Arguments for and against  Obligations to  Future  Generations

John Nolt


            What reason do we have to care about future generations?  They’re nothing to us.  They don’t even exist yet, and we’ll be dead by the time they do.  Parents may care about their kids and grandkids, but why bother about anyone beyond that?

            There are many ways to rationalize not caring about the future.  The simplest, already suggested in the previous paragraph, is the bald assertion that because future generations do not (yet) exist, we have no obligations to them.  This we may call the argument from temporal location.  In standard form the complete argument may be summarized as follows:

            1          Future people do not yet exist.

            2          We have no obligations to anything that doesn’t yet exist

\         3          We have no obligations to future people.

Certainly this argument is valid, and its first premise is true.  But it is unsound, for the second premise is false.  This is evident in our ordinary understanding of why teenage pregnancy is a bad idea.  It’s a bad idea for the mother, of course; but, more importantly for our purposes, it is also a bad idea for the potential child.  Responsible people strive to avoid pregnancy when they are not prepared to support and nurture a child, in part because they acknowledge an obligation to care for their children—even before such children exist.  Hence it is evident that we have obligations to people who don’t yet exist, and premise 2 is false.  The argument therefore fails—and it fails in an instructive way.  For obligations to future generations are in fact just obligations to the unborn—though not necessarily our own children.

            “But we don’t know what people in the future will want,” others might object.  “Maybe they will prefer a world of fast roads and vast shopping malls.  So why preserve things for them that they may not even appreciate?”  This is the argument from ignorance.  In standard form it goes something like this:

1          We can have obligations to beings only if we can know what those beings are like and what they need or desire.

2          We can’t know what future people will be like or what they will need or desire.

\         3          We have no obligations to future people.

Again the logic is fine; the argument is valid.  And the first premise is probably accurate; if we knew absolutely nothing about a class of beings, then we could not know what was good or bad for them and would have no basis on which to act responsibly toward them.  Our ignorance, moreover, would not be willful, since the first premise envisions a situation in which no information about these beings is available to us.  But the second premise is false.  We have a great deal of inductive evidence, based on the entire past history of humanity and on its biology, physiology and psychology, for what future people will be like and what they will need or desire.  We can be virtually certain, for example—at least with respect to people living in the next few centuries—that they will need sources of food, clothing, shelter, and clean water and air.  They will prefer an environment that is not dangerously contaminated with toxic or radioactive substances.  It is very likely, given what we know of humans so far, that many of them will want open space and natural beauty.  It is virtually certain that they will need hope.  Clearly we know enough to act with some degree of responsibility toward future people.  We may not hide behind the excuse of ignorance

            And there is a further point:  we are to a certain extent responsible for shaping what future generations will want, not only in the way we educate people, but also in our shaping of the world.  If we destroy wilderness, for example, then we ensure that future generations will never value wilderness; for how could they learn to love what they will never know?  If, by contrast, we preserve wilderness, then we preserve at least the possibility of their valuing it.  And, given the pervasive human appreciation of nature across history and cultures, it is likely that many future people will realize that possibility.  Thus we know what future generations will want, not only because we know what human beings in general want, but also because to some extent we participate in shaping their values.  

            The cleverest rationalization for not caring about future generations is an argument that purports to show that it is impossible to benefit distant future generations.  The reasoning is subtle, so it helps to begin with an example.  Suppose that the Bush administration were to join with most of the rest of the world in a serious effort to reduce global climate change (fat chance!).   Such an effort would create wide-ranging shifts in energy production, which would affect where and how people live and hence eventually with whom they or their children procreate.  These effects would ramify, so that after several generations almost nobody would be alive who would have been alive had the Bush policy not been changed.   Hence if we alter the Bush policy to save from catastrophic climate change those future people whom it will harm, it will not benefit them at all, but only insure that they are never born, and that other people are born instead.  Suppose now, on the contrary, that the Bush policy is not altered.  Those people will then exist, but they will have no reason to blame us, for if we had altered the policy, they would not have existed, and that would be even worse for them than living in a degraded greenhouse world!

            This line of reasoning was originally developed by Derek Parfit, who used it to make a philosophical point, not to refute the idea of obligations to future generations.  It has been called the disappearing beneficiaries argument.  The argument may be summarized as follows:

1          Different actions will result in different people living in the distant future.

2          When different actions result in different people, we cannot make any particular person better or worse off.

\         3          We cannot make any particular person in the distant future better or worse off.  (1,2)

4          We have obligations only to those whom we can make better or worse off.

\         5          We have no obligations to people in the distant future.


The inference from 1 and 2 to 3 is valid.  There is, however a problem with premise 2.  It may be possible to make a person worse off than if they never had existed by adopting a policy that causes that person to live in a hellish world.  Some lives may be so full of suffering as not to be worth living.  But that is not the central point here.

            The central point is that the argument from 3 and 4 to 5 is invalid, for the conclusion omits a qualification stated in premise 3.  Premise 3 is concerned with “any particular person.”  If the conclusion 5 were properly stated, it would read:

                        We have no obligations to any particular person in the distant future.

That conclusion follows validly from 3 and 4, and in fact it is quite reasonable—for how could we shape our actions with regard to a particular person in the distant future?  But 5 does not follow from 3 and 4.  For, given 3 and 4, it is still reasonable to suppose that we have obligations, not to particular people, but to whomever might live in the distant future.  That, then, is the counterexample.  This argument, too, fails, primarily because of the invalidity of the second inference.

            The disappearing beneficiaries argument, at least, makes a valid point:  policy toward distant future generations cannot reasonably be directed toward benefiting specific people.  It must be aimed, rather, at creating the best possible conditions for whomever the future people turn out to be.  Unchecked global warming, with its rapid climate fluctuations, disruption of world agriculture, rising seas and increasingly violent weather, will create conditions that future generations will predictably find far from optimal—even if their preferences differ considerably from ours.  Conversely, if we act effectively to curb global warming now, then whoever lives in the future will benefit.

            But even if none of the arguments against obligations to future generations succeeds, that doesn’t prove that we have such obligations.   To prove that we do, we need a positive argument.  That’s what I will now aim to provide.  The argument is based on the idea that future people are in no morally relevant respect different from us.  Time of birth, in other words, has no more to do with how a person should be valued than do place of birth, tribe, nationality, religion, or gender.  Since reasonable people agree that we have obligations to currently living people (not to kill them, steal from them, cause them unnecessary harm, etc.), and since future people are in no morally relevant respect different from them, it follows that we have obligations to future people.  In outline:

1          We have obligations to all currently living people.

            2          Future people are in no morally relevant respect

                        different from currently living people.

\         3          We have obligations to all future people.

This argument, I think, is sound.

            The moral irrelevance of time of birth is perhaps best understood by the realization that we are future people—to our predecessors.  The distinction between past and future is, after all, not ultimate and absolute, but relative to temporal perspective.  In that respect, it is like the designation, “foreigner,” which is relative to geographical perspective.  Who counts as a foreigner depends on the country we inhabit.  Likewise, who counts as a future person depends on the time we inhabit.  All people are foreigners to people of countries other than their own.  Likewise, all people belong to the future generations of their predecessors.

            As it happens, a few of our predecessors were morally advanced enough to include us in their moral considerations.  The founders of the American nation, for example, designed its Constitution with future generations in mind.  We benefit inestimably from their foresight.  Similarly, the National Park Service Act of 1916 specified that the purpose of the parks is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.  We are among those future generations.  In Southern Appalachia, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands as a testament to the value of moral prescience.  Knowing this, when we appreciate the grand vistas of the park or listen to the music of a Smoky Mountain stream, we can in the present perceive directly the value of caring about the future.  Decades, centuries, probably even millennia hence there will likewise live people just as real, conscious, and valuable as we are.  They may likewise remember us with gratitude—or with resentment and sorrow.

            But even if we can agree that we have obligations to future generations, it is not obvious what these obligations are or how we are to carry them out.  For one thing, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future—the more distant the future, the more the uncertainty.  We cannot even be absolutely sure that future generations will exist.  (Humanity could be wiped out by war, disease, asteroid impact, etc.)  But this uncertainty differs only in degree, not in kind, from the uncertainty that we deal with in making decisions regarding already existing people.  Parents, for example, often see themselves as obligated to save for the college education of their children years before the children go to college—that is, at a time when there is no assurance that their children will reach college age.  In fact, much of our moral thinking is directed toward future scenarios that may never come to pass.  So the fact that future generations may not exist is not a serious objection; in all probability, they will. 

            Still, we know less about and can do less for really distant future generations, so there is good reason to believe that our obligations are weaker farther into the future.  But that’s nothing new, either.  Obligation also tends to decrease with spatial distance.  We have stronger obligations to friends, family, co-workers—and, in general, to people whom we can effectively help or harm—than to people in other countries with whom we have no connection.  This is not because people far away with whom we have no relationship are any less important than the people we know.  Rather, it is because with people we know and care about we are in a better position to do something helpful.  They depend on us in ways in which strangers far away do not.  Still, we have obligations to strangers far away—not to kill or injure them, not to degrade their lives, maybe even occasionally to help them. 

            But what are our obligations?  According to classical humanistic utilitarianism (which shapes much of our current ethical thinking), we should aim to maximize happiness for all people.  It seems obvious that “all people” should include future generations.  If so, then utilitarianism implies a doctrine of sustainability—the idea of providing for the needs of future generations without reducing the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.  This seems quite reasonable.  But humanistic utilitarianism does not do so well when applied to the issue of population.  For if the goal is to maximize the total quantity of happiness in the world, then we must recognize that with each new person born, provided that that person lives at least a marginally happy life, the quantity of happiness is increased. Utilitarianism therefore seems to imply a policy of population increase!  Of course, if things get too crowded, so that, for example, there is mass starvation, then each additional person will decrease the world’s happiness.  So what utilitarianism seems to recommend is a policy of increasing the population just up until the point where adding anyone else would produce enough misery actually to lower the total happiness.  But that could well imply that each person’s quality of life, though still positive, is seriously diminished, though the total happiness increases.  That is, instead of having fewer very happy people, we may wind up with many only slightly happy people.  Surely this is an absurd result.  We may conclude, then, that classical humanistic utilitarianism is not an adequate theory for future population policy.

            Is there a better theory?  One suggestion is to aim to maximize, not the total happiness, but the average happiness (happiness per person).  We may call this averaging utilitarianism.  Averaging utilitarianism seems to recommend a policy of population reduction.  Many of us would probably be happier if the world contained fewer people and there was less competition for resources.  Of course, this could be carried to far.  Very few of us would want to be the only person in the world or one of only a few people in the world, for this would lower our quality of life by limiting technology, companionship, etc.  So the upshot seems to be that we should decrease population to a certain relatively small size and then keep it stable.  So far, this sounds plausible.  But there are problems with averaging utilitarianism, too.   Maybe the most effective way to maximize average happiness is simply to eliminate (i.e., unexpectedly and painlessly kill) people who are chronically unhappy.  Now of course that wouldn’t maximize average happiness if we these were people the survivors cared about or if the survivors feared elimination themselves.  But suppose there was as large group of unhappy people whom none of the other relatively happy people really cared about.  (Maybe in this hypothetical example they are the class of the homeless or a minority race.)  Then to eliminate this group would not reduce the survivors’ happiness and would (since the persons eliminated were unhappy) considerably increase the average happiness.  But this is a recipe for a holocaust.  It is quite plainly immoral.  Any theory which implies such results, even in hypothetical cases, must be inadequate.  Hence we must also reject averaging utilitarianism.

            There are many other theories of this sort that we might consider, including other variants of utilitarianism, various deontological theories, care ethics, an so on, but the fact is that a really adequate theory of moral obligations to future generations that deals with things like population policy has yet to be formulated.  Some of the most promising strategies use a conceptual device invented by John Rawls:  the veil of ignorance.   Rawls thinks that government and social policy are best crafted by imagining the drawing up of  rules for a society prior to that society’s existence, under the assumption that we will belong to that society but we don’t know which role we will play in it.  This not knowing of our place is the veil of ignorance.  Its function is to provide a certain objectivity;  if we don’t know who we will be in this society, we will not be influenced by our own prejudices to provide especially for ourselves or people in our social class.  From this sort of thought experiment, Rawls deduces a wide variety of desiderata for a just society.  This strategy can also be applied to future generations.  A number of thinkers have proposed that the veil of ignorance be made intergenerational—that is, not only do we not know what position we will have in the society, we do not know what generation we will belong to.  This gives us a perspective from which to treat all generations fairly.  We can see immediately, for example, the unfairness of one generation’s depleting resources (such as fossil fuels) or disrupting the climate for its own benefit and to the detriment of future generations.   Thought experiments such as this can take us a long way toward crafting fair and rational policies that apply to future people as well as those of us who are now alive.  But this is a relatively new area of thought, and many conceptual problems remain to be solved—to say nothing of the political problem of creating a genuinely forward-looking government.