Obligations to Future generations (OFG)


Is the question about our (now) potentially harming future people’s interests and violating 'their rights'; i.e.  inter-temporal considerations of justice, namely,


a) Ought and b) Can the welfare rights claims of future people vis-à-vis currently living people guide us in choosing among long-term policies....?



OR...perhaps it is simply...based on an understanding of the ethical significance of seeing ourselves as members of a trans-generational polity and community... i.e. ceteris paribus.



"...person-affecting views differ from impersonal views according to which the value of states of affairs is not reducible to their effect on the interests of actual people. (and do impersonal views entail  the relevance only of universalisable moral values)



Currently living people ought to choose to bring about the state of affairs in which more of the morally relevant (a-temporal = universal?) values will be realized irrespective of who the people are who will live.


Many theorists claim that a plausible understanding of intergenerational ethics must be impersonal or must combine person-affecting and impersonal considerations."




1) Is the very idea of OFG morally desirable?


This is a meta-normative question: setting aside any knowledge about the shape/pattern of any future world....


is it right that we ought to have obligations to make such arrangements in our society (or engage in a sequence of actions) such that we do not make any future generation worse-off than our own?




BUT...Does this a-priori upset the (optimising at t1?) welfare pattern we otherwise would have taken for our own society for an FG at t2...tn?


Why is better to use resources to optimise future societies rather than out own?


OR might we argue that we may only morally bother with OFG when we have surplus (un-needed by us)  goods which (we believe) c/would be used in making arrangements for FGs?


Is there a trade-off?



Are we accepting as a condition of us NOW dis-benefitting (distorting choices) of our society for the sake of FGs?


Why should we even consider the OFG issue?


The powers-asymmetry argument:

....present generations may be said to exercise power over (remote) future generations when, for example, they create conditions that make it costly for future generations to decide against continuing to pursue present generations’ projects. In this way, present generations effectively manipulate interests of future generations, and can successfully achieve the intended result of having their projects continued.


Remote future generations cannot exercise such an influence on presently living people, and in this sense the power-relation between present generations and remote future generations is radically asymmetrical: remote future people do not even have the potential for exercising such power over presently living people. Analogously, presently living people cannot exercise influence over past people.


 Second, not only can the present generation influence the conduct of future people by affecting their desires and circumstances, it can also exercise power by setting back the interests of future generations.



And this arg may get round the 'non-existence' arg that "Future generations by definition do not exist now. They cannot now, therefore, be the present bearer or subject of anything, including rights"


That is, because we have asymmetrical powers to affect the life-chances of FGs and their future rights-structure, we have trans-historical obligations not to harm them.




2) Is it morally justifiable to legislate now for a future society? (assuming that our plans would work out as we envisaged)



The kantian would most likely agree with the open OFG arg - that we should commit to OFG policies because it is our duty irrespective of actual outcome.

and...We should not be deflected by the non-knowledge prob (I don't know what a FG would be like) or the 'they had a bright idea' arg. i.e. they solve their own welfare probs from within their own presumably advanced worlds and knowledge...or even the blindness possibility - what we see as a problem, they do not


Thus the kantian would say we have a duty  - to put our best foot forward - to not make worse or even improve any future world. The utility of the outcome does not affect the morality of what and why we pursue OFG. We have to do our best guard against anticipated effects of the power-asymmetry. (as the argument as to why we put our kantian conscience into operation in he first place.


In this sense it is always right for us (our duty) to try to maximise the interests of FGs despite n-k; the moral value lies in our present moral sense (good will) and not from any anticipated (or even as it turns out) actual effects on the FG


In this way the kantian can walk round the following prob:


What kind of socio-political pattern might an earlier slave-owning society wish to bequeath to us? Would we (the FG) want it?


Certainly we (the FG) may reject it, but they have cost us (utility-wise) all this welfare-reducing effort to undo what they reasonably thought was morally right (duty-wise - the kantian moralist).


3) can we justifiably (have a right to?) ever impose a form of life for FGs?

...even if we think the idea of OFG is somehow right





Morally speaking, how irrelevant are future generations to you?

The so-called: 'non-identity problem'


Have you any reason to be concerned about the life chances of the people who may live after you?


Have you any reason to be concerned about your future life-chances?



Two ways of looking at it related to time and moral case study:


a) In moral theory there is a tendency to presume that moral responsibility involves the co-presence of agents.


This in part is because obligation is taken to involve rights and rights claims...which in many cases of future generations cannot be obtained.


We do not now think that the sins of the father should be recompensed by the son!



"...remote future people as well as deceased people do not even have the potential for exercising power over presently living people. According to the 'Will Theory', for a person to have a right vis-à-vis another person requires the former to be able to exercise his or her rights with respect to the conduct of the latter (Hart 1955, 183–184; Steiner 1994, 59–73). Thus, the unchangeable power-asymmetry among non-contemporaries will exclude the possibility of future non-contemporaries and deceased people being bearers of rights claims against presently living people. For the proponents of the Will Theory considerations of justice do not apply to intergenerational relations"


What rights theory do I use then with regard to FGs - how about this one?


The Interest Theory of Rights (Raz 1994, 45–51): that being able to exercise one’s rights—to demand or waive the enforcement of a right—it is neither sufficient nor necessary for someone to be the bearer of the right.

According to the Interest Theory for a person actually to hold a right, the right, when actual, necessarily preserves one or more of the persons’ interests


Is this the just-in-case theory? Just-in-case out world coincided with yours (we have common moral interests..and given we wish to do good we will expend effort to produce the terms for morality in your time just in case you do turn out to share the same  moral patterning.)




Can we know what will be 'in the interests' of any FG?

BUT...nonetheless do you think the OFG theory is right despite the Knowledge prob?



Moral cases tend to be of the measure of direct harm and responsibility now  variety: I (deliberately) did X and am thus responsible (morally) for the harm (the wrong) I did you to this degree...


and (by my continuing presence) a proportionate rights-claim can be satisfied and restitution, in principle, made.


But of course OFG is all about trans-historical obligations - moral actions/rights/judgements etc across a significant passage of time - how much time for OFG theory to be a problem?


Do I have obligations to trans-historically restitute FGs  for any harms I have unintentionally brought about..(Is this letting the kantian off the charge of moral hubris?)


Should I plan for (likely) outcomes both ways - for good as well as bad outcomes...but both will require a futurology that can get a grip on how your world will be



Alright then...two questions:


1) would I wish that my five year old self acts for the betterment of my twenty-five year old self...would I even open myself up to my creating an OFG world for my adult self say, five years from now?



2) Do I have a right to non-existence?...because the world I emerged into was 'orrible and was worse than not being born at all? Thus could I sue my parents?...and by the same token could my prospective self sue my putative and indeed putatively rich and kind parents for not giving birth to me?


Think of the teenager who after their first failed love affair yells: "I wish I had never been born...Its all your fault" la la la....



In this case, can we compare the value of the life lived...to the value (valuelessness?) prior non-existent life


While a person can retrospectively prefer not to have been brought into existence, it does not follow that this person would have been better off had she never been brought into existence


And does this make a symmetry with death such that we cannot compare the value of our life to our  dead state?




Can prospective children be said to have an interest that their parents not act in a way likely to lead to their birth when the parents are in a position to know that the life of the child, should it be born, would fall below some relevant threshold of well-being?


asymmetry claim: while prospective parents have no obligation to procreate out of regard for the interests of possible future children, they have an obligation not to beget children who are going to be miserable.


In bringing about a child’s existence they can harm this child.


To what degree could I have a moral claim against my parents despite my happy life, where I could have had a better life and thus have with regard to a feasible alternative life-pattern have been better off. And thus have been made worse off as between the better life I could have had and the life I lead.


negative consequentialism: the universe would be better if present generations were guided by a criterion of right action that requires them to give priority to the prevention of suffering over the creation of good and happiness



What do you think?




b) The future generations argument tends to work with a long-term indirect inter-generational time-line and typically does not involve individually attributable acts, the affected, and the Q of responsibility but rather,




(qua 'Global' ethics) the moral situation of an anticipated, if not anticipatable, humanity-wide situation.


The classic example is of course, the environment and climate change.


Is it right to benefit our society...knowing that if pollution etc., keeps on as now, all other things being equal (ceteris paribus), it will dis-benefit the world of humans say, 100 years from now.


But if I have a linear model of increasing pollution, why not also have a model of linear techno power that will compensatingly reduce the pollution that our society today is producing



other examples:

the pattern of individual rights (a decent political culture to maximise FG individuals to flourish)


the justification of genocide...cos too many humans using up the resources that otherwise could sustain FGs


So is mass genocide a good thing in terms of OFGs?


"those presently alive can affect the very existence of future people (whether or not future people will exist), the number of future people (how many future people will exist), and the identity of future people (who will exist). In short: future people’s existence, number, and specific identity depend (are contingent) upon currently living people’s decisions and actions"


Do parents have obligations to bring about the best (circumstances for the) child?



And of course on a rights claims basis


...is it right that a person born now has a claim against the adult society for the future damage they, ceteris paribus, are doing now?





The power of ceteris paribus clauses


These relate to time and change.


When we reason about OFG we tend to assume a linear relationship between us and future generations - a stable state which makes any future situation anticipatable/predictable


without this, our consequent moral judgments will become unstable and moreover, unwarranted.




The should have known arg and time.


established knowledge said diesel was better than petrol but NOW science has shown that diesel is worse and has been more harmful than petrol. Is ignorance an excuse? Yes?


But we plan for FGs on the basis of ignorance about how things will be 100 years from now? (and see quote below - how true is it that the further future is less anticipatable than the near future?)


It is not that all predictions about the future decrease in certainty at some constant rate. Indeed, many predictions are more likely to be true concerning the further future than the more immediate future. For example, the prediction that some policy will have changed or that certain resources will have been exhausted is more likely to be true in the further future. Nonetheless, we cannot know the specific identities of persons in the further future. Our lack of certain knowledge of the future also means that we often will be in a position to know at best merely the likelihood of normatively relevant consequences of alternative long-term policies. The question then is how to assess the imposition of differing risks of rights violations



For instance: we are spending billions on securing future generations against pollution


and then suddenly someone invents a universal indestructible de-polluting machine (the UIDPM)


The appearance of this machine was not anticipated - in that sense it was a non-linear event that made our expensive climate change policies redundant.


We then end up claiming that in regard of climate change we have no OFG because we have the machine. Climate change is now morally irrelevant now and in the future cos of the UIDPM.



Another influential attack on OFG derives from a variety of writers on either issues of personal identity (Derek Parfit) or socio-cultural change (Terence Ball)


Parfit (1971; 1984; 2007) asks:


"we must know the criterion of personal identity: the relation between a person at one time, and a person at another time, which makes these one and the same person"


But if there is no bodily continuity, then might I have an OFG


Is a self at T1 comprised is varying but continuous contingent psychological states through to T2 deserving of any OFG