Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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What Do We Owe Posterity?

Ernest Partridge

Introduction to Responsibilities to Future Generations,
ed. E. Partridge, Prometheus Books, 1981


What do we owe posterity? The question is unavoidable, for the course of human events has forced the issue upon us. We of this generation have in our hands unprecedented power to affect the future – forever. And the sciences that have given us this power have also given us an unprecedented ability to foresee the long-term consequences of our acts, our innovations, and our policies. But, while we benefit from the whirlwind of technological innovation, we are not powerless to control it. We can, for instance, choose at last to control world population, or we can tolerate continued growth. We can devote our full attention to the relief of those who are wretched on the earth today, or we can, instead, give additional attention to the problem of mitigating, and even avoiding, the misery of those who are yet to be born. We can continue the current trend of increasing energy consumption supported by massive, resource-depleting, centralized energy technologies, or we can conserve and develop small-scale, diversified, and renewable sources of energy. And there are many other choices of lasting significance that are immediately before us.

The implications for future generations, who at present have no voice in these decisions, are profound beyond comprehension. Consider just a few examples: First, a commitment to develop and utilize nuclear-fission energy on a grand scale will result in the production of vast amounts of highly toxic radioactive materials, some of which will have to be monitored and isolated from the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years – for all practical purposes, forever. Continued development and production of high-altitude supersonic aircraft, along with the continued use of chlorofluoro-carbons, will continue to erode the ozone layer of the stratosphere, thus increasing the amount of ultraviolet radiation and causing deleterious effects upon crop production and human health.

The response of our political and economic leaders to the current "energy crisis" appears to be "more of the same." Rather than significantly reducing energy consumption, we have accelerated the extraction of coal and oil and have elected to turn to still other fossil fuels, such as tar sands and oil shale. If this policy continues, the increased carbon-dioxide content in the atmosphere could raise the ambient temperature of the earth sufficiently to melt the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps, resulting in the flooding of many major cities of the world and the loss of much prime crop land. Population pressures and the demand for resources are causing an alarming and accelerating destruction of tropical rain forests and, with that depletion, an irreversible loss of exotic species and ecosystems. Tidal marshes and estuaries, the sources of aquatic nutrients, are being filled and polluted. Continental shelves, the most biologically active areas of the seas, are being contaminated with industrial wastes. The vast ocean itself has been found to be vulnerable to human intervention in its systemic integrity.

While our ability to affect the future is immense, our ability to foresee the results of our environmental interventions is not. But we are not totally blind to the consequences of the technical ventures now at work or contemplated. Our age has witnessed not only a revolution in power but also a revolution in communications and information processing. From satellites and worldwide recording and transmitting stations, we monitor the pulse of the planetary organism: the solar input, the hydrological and nutrient cycles, the climatic changes, the patterns of land use, and so on. We know what is happening; and, with new developments in computer modeling of complex integrated functions, we may be able to discover the graver hazards that lie in the path ahead, both for us and for our posterity. Furthermore, the very enormity of the changes that are projected, or imminent, may render a finely tuned science of forecasting somewhat irrelevant. For whatever their tastes in music and poetry, or whatever their preferences in sports and ether amusements, our descendants will need crop lands and watersheds to supply their food and water, and they will need to be free of ultraviolet and nuclear radiation. And it is these necessities of future life and welfare that are in grave jeopardy now, and we know this now.

I have suggested that our moral responsibility grows with foresight. And yet, paradoxically, in some cases grave moral responsibility is entailed by the fact of one's ignorance. If the planetary life-support system appears to be complex and mysterious, humble ignorance should indicate respect and restraint. However, as many life scientists have complained, these virtues have not been apparent in this generation. Instead, they point out, we have boldly marched ahead, shredding delicate ecosystems and obliterating countless species, and with them the unique genetic codes that have evolved through millions of years. We have altered the climate and even the chemistry of the atmosphere, and, as a result of all this – what? A few "results" are immediately to our benefit: more energy, more mineral resources, more cropland, convenient waste disposal. Indeed, these short-term payoffs have motivated us to alter our natural environment. But by far the larger and more significant results, the permanent results, are unknown and perhaps unknowable. Nature, says the poet Nancy Newhall, "holds answers to more questions than we know how to ask." And we have scarcely bothered to ask. Year by year, the natural habitats diminish and the species disappear, and thus our planetary ecosystem (literally, our "household") is forever impoverished. The immediacy and urgency of this biotic loss was emphasized in the recently released report of the Council on Environmental Quality, Global 2000, which predicted that "perhaps as many as 20 percent of all species on earth will be irretrievably lost as their habitats vanish, especially in tropical forests." In a recent issue of Harvard magazine, E. 0. Wilson, Baird Professor of Science at Harvard University, reflected that posterity may find us least forgivable for this "loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats."

Compensating notice should be made of the benefits afforded the future by the accomplishments of our scientific-industrial civilization. Because of our deliberate efforts, no future generations will ever again suffer the scourge of smallpox. The ability to control malaria and yellow fever, developed by this and immediately preceding generations, will benefit posterity into the far future. We have learned to identify some genetic diseases, and thus (if we choose) to control and diminish their transmission, and "genetic engineering" promises still more significant advances in this field of applied science, with implications for the future that are as apparent as they are beneficial. Finally, the very scientific and technical knowledge that has led to the profligate use of energy and resources in our generation may, if we are sufficiently provident and prudent, permit us to develop alternative energy and material resources for the future. But such provision, of course, calls for more than science and technology, however necessary they may be. It also calls for a willingness to care, sacrifice, and provide for the future.

We are, in an important sense, "hooked" on science and technology. Despite the urgings of the neo-romantics and the neo-Luddites, we simply cannot return easily and effortlessly to a pre-industrial mode of life. Our physical sustenance depends upon intensive industrial agriculture and upon high energy consumption. The remedy for the failings of science is more and better science, augmented, to be sure, by a moral vision and commitment that is excluded from science by reason of its very logical structure. As a method and an activity, modern science is a magnificent cultural achievement. But it is a fundamental paradox of our age that scientific knowledge and discipline, supplemented by critical moral sense and passionate moral purpose, will be needed to save the future from the excesses and the perils brought about by a careless, short-sighted application of a scientific knowledge and technological capability that perhaps has developed too fast and affected the earth too much for our own good and for the good of our successors.

If these reflections upon the present human condition and prospect are essentially correct, it then appears that we are not morally permitted simply to let the future be, for our responsibility is forced upon us. We cannot carry on now with "business as usual," for the resulting resource depletion and the accumulating effects of our alterations upon the natural environment force changes upon us. The business of the immediate future, of necessity, will not be "usual," to say the least of it; the immediate future will require us to make momentous and unprecedented decisions, as has the immediate past. So we must decide: Will we have nuclear power and synfuels or renewable solar and biomass energy? The age of abundant, cheap fossil fuels ("as usual") is over forever. Shall we take drastic steps to curb population growth, or shall we not? If not, mankind will have to do without wilderness, tropical rain forests, and many tropical species, and civilized societies will have to manage with a reduced supply of vital, imported raw materials. Shall we reconstruct national and global political and economic structures, or will we just try to muddle through with existing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century institutions? "To do nothing is to do something." We cannot escape our responsibility.

The claim that this generation has an unprecedented responsibility to the future has often been voiced and written recently. One rarely encounters, however, the suggestion that this burden of responsibility may now be at a peak and that no generation in the foreseeable future will have an equivalent degree of opportunity to affect the future. And yet this may well be the case. For many of the same massive and portentous interventions in nature that are now contemplated, and even underway, cannot be undone. We cannot replace lost species or restore lost ecosystems. Once we commit ourselves to full-scale reliance upon nuclear power, as we likely shall within the coming decade, retreat will be politically and economically impossible, and future generations will face the choice either of permanent surveillance of the wastes or (and more likely) of lapsing into indifference and neglect and ultimately facing biological catastrophe. Nuclear power is but one of many technological "fixes" we have acquired. Energy-intensive mechanized agriculture is another. Many have forgotten that the term fix, in the fashionable phrase technological fix, might be interpreted to refer, not to "repair," but to "addiction."

Rising population combined with depleting resources adds up to diminished expectations and diminished capacity to act in behalf of the long-term future,
1 a point that Garrett Hardin stresses in this anthology. And so, as food, resources, and energy become increasingly scarce and costly, capital and labor surplus will diminish. (This will be especially so if we continue on our course of developing capital-intensive "hard" sources of energy.) "Nonessential" activities and professions will be more difficult to support, and among the endangered "nonessential" professions will be the arts and letters, leisurely reflection on the human condition and prospect, futures forecasting, and even research and development in the "pure" (non-applied) sciences. (The reader who doubts this dismal prognosis might contemplate recent trends in higher education, particularly the state of the "academic job market".) As the scope of urgent needs contract to the here and now, so too will the scope of foresight and action. Posterity's chance to be saved from our folly may even now be nearly lost.


The foregoing survey indicates that we now possess the capability, the knowledge, and the options to affect variously and profoundly the welfare of our successors (and, to be sure, of our contemporaries as well). If these factors correctly describe our present circumstances, then they also define these circumstances as "morally significant." They also help us to survey the scope of our topic: "the duty to posterity." As suggested above, to say that an agent has a "moral duty" to perform an act implies (a) that the act is the most morally valuable of the available acts. By "morally valuable" I mean either that the act best exemplifies respect for the rights of affected beings ("deontological value") or that the act optimally affects the welfare of beings with interests—that is, beings who can be benefitted or harmed ("teleological value"). "Moral duty" also implies (b) that one knows, or that it is one's responsibility to know, that the act is morally valuable in one of the senses defined above; (c) that one is capable of performing that act; and (d) that one can deliberately choose either to perform the act or not to perform it. ("Moral action" is here interpreted with sufficient generality to include forbearances – that is, "acts" of choosing not to perform morally undesirable acts.) In strong formulations of the concept of duty, the beneficiaries of the duties are identified as holders of correlative rights. This last qualification, however, is controversial, and I will not insist upon it in order to permit the adoption of a broad sense of "duty." In the sense I intend, "duty" is roughly synonymous with a "requirement" or a "responsibility" to act knowledgeably, capably, and freely when faced with morally significant options.

I have attempted here to offer only the beginning of an analysis of the concept of duty. Much more needs to be explicated if we are to distinguish the concept of a "morally dutiful act" from bordering concepts such as a "morally permitted act" (favoring the interests of oneself or of one's family, friends, or kind) and a "supererogatory act" (“beyond the call of duty” – such as the act of a saint or a hero on behalf of others or on behalf of institutions or ideals). However, since such additional attempts at clarification would introduce considerable controversy, I will carry this analysis no further. Our purposes will have been sufficiently served if I have succeeded in indicating that the concept of "moral duty" entails, at the minimum, (a) moral significance, (b) knowledge, (c) capacity, and (d) choice.

Like R. B. Brandt, H. L. A. Hart, John Rawls, and many other moral philosophers, I prefer to interpret the word “obligation” as referring to voluntary, mutually acknowledged commitments to, or between, identifiable persons. Accordingly, while we might properly speak of “duties" to future persons, it would be inappropriate to speak of "obligations to future persons."

So much for "duty." What of "posterity"? I interpret "posterity" to mean, in Martin P. Golding's words, "[future] generations with which the possessors of the obligations cannot expect in a literal sense to share a common life."
2 We are thus able to treat such "obligations" apart from the obligations that bind parents and children and from those that otherwise obtain between adjacent generations.

One final clarification is in order if we are to place our topic in focus. By "duty to posterity," we are to understand "duties to persons who may be assumed to exist in the future." This apparently arbitrary qualification is introduced to allow us to distinguish between "duty to posterity" and the related question of "population policy," namely, "What moral duties (and permissions) do we have to produce, or to refrain from producing, future persons?" The astute reader will immediately perceive that the questions are more readily distinguished by explication than they are separable in moral deliberation. After all, those who "may be assumed to exist" will be affected by our past reproductive decisions. (Indeed, as Derek Parfit
3 and Thomas Schwartz4 point out, our reproductive decisions will, in effect, totally "repopulate" the future with different persons from those who would have otherwise existed.) Conversely, morally responsible procreative decisions should take into account the anticipated life-conditions of future generations.

The distinction between the issues of "duty to posterity" and "population policy" is admittedly somewhat artificial. Still, it is very useful to an editor who is anxious to contain his topic. And, though the two issues cannot be neatly isolated in a logical sense, it is not difficult to utilize the distinction to separate philosophical papers according to emphasis upon one issue or the other. Of the two topics, population policy has probably received more attention in the recent philosophical literature, and two fine anthologies (by Bayles
5 in 1976 and Sikora and Barry6 in 1978) are available that devote considerable attention to that topic. However, the following anthology is probably the only collection of philosophical papers now in print that devotes almost complete attention to the topic of the duty to posterity...

Within the scope of the issue of the duty to posterity, several controversial issues arise... The first question ... concerns the purported rights of future persons. Many philosophers who readily concede that the living have duties to posterity will balk at the suggestion that these duties arc entailed by corresponding rights of those who are yet to be. The question may be quite significant, since duties derived from rights may require more of the living in terms of sacrifices and forbearances. The second question deals with moral psychology. Duties, we will recall, presuppose a capacity to act. But might not human beings he psychologically incapable of acting in behalf of the remote future? And if so, might they not thus be absolved of moral responsibility to so act? ...


Several arguments might be raised against the claim that the living have duties to posterity (or, more stringently, that future generations have rights-claims against the living)... Not included among the criticisms of the duty to posterity is the "argument from moral nihilism" – that is to say, the claim that there are no such things as rights and duties at all, and therefore no rights and duties between present and future generations. Such an argument, however, belongs to general ethical theory. If we were to examine it seriously, it would be difficult to depart from this general theoretical dispute and return to the subsidiary question of the duty to posterity.

Assuming that the concepts of "duties" and "rights" are, in some cases at least, meaningful, coherent, and applicable arming contemporaries, the issue, then, is simply this: Are there any identifiable features of "futurity" as such that are sufficient to disallow any claim of moral duty to future persons? Several features have been suggested. Among them:

  • The further we project into the future, the less probability we can assign to certain events and circumstances.

  • We are unable to predict the course of the future.

  • We are unable to alter the course of the future.

  • Future persons are indeterminate (that is, unknowable to us as individuals).

  • Future persons are contingent, not actual.

  • We are ignorant of the needs, desires or tastes of future people.

  • We arc ignorant of the whither of future people (and thus, for example, unable lo make utility calculations regarding them).

  • We are unable to determine whether, or how many, future generations will "share our social ideal" and thus be members of our "moral community."

In reply, defenders of the duty to posterity (or, more rigorously, of posterity's rights) have argued that these arc not features that are essential to "futurity" since some of these claims are false (for example, the claim that we cannot predict or affect the future), and several of these features apply to cases that are both contemporary and morally significant (i.e., such features as unidentifiability, improbability, ignorance of number, ignorance of tastes and desires, and so on). Thus, for example, a defender of the duty to posterity would insist that if it is morally improper to place an unknown living person in possible jeopardy (the "unidentifiability" and "probability" features), there appears to be no reason for future "indeterminates," qua future, being any less deserving of our protection, all other factors being equal.

Those who feel that futurity as such makes a difference to the value of a benefit or a cost will support a policy of "discounting the future." Accordingly, a given value in "present-time equivalents" (say, in dollars), decreases as it is projected further into the future. (Thus, at a discount rate of 6 percent per annum, $100 in ten years is worth $55.84 today, in constant dollars.
7) On the other hand, those who deny this axiom of "pure time preference" (e.g., John Rawls8) hold that "a value is a value," regardless of the time of its realization. The concept of "discounting the future" is a point of fundamental contention between economists and moral philosophers. To economists, the concept is virtually axiomatic and thus beyond dispute. To many philosophers, the notion is, at best, arbitrary and unproved and, at worst, absurd9...

We are prepared, at last, to list some of the fundamental and persistent questions that have been raised with regard to the duty to posterity. These questions appear, time and again, implicitly and explicitly, in philosophical discussions and publications devoted to the issue. Indeed, many have appeared earlier in this Introduction. The questions are grouped in the following list according to these categories: (a) Metaethics (questions about moral philosophy as it is applied to the future, for instance, explications of moral concepts and analyses of methods of moral justification). (b) Normative ethics (questions directly addressed to matters of duty, obligation, and moral worth, for example, "What should be done?" "What is worthwhile?" "What acts and policies are most praiseworthy?"). (c) Empirical and practical considerations (questions about matters of fact; in general, these include: "What do we, and can we, know about the future?" "What will be the effects of present technological innovation and environmental impacts upon the remote future?" "What capacities do we have to affect the future?" "What needs and capacities do human beings have to care about the future?").

Metaethical Questions:

  • What moral categories apply, or do not apply, to our relationship to posterity? Rights? Obligations? Duties? Responsibilities? Other categories? On what grounds might such applications or exclusions be based? Nonactuality? Nonconcurrence? Indeterminacy? Other grounds?

  • To what degree are our responsibilities to the future contingent upon our knowledge of the needs, values, and tastes of future persons?

  • Are future persons members of our "moral community"? What characteristics would qualify or disqualify them?

  • What constitutes a justification or validation of a putative "duty to posterity"?

Normative Questions:

  • What kinds of future beings may, or may not, have duty claims upon living persons? What interests might they have that would entail duties on the part of their predecessors?

  • What environments and circumstances should we most desire to preserve and create for future generations? Why? What can we do in behalf of posterity that is most in our power to do? In what sense would these results be "good for" future people?

  • What are the moral implications of our ability to affect the life conditions of future persons and of our ability to foresee the results of our present technologies and policies?

  • How might the duties to posterity best be characterized? As "just savings" of capital, resources, cultural values, and just institutions? (Cf. Rawls, 1971.) As forebearances from harmful activities? As the promotion of benefits? As restitution for prior damages (e.g., to the natural environment)? As a broadening of the ability to anticipate future impacts of present policies?

  • What weight does the duty to posterity have when in conflict with short-term benefits? (For example, have we a duty to keep some resources "in reserve"? At what point of scarcity is this duty overridden?) How might such priorities be assessed?

  • To what degree might living persons need to feel a sense of duty to future persons? Is a sense of duty to posterity a necessary ingredient of a functioning moral sense, or even of an integrated, well-functioning, personality?

  • Does an understanding of the past illuminate a responsibility to the future?

  • Do "potential persons" have a "right" to be brought into existence?

Empirical and Practical Questions:

  • Are we able adequately to predict the future so as to make proper provision for the needs of posterity? That is to say, have we both the knowledge and the power to do so?

  • Can we anticipate the interests, needs, and tastes of posterity? Will our descendants want what we preserve and prepare for them?

  • Will posterity miss what it has never known (e.g., wildlife, wilderness, and so on?

  • Are we able to plan and act appropriately to bring about desired results or to avoid projected problems?

  • Might not the political, social, economic, psychological, and aesthetic costs of significant improvement of posterity's prospects simply be beyond what our generation should reasonably be called upon to bear?

  • Will not the poor and disadvantaged members of present generations be called upon to bear a disproportionate share of the cost of benefitting those who are yet unborn?

  • Does posterity need our care? Can't future generations take care of themselves so long as we turn over our scientific and technological knowledge and techniques? Won't they find adequate resources and solutions on their own?

  • What prospects are there for educating and motivating members of the present generation to fulfill these duties to posterity?

The list, however long, is only partial, and the reader should be able to add to it with little difficulty. It will soon be apparent to the reader that the issues discussed in this collection are more "philosophical" (that is to say, metaethical and normative) than empirical. This emphasis is deliberate and follows from the editor's conviction that most empirical analyses of long-term effects upon the future (namely, "cost-benefit studies," "environmental impact studies," "policy analyses," "alternative futures forecasting," and so on) are long on data and short on evaluative concepts, techniques, and norms. In short, we have an abundance of "facts" but are ill equipped to make moral sense of it all...


[About the plan of the book and the criteria of selection of the included papers].

. . . .


This anthology is intended to serve as a prologue, as a stimulus to thought, research, discussion and action, by philosophers, behavioral scientists, life and physical scientists, policy-makers, administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens. Included in these nontechnical papers are appeals for responsible reflection and concern and for thoughtful and resolute action. The appeals are directed to us all: to students, to scholars, to professionals, to practitioners. The call to reflection and action is urgent, but it is neither clear nor unambiguous. Few of the issues are sharply defined, and many of the moral imperatives are confused, conflicting, and uncoordinated. We bear a burden of incalculable responsibility. And yet we find that we must clarify the issues, analyze the concepts, defend the moral principles, and assess the implications, even as we attempt appropriate action in behalf of our successors. In short, the task before us is not only political, economic, and technological. It is also profoundly, and even inescapably, philosophical. What, then, are we to do?

The metaethical task of explicating the moral concepts that may apply to the posterity question and defining the rules for justifying claims of responsibility to the future falls to the moral philosopher, who also has the normative task of articulating moral principles of duty to future generations. And yet, while occupied with these abstract and theoretical questions, the moral philosopher must endeavor, with deliberate haste, to bridge the gap between concepts, principles, and theories, on the one hand, and working policies and practical moral judgments on the other. The issues are urgent and momentous, and the political and economic conditions of our time are forcing us to make immediate decisions of permanent significance and consequence for the future.

The events of the day will not await clear articulations and prolonged deliberations by the philosophers. Once again, we find that history has not well accommodated our needs and comforts. Time is needed to effect clarification and explication of the moral issues that we face, and time is what we do not have. The best that we can hope for is more philosophers to engage in better philosophizing. And much of that philosophizing will have to be done outside of academic departments of philosophy. Some philosophers have responded to this challenge, but that response has, to this date, been too little and possibly too late. For all the recent and accelerating philosophical discussion and publication on the issue, the posterity question remains a matter of minor interest and attention among contemporary moral philosophers. This should not and need not be the case; for here is a topic well suited to excite the young philosophers who, in their student days a decade ago, clamored for academic "relevance" and professional involvement with the moral and social issues of our time.

There are also urgent questions to be addressed by researchers in moral philosophy. Among these questions are the following: Can we and should we care about the remote future? What basic human capacities, needs, and motives, if any, are involved in transpersonal concern for the future? Do we, in some significant psychological sense, need the future now? That is to say, do we need to hope and work for the welfare of those who will never share our lives? Perhaps not. But, if not, we should know this. If, on the other hand, we have such capacities, needs, and motives, how might they be evoked, nurtured, and enlisted in behalf of our posterity and, at the same time, in behalf of our own needs for self-transcending moral commitment and activity? Once they discover and articulate answers to these crucial questions, the moral psychologists have the task of translating those answers into effective procedures and methods of moral education and activism.

Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have a further task to perform in behalf of posterity. We urgently need to know what future human beings will need just because they will be human beings. Consider one timely example: We may soon be destroying the last of the unspoiled natural wilderness. Will this be a loss to future generations, or are human beings sufficiently adaptable that they will manage quite well, say, with astroturf lawns and plastic trees in lieu of wilderness—or even with no turf or trees at all? Some biologists and psychologists believe that man cannot adapt well to a totally artificial world, that man needs the environment in which he evolved as a species simply because that need is in his genes. Is this so? We need to know this, and soon, while there is still a natural environment to he preserved. Otherwise, Our successors nay he permanently impoverished.

If the philosophers define the concepts and prescribe the principles of duty to the Future, and if the psychologists and the biologists determine the fundamental needy of future human beings, what then? Then we turn to the life scientists and the physical scientists. We will turn to them for projections and sketches of alternative futures. We will rely on them to forecast the short- and long-term effects of our various choices. We will need them to guide us in our attempts to fulfill our duties to the future, in our attempts to avoid harm and promote benefits for those who will follow us. And we need the sciences, not only for knowledge but also for capacity and action. We must act, and act effectively and soon, but we must also act prudently and cautiously. For while we have, in the past, both benefitted enormously from our technological advances and paid heavily for our technological miscalculations, now the stakes are much higher. For now our brain cells, our germ plasm, and our supporting planetary atmosphere and life communities are all in our own, often careless, hands. We cannot afford more sudden, catastrophic surprises. Our successors will need energy, basic resources, and a life-supporting ecosystem. We, should thus endeavor to develop new and benign technologies that will supply these needs without exacting the ruinous long-term costs that we have heretofore assessed to the future and, to some degree, to ourselves. Thus do the scientists, the technologists. and the industrialists share in a responsibility to the future.

The conditions of future life are contingent not only upon the scientific knowledge and capabilities available to this generation but also upon the moral presuppositions and the motives that underlie and direct the selection and evaluation of this information and capability in the formulation of policy, and the consequent investment, implementation, and regulation of technology. Accordingly, in addition to the data and projections of the scientists and technologists, the judgments of the philosophers and the psychologists should he made available to policy-makers, administrators, and legislators, whose difficult and awesome task it is to interpret and integrate this mass of information and opinion, to assess and weigh options, and finally to select specific courses of action and to enact particular items of regulation and legislation.

Clearly we haven't the space even to begin a discussion of the difficult issue of "policy analysis." Let it suffice for us to note that the insights of the moral philosophers are needed as policy-makers attempt, as they must, to clarify the moral assumptions, implications, and constraints that are to guide their decision-making. Decisions of enduring moral significance are being made in our generation because they must he made. We cannot avoid our responsibility, since postponement and evasion of many moral decisions may prove to he ultimately irresponsible. "Not to decide is to decide," that is, to decide in favor of the status quo (which, as we have noted, is not "static"). And so, in the face of forced moral decisions of transcending and permanent significance, policy-makers have the responsibility to consult the experts, the moral philosophers, for clarification of moral issues and for guidance in moral judgment. Conversely, the philosophers (or at least an appreciable number of them) should conduct their research with an eye toward application. "Applied philosophy" need not and should not be regarded in the profession as second-rate work – as a sell-out or a compromise of academic purity and abstraction. Like it or not, "men of affairs" in government and business hold the future hostage to their decisions. Philosophers, of various persuasions, can and should have a voice in these decisions. If not, generations net unborn will justly regard the profession to have been in default of its moral responsibility.

The need for an involvement of the philosophical profession in policy analysis seems especially acute when one reviews the practices and assumptions that are regarded as virtually axiomatic among many policy-makers today. In a deliberate attempt both to avoid ideological bias and to obtain precision, policy-makers have generally adopted the economists methodology of "value-free, cost-benefit analysis" and the economists habit of substituting measurable market costs for "qualitative" and "subjective" values. This philosopher might object that, despite deliberate efforts to avoid bias, such methods and assumptions are biased and that they are biased toward a highly controversial ethical theory, namely, utilitarianism. Not only that, but the "market value" criterions of cost and benefit assessment leads directly to the policy of "discounting the future" – a policy based upon the assumption that the value of future costs and benefits is directly proportional to their proximity in the future, (Thus, according to this "social discount theory," at a per-annum discount rate of 5 percent, one death a year is equivalent to over two deaths three-hundred years in the future.) This conclusion is repugnant even to utilitarians (such as Henry Sidgwick) who generally argue that time, per se, is not relevant to value assessments. Another remarkable assumption, uncritically borrowed from prevailing economic theory, is that public policy is to be regarded as similar in kind to private or corporate policy, though different in degree, and that "society," in other words, is to he regarded as the sum of its individual decision-making parts.

Are the current presuppositions and procedures of policy analysis correct or are they not? I do not propose to answer that question here. Perhaps the economic approach to policy analysis is valid. But, if it is, the validity of this approach, and of the fundamental presuppositions upon which it is based should be articulated and justified, and not merely assumed by government administrators and legislators. However, if the economic approach to policy analysis is inappropriate, then the foundation of much, if not most, of our traditional policy analysis is untenable, and many decisions of lasting importance to future generations may he fundamentally misguided. Our entire structure of policy theory and application should he reviewed and reassessed, and philosophers should have an important role in this work.

Ultimately, posterity will not be cared for unless the citizens care enough. There are many temptations before us to rob the future for the sake of the present, And posterity has no retaliation for such villainy, except, abstractly. through our consciences. All our power, knowledge, and good intentions will fail to serve the future if we lack collective will. And that means political will. Thus the responsibility ultimately reside in the citizens. In particular, the citizen's duty to posterity translates into a responsibility to be informed of the threats we pose and the opportunities we promise for the future. It also translates into a responsibility to develop and to sustain, through reflection and practice, a sound moral sense and judgment. this means that the citizen must also expand his time sense so that he might perceive himself and his generation as part of an ongoing historical adventure. Thus our duty to generations past and future requires us to acquire a historical consciousness and to reflect and act from the broad perspective of such a consciousness. In acquiring, reflecting, and acting with historical consciousness and conscience, we may favor ourselves with a sense of transcending involvement and worth. And finally, with this knowledge, this perspective, and this commitment and conscience, the citizen has a duty to insist that his political leaders count, as constituents, the "silent majority" of those yet to be born. And if the leaders do not, it is the citizen's duty, in behalf of posterity, to select and to install new leaders.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln said:

We cannot escape history. We ... will be remembered In spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.... We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.

When he spoke those words, Lincoln was addressing the Congress of the United States. Today, more than ever before, and possibly more than ever again, those words apply to an entire generation – to our generation. But before we can act responsibly we must recognize and acknowledge our responsibility. These papers have been collected and published here to serve that purpose.

Ernest Partridge
Santa Barbara
October, 1980



1. Garrett Hardin, “Who Cares for Posterity?”, Responsibilities to Future Generations, Ernest Partridge (ed), Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1981, p. 221

2. Marting P. Golding, “Obligations to Future Generations,” Responsibilities to Future Generations, Ernest Partridge (ed), Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1981, p 62.

3. Derek Parfit, “On Doing the Best for Our Children,” Ethics and Population, Michael Bayles (ed), Cambridge Mass:, Schenkman, 1976.

4.  Thomas Schwartz, “Obligations to Posterity,” Obligations to Future Generations, Brian Barry and R. I. Sikora, eds., Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1976.

5. Michael bayles, Ed., Ethics and Population, Cambridge, Mass:.: Schenkman, 1976.

6. Brian Barry and R. I. Sikora, eds,. Obligations to Future Generations, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1976.

7. Garrett Hardin, “What Do We Owe Posterity?”, Responsibilities to Future Generations, Ernest Partridge (ed), Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1981, p. 223.

8. A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass.:, Harvard University Press, 1971, §45.

9. I deal with the discounting issue at some length in "In Search of Sustainable Values," International Journal of Sustainable Development, 6:1, 2003. Also at “The Online Gadfly,” www.igc.org/gadfly/papers/sustain.htm .


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .