I would like to open on a personal note, if I may. I grew up
across the river in New Jersey, and while a youngster frequently
visited this museum. It never occurred to me at that time that I
would ever be honored with the opportunity to speak in a professional
capacity to an audience in this hall and at this Museum. I am
profoundly grateful to the Hastings Center, The American Museum of
Natural History, and to the National Science Foundation for that
Yesterday, I once again visited the Museum as an ordinary tourist,
after an absence of a couple of decades. I spent most of my time in
the Human Evolution and Biodiversity exhibits. Those of you who have
seen them will agree that they are both masterpieces of museum
display. And they both vividly present the two fundamental themes of
my remarks today: the naturalness of our species, and our
moral responsibility toward the natural estate from which we
evolved, which continues to sustain us, and upon which future
generations of our species will depend.
This presentation will consist of basically two parts:
first, an analysis of the concept of moral
responsibility, and through this analysis, a defense of the
claim that the present generation has moral obligations to future
generations. Second, assuming the claim of responsibility to
the future, I then suggest some policy guidelines for fulfilling our
obligations to future generations.
This exercise will thus propose a theoretical moral groundwork for
protecting in perpetuity, populations of wolves and other wild
creatures, and also the preservation of the habitats and ecosystems
which are, of course, necessary for the survival of these
Time constraints forbid me to explore and justify an essential
assumption: namely, that wolves and their supporting ecosystems are
intrinsically valuable. This I will assume, confident in the
additional assumption that the outstanding scholars at this table,
and at this conference, have proven that point to the satisfaction of
all. My two fundamental questions are simply this: why, if we value
wolves today, should we be obligated to ensure their existence in the
remote future; and if we are so obligated, how might we best fulfill
I - THE POSTERITY ISSUE
"Future Generations" and "Posterity" are terms that are frequently
encountered in popular journalism, in political rhetoric, not to
mention significant historical documents and literary works. For
example, the Preamble to the US Constitution cites as one of its
purposes, to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
Posterity." Scarcely a week goes by that one does not hear of "future
generations" or "posterity" in the popular media.
And yet, serious philosophical attention to the issue of the moral
responsibility to future generations is quite recent. Of the
approximately one million doctoral dissertations presently listed in
Dissertation Abstracts, the first to contain the either the
terms "future generations" or "posterity" in its title was completed
in 1976: "Rawls and the Duty to Posterity" (by this writer). Since
then, nineteen dissertations have been completed which fit that
description. The Philosophers Index lists 134 items under
"future generations" and "posterity." Of these, all but three have
been published since the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Why this apparent neglect, until very recently, of moral
philosophers with an issue of such manifest interest to the general
The answer might be found in an analysis of the concept of
moral responsibility. To say that a moral agent or a
corporate body is morally responsible, for his or her
actions would seem to entail at the very least that the agent: (a)
has, or is capable of having, knowledge of the consequences
of those actions; (b) has the capacity to bring about these
consequences; (c) has the choice to do otherwise; and (d)
that these consequences have value significance. The second
and third conditions reiterate the common metaethical insight that
the realm of morality is found between the extremes of the
impossible and the inevitable -- or, to quote and then
extend Kant's maxim: "ought implies can," --
and yet might not.
If this analysis of the concept of responsibility is
accurate, then the reason for the emergence of the posterity problem
becomes clear: the issue has arisen with the extraordinary advances
in science (knowledge) and technology (capacity). Before mid-century,
the very idea that human activities might seriously and permanently
affect the global atmosphere and oceans, or the gene pool or our
species and others, seemed preposterous. We were just too puny, we
believed, and the planet too vast for such consequences. Raised with
stories of Red Riding Hood and the Three Pigs, we just assumed that
when wolves roamed freely, we were the endangered ones. Now
the sciences have disabused us of such assurances, as technology has
produced chemicals and radioactive substances unknown to nature, and
as evidence proliferates of permanent anthropogenic effects upon the
seas, atmosphere, and the global ecosystem, and as more of our
brother species pass into extinction at an ever-accelerating rate.
Furthermore, such consequences of industrial civilization as ozone
depletion, global warming, the contamination of aquifers, and the
deposition of radwaste, while the byproducts of benefits to the
present generation, exact postponed costs to remote generations.
Not coincidentally, the posterity question arose alongside the
emergence of the environmental movement. While not all posterity
issues are necessarily environmental in nature (the preservation of
landmark buildings and works of art come to mind as exceptions), the
preservation of the natural environment is clearly the public and
moral issue with the longest time entailments. And so, when in 1962
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted the public to the
moral implications of bio-scientific knowledge and agro-industrial
technology, and when, during the same decade, the Sierra Club and
other organizations decried the loss of wilderness, the consequences
of these crises to future generations could not be ignored.
Accordingly, the emergence of the posterity issue during "the
environmental decade" of the '70s was virtually assured.
In short, the accelerating advances of science and technology have
made it compellingly clear that future generations are vulnerable to
our acts and policies. Furthermore, through science we have come to
understand the long-term consequences of these policies, and through
technology, we have acquired to capacity to affect these
consequences, if only through forbearance. Accordingly, in our hands
lies the fate, for better or worse, of future persons whose lives we
will never share. This is a burden of responsibility that we cannot
escape, so long as we willingly accept the enlightenment of science
and the capacities of our technology. "To do nothing, is to do
something"; namely, to assent to existing trends and entailments.
The Moral Status of Future
At first glance, the posterity issue may appear to involve nothing
more than a simple extension of our "moral community" to include, in
addition to family, compatriots, distant contemporary victims of
misfortune, and even animals and ecosystems, yet another category:
persons who will be born after we have departed. By this superficial
account, our responsibilities to future persons would not be
significantly different in kind from our responsibilities to these
contemporary "others." Put simply, it would seem that given our
knowledge and capacities, future persons have the right to our
responsible care and forbearance in their behalf.
A closer look reveals that the ontological and epistemological
status of future persons raises numerous unique and extraordinary
moral and metaethical problems. Among them:
most fundamentally, future persons,
qua future, do
not exist now, when the alleged burdens of responsibility
fall upon the living. Thus the question arises: can we have duties
to non-existent beings? Still worse, what sense can be made of
attributing rights to those who do not exist?
still more perplexing is the fact that by initiating a policy
to improve the lives of future persons, we will be causing
different individuals to be born in the future. But if so, then we
can in no sense be said to be "improving the lives" of particular
future persons, who, but for our provision (or neglect) would not
exist. (See Schwartz, 1968, and Parfit, 1984).
we can not know future people as individuals.
Instead, "posterity" is an abstract category containing unnumbered
and undifferentiated members. And yet, much moral theory is based
upon the principle of "respect for autonomous
our relationship with future persons is unidirectional and
non-reciprocal. Future persons will be unable to reward or punish
us, as the case may be, for our provision for their lives.
how can we tell with any confidence just what might
benefit future persons -- i.e., what will or will not be
"goods" to them?
Who is entitled to act in behalf of future persons?
Clearly, by assigning moral significance to those not yet born, we
are introducing problems that are unique to the history of moral
What then, is the moral status of future persons? Just how much
claim do they have upon us, to make provision for them or, at the
very least, to forbear from causing future harm? The responses of
contemporary moral philosophers cover a broad scope of the moral
spectrum. To some, the contingency and non-actuality of future
persons virtually excludes them from moral consideration. If any
attempt to improve the lot of future persons results in a population
of different individuals, then, so the argument goes, no particular
lives can be "improved" by present policies.
Elsewhere, I have argued that all these difficulties can be
successfully addressed and answered, leaving essentially intact a
moral requirement that the living generations make just provision for
future generations. (Once again, I refer you to my website. See
"Should We Seek a Better Future?" and "On the Rights of Future
Generations.") However, having said this much, I cannot simply walk
away from the issue without offering you at least a sketch of an
Regarding the objection that future persons are "indeterminate and
unidentifiable as individuals," I would point out that these
considerations do not invalidate our obligations to contemporaries.
For example, we are clearly obliged not to scatter broken glass on a
beach frequented by bathers - notwithstanding the fact that we do not
know the individuals to whom these duties are owed. In fact, if we
fulfill these obligations, there will be no particular
individuals who will benefit thereby. Similarly, a land owner is
legally obligated to cover-up any idle mineshafts on his property.
Suppose that by failing to do so, a child is injured five years
hence. Does it make any moral difference if that child happens at the
time to be seven years old rather than five years old? Yet in the
former case, the child "exists" at the time of the owners
dereliction, and in the latter case he does not.
Regarding the objection that "future persons" are "merely future"
and thus do not now exist, I invite you to shift your time
perspective. When the framers of our Constitution wrote in the
Preamble, that they were acting "for ourselves and our posterity,"
was that affirmation in behalf of our generation (and all other
subsequent generations) somehow mistaken? Clearly, our present
existence under the protection of the Bill of Rights is preferable to
a mode of existence unprotected by those amendments. Can we not
therefore affirm today that the framers, in that distant past, thus
fulfilled their duty to the "then-merely-possible" individuals, who
eventually became ourselves? It is true, as some have pointed out,
that at the time of the Constitutional we were in no position to
"exercise" our rights to act one way or the other - our so-called
"positive right." So I will concede that future generations do not
have "active rights" before they exist. But these do not exhaust the
inventory of rights. Future generations can meaningfully be said to
have "Negative rights" - e.g., to clean air, abundant resources, just
institutions - rights, the provision of which, entails a burden of
active responsibility on the part of their forebearers.
II - POLICY IMPLICATIONS
I have argued that the knowledge gained by our sciences and the
capacity and choice provided by our technology, combined with our
positive valuation of wildlife and wild ecosystems, places upon us
the burden of moral responsibility to future generations. I turn now
to the practical question just what we might do to best fulfil this
The economic approach: cost-benefit analysis. To begin,
we should turn an acute critical eye toward the "business as usual"
of public policy-making: "cost-benefit analysis" -- an approach
promoted by economists, widely endorsed by legislatures and
administrators, and enshrined in the methodology of environmental
impact analysis. Time permits only a brief statement of the most
prominent criticisms of this approach.
that by comensurating all values into cash (a non-moral
value), morality is "factored out" of policy considerations.
that cost-benefit analysis measures aggregated
preferences to the exclusion of community/citizen
that economic analysis is descriptive -- indicating what a
consumer-public in fact values (economically), rather than
prescribing what they should value (normatively). To put
the matter bluntly, the economist asks: "What is the value? Tell
me what are you willing to pay." The moral philosopher replies:
"What am I willing to pay? First I must determine, independently,
what is its value." This is a response that the economist cannot
touch within the bounds of his discipline.
finally, and most significantly for the posterity issue, by
measuring value in terms of cash, the future is discounted. Thus
the costs and benefits to persons just a few generations into the
future count for virtually nothing in economically based policy
By citing these criticisms, I do not wish to deny that the
discipline of economics is an essential ingredient of wise policy
decision-making. It is a valuable tool, but it must never become the
only tool, of policy analysis.
The Ignorance Excuse:
Before we proceed with policy
recommendations, one more objection to provision for the remote
future must be addressed. It is based upon the "knowledge criterion"
of responsibility, and claims that we do not and in principle can not
know what future generations will need or value, and thus can make no
provision for them. How, for example, could previous generations have
known of our need for rare semi-conducting elements such as
germanium? And conversely, what if they had needlessly sacrificed by
storing up vast quantities of whale oil, with no anticipation of the
coming ages of petroleum and electricity? When we look back the
predictions of fifty and one-hundred years ago, regarding life at the
close of the twentieth century, how can we with any confidence
forecast conditions of life in the remote future?
Granting all this, there are nonetheless, some fundamental facts
that we can know about future generations:
First of all, they will be humans, with well-known
biotic requirements necessary to sustain their health.
Second, future persons for whom we are responsible will be
moral agents, which means that they will be sentient and
self-conscious, having a sense of themselves and other persons as
continuing beings with the capacity to choose among alternative
futures, and with the capacity to reason abstractly and thus to
act on principle. All this entails that these future persons will
be bound by familiar moral categories of rights,
responsibilities, and the demands of justice.
Third, if these future persons are to live and flourish, they
must be sustained by a functioning ecosystem.
And finally, they will require stable social institutions and
a body of knowledge and skills that will allow them to meet and
overcome cultural and natural crises that may occur during their
Assuming then that we know enough about the welfare of future
persons to act responsibly in their behalf, what guidelines might
direct our policies toward future generations? Prominent among those
proposed by philosophers and others, are the following:
"First of all, do no harm." Because "the ignorance
excuse" is not without some merit, an insight from the utilitarians
would be very helpful to the policy-makers: namely, we should favor
policies that mitigate evil over policies that promote good. This
precept is supported by common-sense considerations. First, avoidable
or treatable pain demands the moral attention of everyone, while "the
pursuit of happiness" is the appropriate concern of the individual.
Furthermore, it is much easier to identify and address the causes of
misery than it is to promote the well-springs of happiness. This is
especially so with regard to the future. The pains and tribulations
of future persons, like those of ourselves, can often be traced to
disruptions in the fundamental biotic, ecosystemic, psychological and
institutional conditions listed above. Their pleasures and
satisfactions will come from a future evolution of culture, taste and
technology that we cannot even imagine.
The "Critical Lockean Proviso."
According to John Locke,
it is morally permissible to "take from nature," mix one's labor with
the taking, and claim the result as one's private property, so long
as one leaves "as much and as good for others." While this may have
been true in a world of frontiers and homesteads, it is no longer
possible. Once a barrel of petroleum is extracted from the earth and
consumed, there is no longer "as much and as good" remaining for our
successors. But if we were to share equally our petroleum resources
with all generations far into the future, we would be allocated a
cupful each. So we must, instead, adopt a "critical Lockean Proviso,"
whereby we leave for the future, not the very resource that we
deplete, but the opportunity to obtain whatever it was for which the
original resource was utilized. Thus while future generations may not
need petroleum (just as we no longer need whale oil), they will need
what petroleum provides, namely energy. Thus it is our
responsibility to find a replacement. The proviso also
entails that we utilize recycling technologies and "interest-bearing"
(i.e., renewable) resources, such as sustained yield
forestry and fisheries. And this in turn validates the need to
preserve natural ecosystems and wildlife habitats.
Preserve the options. This rule is clearly entailed by
the previous two. While we cannot predict the technological solutions
to future resource scarcity, we owe future generations a full range
of options and opportunities for research and development of these
technologies. This in turn entails a continuing investment in
scientific and technical education and research. Happily, such an
investment benefits our own generation and that of our immediate
successors, as it also benefits the remote future.
Anticipation and prevention is preferable to cure. We
should therefore keep an informed eye on impending impacts upon the
future. "Earlier" is easier and cheaper than "later." Accordingly,
our responsibility to future generations must include technological
and environmental impact studies which will foresee, and expand the
capacity to foresee, developing crises and the consequences of our
projects and policies far into the remote future. Obvious examples of
this "duty of anticipation" include studies of stratospheric ozone
depletion, global warming, chemical hormone disruption, and nuclear
Just Forbearance ("Critical Conservatism"). This
dimension of the duty to posterity clearly follows from the previous:
for once we have determined, through scientific research, how our
actions might affect the remote future, we may face a clear duty to
forgo advantages for the sake of future generations. To cite our
examples once again, studies of atmospheric physics and chemistry may
determine that we face a choice between having our grandchildren
protected from ultra-violet radiation or having our generation enjoy
the convenience of aerosol sprays and supersonic aircraft. Similarly,
due to the so-called "greenhouse effect, our voracious appetite for
fossil fuel energy may be inconsistent with a tolerable climate for
our successors. Accordingly, decision to favor future generations
would, in these instances, require just forbearances on the part of
those now living. A policy of "just forbearance" is a conservative
approach to provision for the future, which is often favored by
environmentalists. The ecosystem, they argue, is a network of complex
and subtle inter-relationships, the intricacies and ramifications of
which we can never fully comprehend. Rather than carelessly toss
aside components of this system (e.g., species and nutrients), we
should approach the planetary life community with humility and care.
If our information is incomplete, it is better to postpone, or even
to abandon, projects that threaten the integrity of the system.
Doing well by doing good. We
should favor policies that work to the advantage of both us and the
future -- and which, other factors being roughly equal, are least
burdensome to the present generation. This rule is responsive to the
constant political problem of convincing the public to accept
sacrifices now to bring about benefits that they will never see. On
reflection, it seems that a significant number of our "duties to the
future" also benefit us and those we directly care about -- our
children and grandchildren. Among these benefits are the control of
pollution, population and global warming.
None of the above will be accomplished unless succeeding generations
acquire the moral stamina to face up to and to carry out their moral
responsibilities. This can only be accomplished through a carefully
devised and generously funded program of environmental and moral
education. Such a program would include the teaching of critical
thinking, history, ecological principles, and a respect for free
The moral education here proposed is one, not of
but of process -- not of answers, but of the skills to find
the answers for oneself. As such, this approach prizes above all
else, the dignity and autonomy of the individual -- qualities
assaulted and threatened by our mass culture. Be that as it may, let
us acknowledge that the youth will be "morally educated" somehow, if
only by default. That is to say, they will have some set of
values, for better or worse. Better that we assume the task
deliberately, and do a good job of it.
A Guardian for future
generations should be established by the international community
-- preferably under the sanction of international law, but, failing
that, with the widespread support of non-governmental organizations.
Christopher Stone suggests that such a guardian "might be authorized:
(1) to appear before the legislatures and administrative agencies of
states considering actions with pronounced, long-term implications;
(2) to appear as a special intervener-counsel in a variety of
bilateral and multi-lateral disputes, and, (3) perhaps most
important, even to initiate legal and diplomatic action on the
future's behalf in appropriate situations."
Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge
As we noted at the outset, the
posterity issue is new to the literature and debates of moral
philosophy. But now, having made its appearance, the question of our
responsibility to future generations can not be returned to
obscurity. For if our analysis of "moral responsibility" (as
knowledge, capacity, choice and value significance)
is correct, the only plausible escape from this responsibility would
be a disavowal of the knowledge provided by our sciences, and an
abandonment of the capacity and choice bestowed by our technology.
Few seem willing to pay that price to avoid the moral burden of our
duty to posterity. If, on the other hand, we continue to support the
advancement of science and technology, and yet ignore the long-term
consequences thereof, we will not avoid our moral responsibility --
we will be in default thereof, and will be properly condemned by the
generations that succeed us.