Thick present in Trento

I’m presenting at a few conferences this summer, trying to do better at getting ideas in front of people for feedback, and I’m putting the abstracts up here as part of that (and also so I can find them). First: I’ll be talking about the thick, virtuous present in Trento in June, at The Discovery of the Future in the Social and Human Sciences

Avoiding the unreliable future: acting in a thick, virtuous present

Deciding on the right course of action involves anticipating the future, insofar as moral choices make a distinction between preferred and undesirable futures. In the context of Western moral philosophy, this paper suggests, evaluating moral choices depends on a degree of continuity between the future imagined and the future that comes to pass. For consequentialist moral theories, the value of an act depends on the imagined outcome: if events turn out other than imagined, the justification for the act is weakened. For deontological moral theories, the value of an act depends on the principles justifying it enduring into the future: if the system of rights and duties that inform an act change in the future, that act begins to look less justified. Empirical or nomological continuity is, this paper argues, a condition of these moral frameworks. They rely on a continuity between present and future.

But the continuity of the future cannot be relied upon, as has been widely observed within futures and anticipation studies, and within historical accounts of human action, and as might be assumed in light of the changes underway in the complex planetary systems that are currently the context for human action (Letcher, 2021; Gaffney & Steffen, 2017). The values and principles we use to evaluate decisions will change also (Danaher, 2021). How, then, are we to be sure that our choices are good choices, if evaluating action is contingent upon an unreliable future?

As an alternative to moral frameworks that depend on an unreliable future, this paper will describe the thick, virtuous present (Sandford, 2023) as a space of moral action, one that makes use of two kinds of reliable future while avoiding a commitment to an unreliable future. Lived futures (Adam and Groves, 2007) are reliable insofar as they are bounded and produced by existing relations of care between people, places, and practices, and exist to precisely the same degree as do these relations. Utopian futures, in contrast, being defined as eternally ‘not yet’ (Thompson and Zizek, 2013; Levitas, 2013) may be relied upon to never come about. The paper suggests that these reliable futures are seen within the thick present (Jönsson et al., 2021; Poli, 2011), that certain theories of practice (e.g. Emirbayer and Mische, 1998) describe the role of these futures in the exercise of agency, and that these accounts are compatible with imagining action taking place in a thick present. The paper goes on to suggest that virtue ethics tend not to depend on the unreliable future, in the way that it is argued consequentialist and deontological ethics do, and, further, that the virtuous action described by virtue ethicists can be imagined as taking place within a thick present. The account of thick, virtuous action that follows is offered as a way of thinking about uses of the future in moral decision-making that are better able to work with uncertainty, and as an invitation to researchers in futures and anticipation studies, and in the wider social sciences, to articulate the ways that claims of preferable futures might be justified.


Adam, B. & Groves, C. (2007). Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Brill.
Danaher, J. (2021). Axiological futurism: The systematic study of the future of values. Futures, 132.
Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency. American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.
Gaffney, O., & Steffen, W. (2017). The anthropocene equation. The Anthropocene Review, 4(1), 53–61.
Jönsson, L., Lindström, K., & Ståhl, Å. (2021). The thickening of futures. Futures, 134, Article 102850.
Letcher, T. (Ed.). (2021). Climate change: Observed impacts on planet earth (3rd ed.). Elsevier.
Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. UK:Palgrave Macmillan.
Sandford, R. (2023). Reparative futures in a thick, virtuous present. Futures, 154, 103278.
Thompson, P. and Zizek, S. (Eds.) (2013). The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia. Duke University Press.