a spike in the birth rate nine months later, resulting in the existence of future persons who would not have come into existence had that mistake not been made. How can we assess our obligations under conditions that are so radically contingent?
To show that we have obligations to future generations will require that we respond to such difficulties and show that in spite of the difference between actual and future persons, we can specify, within limits, the ways in which our lives should be lived to minimize their suffering.
“The Midnight Sun” introduces another philosophical problem, the problem Samuel Scheffler explains as making sense of our desire that there be future generations, that the meaningfulness of our lives is caught up with our hope and expectations for the “afterlife,” where that term doesn’t refer to a heavenly existence, but to the earthly existence of regular folks after our death. In “The Midnight Sun” we see suffering and pain, but the most disturbing feature of the lives of Norma and her fellow sufferers may well be the palpable sense that this is the end Tom Lehrer described. And it isn’t funny.
Annette C. Baier, “For the Sake of Future Generations” in Annette C. Baier, Reflections on How We Live (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, 2016)