My family and I are at a resort on the Caribbean, where the beaches are of dazzling white sand, the ocean is aquamarine, and the sky a deep and blazing blue. Because we prepaid, all our needs are taken care of. Meals are exotic in ten different ways, and beyond delicious. An endless supply of rum runners and pina coladas is available to the adults – that would be me. Nothing about this – the place, the people, the life – is normal.
So the family has quickly developed habits which make the exotic routine. In short order, we have imposed our character on a bizarre and unnatural environment. Life on the Caribbean is different from life in Northern Virginia. We have built a wall around it: we have constructed a moment.
I would like to propose a moral theory of the moment.
It is said that we always live in the present. We have no choice: the past, after all, is irretrievably gone, while the future is mere dreamstuff.
This is a truism but not entirely true. We live in a bounded moment. The human mind segments time in curious ways, and seems to place certain features of daily life center stage; when these features change, or are replaced by others, a new act begins. This isn’t reasoned, but surely it is felt in our bones.
Lovers understand that: they divide existence into the dark ages before they met, and the bright Caribbean sunlight after the happy event. If they are lucky enough to marry and reproduce, then the boundary will be BC and AC – before and after those life-altering entities known as children. Deaths, too, on a more somber note, mark off moments. “Before my dad died” is something I hear a lot from people my generation.
The moment is conditioned by a specific past, and filled with aspiration – or foreboding – for a specific future. We planned this vacation like a Prussian military exercise. We know it will be over, and real life will snatch us up in its restless claws.
The moment isn’t absolute. But while it lasts, it seems to impose its own behavioral rules, its own perspective on right and wrong, even good and evil. A lover too absorbed with making money will lose his moment quickly, and rightly so. Parents who place the love of each other’s company over that of their children are condemned, with justice. Those who dismiss the death of father or mother without a sense of loss are considered suspect, cold-hearted, disloyal: and, all things equal, they are.
This is not to say that right behavior is wholly situational. The moment just happens to be the only stage on which right behavior can play out. It contains enough past and enough future for moral consideration, and precisely those moral actors, and those possible actions, against which right behavior must be tested.
The problem for my theory is that, as already noted, none of this is reasoned or evidence-based. The urge to segment time tends to give way to perplexity when confronted with scholarship: with facts. Historians have, over the last 50 years, fiercely debated whether there was such a thing as the Renaissance, and if so, what marked it off from what went on before. Life is continuous, the experts like to think. Change happens slowly and confusedly: rarely is it like crossing a boundary.
All of which is true, but doesn’t change the overriding fact that we live entirely in the moment. This isn’t a question of facts. With historical ages as with lovers, the moment is felt much more than it is reasoned. Something we value powerfully stands at its center, and we know when the moment is strong, just as we know when it is over.
I’d love to debate the fine points of my theory – to refute the experts and promote a new way of looking at moral life. But I’m at a resort in the Caribbean. Wrong moment. Sun and beach beckon.