University Honors 348, Sec. 86126

Ethics and Future Generations

John Nolt


818 McClung Tower

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Home Phone:


Office hours:

9-10 MWF

Web Site:

Reading Materials:  There are no textbooks to buy.  All assignments are available on e-reserve from the library or accessible by links below.

About the Course:  Traditional ethics has had almost nothing to say about obligations to future generations—and with good reason, for until recently we did not have technology powerful enough to predictably affect the distant future.  But now we do.  The challenge for contemporary ethics is to create theories, practices and institutions commensurate with our burgeoning power.  That challenge is the theme of this course.  We’ll begin with a brief look at how current technologies affect the future.  Then we’ll examine why traditional ethical theories are not adequate to deal with those effects.  The remainder of the course will deal with the effort to construct ethical theories and remake practices and institutions to provide for a hopeful future.  Besides the obvious social and political obstacles, we will see that this effort faces imposing conceptual obstacles.

Grades:  Grades will be based on two types of assignments, and précis and a final paper, each type counting as 50% of the grade.   Précis are short summaries of the day’s reading assignment.  These will be assigned frequently throughout the semester.  The paper will be 7-10 pages long on a topic that you pick in consultation with me.  In the case of borderline grades, classroom participation may be the determining factor.

About Me:  I came to UT in 1978 after receiving my Ph.D. from Ohio State with a dissertation in the philosophy of mathematics.  After the birth of my daughter in 1985, concern about the world in which my children will live led me into environmental activism, and I began working in environmental philosophy.  I have published three books in logic and three on environmental ethics.  My non-professional interests include primitive woodworking, bouldering, backpacking, and organic gardening.

Course Calendar
Readings should be completed by the date for which they are listed.  All readings not those marked with an asterisk (*) are available on e-reserve at the library.  To get them, CLICK HERE.  You will see a list from which you will be able to select our course and then the appropriate reading.  Click on the blue icon after you have selected the reading.  To see the reading, you will need to type in your name and user ID.  If you do not have Adobe Acrobat installed on your computer, you will need to download and install it the first time you view a reading.  Follow directions on the screen.  For assignments marked with an asterisk, just click on the assignment below.





Introduction:  how we affect future generations


Background in moral theory

Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, “An Introduction to Ethical Theory”


First moves in the debate

John Nolt, "Fundamentals of Logic," John Nolt, “Arguments for and against Obligations to Future Generations”* and Gregory Kavka, “The Futurity Problem” 


Extent of obligations to future generations

Martin Golding, “Obligations to Future Generations” and Daniel Callahan, “What Obligations Do We Have to Future Generations?”


Nature of obligations to future generations

John Passmore, “Conservation”


Macroeconomic policy

Mary B. Williams, “Discounting Versus Maximum Sustainable Yield”


Knowing and shaping future generations

Brian Norton, “The Ignorance Argument”


Rights of potential people

Mary Anne Warren, “Do Potential People Have Moral Rights?” and William Anglin, “In Defense of the Potentiality Principle”


The non-identity problem

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, ch. 16


No Class—Spring Break


The repugnant conclusion

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, ch.  17


Special Event:  Holmes Ralston III, 3:30


The absurd conclusion

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, ch. 18


Special Event:  Lisa Newton


Beyond the human species

Holmes Ralston III, “The River of Life”


Caring about the future

Thomas H. Thompson, “Are We Obligated to Future Others?” and Earnest Partridge, “Why Care About the Future?”


Personal responsibility
Final paper due

Lisa Newton, “Stewardship:  The Responsible Person”


Final discussion, 2:45-4:45