"F" Is for the Future
By Margaret R. McLean
If there is one thing that continues to fascinate us, it is
the future. Whether it is the lure of the unknown or the promise
of better days, we dream of tomorrow. Sometimes, we focus so
much on the future that we forget about the present; at other
times, the daily grind leaves no room for anticipation. Whether
embraced or ignored, the future always comes.
Ethics asks us to think about both what we do now and the future
that we expect. It asks us to act now and to plan for the future.
There is a group of ethicists who believe that the future is
so important that we ought to base all of our decisions on what
is to come. Such people look to the future for guidance and
ask questions about the results of our actions. They pose questions
such as: "How will the spending of health care dollars
now affect our children?" "How will today's cigarette
or glass of wine affect future health?" "How will
full financing of prenatal care for pregnant women affect the
well-being of the mothers and their children?" Those who
look to the future argue that it is the consequences of what
we do--be it spending money or lighting a cigarette--that determine
what should be done.
For those who concern themselves with results, doing the right
thing resides in doing the most good for as many people as we
possibly can. Doing the right thing requires that we look at
the short term and long term effects of what we do. Doing the
right thing asks who is helped and who is harmed by what is
We recognize that the future is uncertain but we dare to take
our "best guess" at how our judgments will turn out.
When we look to tomorrow, we do so with humility and a clear
understanding that we do not have a corner on the truth. Things
may not turn out as we planned; they may be better, they may
be worse. But, we continue to be tutored by the past, to live
in the present, and to anticipate the future--the ethical life
demands no less. We act, for doing nothing also has its consequences.
The future comes whether we plan for it or not; it seems best
not to ignore it.
Margaret R. McLean is director of health care and biotechnology
ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
to The ABC's of Medical Ethics.
Posted August 2006