LOVE of the future begins where other loves end.

When we stop loving God or each other, when we stop loving home or country, when money and our gym-fit, antibiotically dosed selves become boring and stale, then we fall for the future. Damp-eyed, we gaze into its infinite depths. This, we know, is what we really want, this is where we belong, this is who we are. The sexy future will make us happier and healthier. All we have to do is dump the dowdy old present and ditch her grumpy sister, the past.

But the future is empty; it hasn't happened yet. This may be what makes her sexy - she is lithe, young and untouched - but she is unformed. She can be whatever we want her to be. And so we invent faster, healthier, easier futures, futures in which machines answer our desires and alter our imperfect bodies.

Even if we don't feel entirely happy about this, if we feel pangs about being unfaithful to the present, it is pointless to worry. For the future is coming anyway. It is best to just sit back, relax and go with the technological flow. It might be fun. It must be fun.

Belief in the future is the dominant ethical force in the world today. It is the moral dimension of the frenetic ideology of change and consumption that defines the affluent contemporary life. Just as the latest version of Microsoft's Windows makes every previous version obsolete, so the dream of the future makes our pasts and presents redundant.

Politicians speak of the future as the ultimate good, the paradise for which they enact their laws and doctor their spin. Pop stars, beauty queens and television celebrities pledge their allegiance to the future, a place where our children will be happy and free.

But, as our chronicle has shown and as any sane forecaster must acknowledge, the most striking thing about any probable future is that it is at least as laden with anxiety and conflict as the present or the past. Paradise is not in the making. Technology either produces new problems, such as the involuntary cloning of Bill Gates, or it relocates old ones - in this case in the form of piracy in space. And new political forms simply create new occasions for conflict or sustain old ones - water wars on the moon, the continuing chaos of Africa. Finally, of course, we remain at the mercy of nature, as when Frankfurt is hit by fragments of an asteroid.

All these are just informed guesses, of course, but, in essence, they must represent something like the complex and ambiguous reality of the decades to come. The 20th century has taught us how fast and radical certain kinds of change can be. But it should also have taught us that the human condition - as victim either of nature or of our own destructive impulses - is changeless. No matter how technically competent, politically creative or morally well intentioned we may be, the fragility of our place in the world and the dark shadows in the human heart will always be there to mock our optimism.

This, of course, utterly subverts the idea of the future as an ethical force. It is plainly of no ethical significance whatsoever to talk of technological or even political innovation as stepping stones on the way to some future paradise when any such paradise will inevitably be subject to the same old destructive forces. Communism proved that you cannot expect human nature to be changed by any political rationalisation. And the history of technology shows that it tends to amplify rather than solve the problem of good and evil.

And yet there is one very radical technological solution now on offer: the transformation of human nature itself. Increasingly we are now speculating about the possibility of using medical methods - primarily genetic - to make people better, not just in their bodies but in their souls. We could, for example, attempt to eliminate criminality by suppressing any genes that seem to be associated with antisocial behaviour. Or we could eradicate depression, alcoholism, aggression or anxiety by the same means. At the end of the process we could, in theory, have a better-adjusted, more peaceful, more co-operative species. This was the final condition of humanity as imagined by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel Brave New World. In Huxley's future, the control of reproduction is combined with the precise class stratification of society and the administration of a thoroughly effective mood-controlling drug. Suffering and unhappiness become things of the past. People are content with their place in the world. There is peace but, of course, there can be no freedom. From within such a society there may seem to be no problem - indeed, the very rationale of such a society is that there cannot possibly be any problem. But, from outside, its inhabitants seem to be a lesser species. They are deadened and imprisoned. They have become machines, albeit happy ones.

Yet, chilling as such a vision may seem, we might argue that something can be done in the way of technological improvement of the species. We needn't go all the way to the brave new world; we just might tinker with things a little. If crime - undoubtedly a growing problem for the foreseeable future - can be halted by genetic intervention, then why not? We have already learned to accept closed-circuit television as a means of social control, even though, to a previous generation, the ubiquitous cameras would have evoked the Big-Brother-dominated world of George Orwell's 1984. Why not then accept DNA-based social control? 1999 does not feel like Orwell's 1984, so why should 2030 feel like Huxley's Brave New World?

But, in fact, this merely asks an even larger ethical question. Lenin once said that the key political issue was: " Who-whom?" Who is the subject and who the object of any given action? So who, in this case, is going to manipulate the DNA of whom? It is a question of power and where it lies. It is also a question of what we regard as goodness in people.

Maybe it would be easy to agree that potential child killers should be genetically altered. But what about aggressive people? They may become bank robbers or they may become successful businessmen. Would we really want to neutralise the wealth-creating entrepreneur? What about depressives? They may become poets.

To improve human nature you must take a view on what human nature should be. But we have no such agreed view. Furthermore, history tells us that the best that we have been emerges from our vast and unpredictable variety. And we don't really know whether, if he had not been a homosexual, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Stifling human variety in the name of security would amount to a destructive and risky form of oppression, even if we were to attempt to do so with democratic approval.

There is, in short, no escape from the eternal ethical problems of humanity. We could become prisoners of technology, but that would simply mean we had abandoned the attempt to remain human. Or we could flee into illusions - like the idea of the future - that distract us from our true, present, ethical existence. We can only be better people in the future if we can raise ourselves above such illusions and recover the old Christian and Enlightenment view of ourselves as absolute moral entities - absolutely free and absolutely responsible. If we do not, we become smaller, lesser people and we shall be incapable even of understanding our loss.

So a good future would be one in which individuals could be at home in their good lives. It would be nothing to do with technology and it would be nothing to do with quick political fixes. It would be to do with the rediscovery of the human heart as the beginning and end of all debate. It would be to do with our full awareness of others as ends in themselves rather than means.

The ultimate value of human life is the central insight of our culture. If it is lost - as it was under communism and Nazism - any evil may ensue. And it will be lost if we abandon ourselves - as we are now doing - to love of the future or to the endless hypnosis of technology. The question for the next 50 years is not how fast our computers run or how high our rockets, but how good we are going to be as a species.

All else is trivial, for it is on that question alone that our survival depends.