Posterity and the "Strains of Commitment"
By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
For the First International Future Generations
Kyoto Japan -- November, 1994
Published in Creating a New History for Future Generations,
Ed., Kim and Dator, Institute for the Integrated Study of Future
Kyoto, Japan, 1995.
Can We Care Enough About the Remote
What can we do in behalf of future generations? The answer to that
question is incomplete, unless it addresses the question of our
capacity to make just provision for the future. And this question of
capacity is itself subdivided into two issues: that of our actual
capacity and of our potential capacity. That final issue
("potentiality") presents daunting challenges to educators,
journalists and media professionals.
It is not difficult to suggest a list of proposals in behalf of
future generations. But no benefit accrues to future generations from
benefactions which we are unable to carry out. Thus our proposals to
act in behalf the remote future must be such that they can, in John
Rawls's phrase, withstand the "strains of commitment."
Can human societies make just provision for future generations?
The historical record is not very helpful, since we find there
evidence of both extraordinary sacrifice and myopic self-indulgence.
The biologist, Garrett Hardin has argued that under conditions of
severe deprivation and falling expectations, egoism triumphs over
altruism, and thus the interests of the future are sacrificed in the
struggle for survival. Yet, in virtual contradiction of this claim,
he cites two striking counter-examples, both from the Soviet Union.
In the first case, he reports that in 1921 starving refugees on the
Volga refused to eat the seeds for the coming harvest. "We do not
steal from the future," they said. Similarly, Hardin points out,
during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, nearly a
million residents of the city died of exposure and starvation. Yet,
during this time, a large quantity of edible seeds, "a precious
repository of genetic variety," were untouched.(1)
Other examples of significant sacrifices in behalf of the remote
future, can be found in the historical record of cultures throughout
the world. In my own country, the National Park Act of 1916 set aside
valuable land "for the enjoyment of future generations," often at
considerable economic sacrifice to those alive at that time. Other
examples abound: the establishment of universities, the building of
great cathedrals such as Chartres in France, and of cities such as
Kyoto, all are undertaken with no expectation of an economic "payoff"
to the original planners and builders.
Sadly, there is abundant evidence that of late, our willingness to
act in behalf of the future has contracted, even as our wealth (and
thus our economic capacity) has expanded. Again, in the United
States, the decade of the eighties saw an enormous burden placed upon
future generations, as the national debt increased from one to four
trillion dollars. And despite the warnings of the scientists, the
continued production of nuclear wastes and the relentless build-up of
"greenhouse gasses" in the atmosphere, threatened potentially
disastrous consequences for the remote future.
History, then, provides evidence only of a wide range of possible
moral attitudes toward future generations: from extraordinary
constraint and solicitude, to complete, reckless, indifference.
However, the very fact that the upper range of moral responsibility
can be realized, however rarely, provides justification for renewed
moral commitment on behalf of our successors.
Following a brief analysis of the concept of "moral
responsibility, I will address three inter-related questions: (a)
What can we do in behalf of the future? (b) Have we the capacity and
will to do what duty requires? And finally, (c) if we do not, can
this incapacity be remedied?
On the Concept of "Responsibility to Future
The central question of this paper, and this conference -- "What
can we do for future generations?" -- rests upon a structure of
presupposition, most of which I have addressed at length
elsewhere.(2) Foremost among these is the concept of
moral responsibility -- a concept which demands explication,
if we are to profitably proceed with this inquiry.
To say that a person P is "morally
responsible" for an act, X, entails:
(a) P knows the consequences of X.
(b) P has the capacity to do X.
(c) P also has the capacity to do otherwise.
(d) X affects the welfare and/or rights of morally considerable
Applying this to future generations, we then ask: (a) Do we
know (however imperfectly) the consequences of our actions?
(b) Have we the capacity to favorably affect the future? (c)
Have we the choice to do otherwise? (d) Can we affect the
lives of future persons in ways that have value significance? (E.g., avoiding
misery, promoting well-being, respecting rights?)
If the answer to all of the above is "yes", then morality
demands "just provision" -- a responsibility to the future.
Moreover, note that with advances in science (knowledge) and
technology (capacity) , that responsibility increases as well. Thus
it might well be the case that the present generation carries an
unprecedented burden of responsibility toward the future.
The Ignorance Excuse. The above analysis, however,
suggests a justification for indifference toward the remote future;
namely, the claim that we do not and cannot know enough about the
future to make appropriate provision for it Evidence for this claim
is widespread. For example, attempts of nineteenth century authors
and scientists to predict the course of our century seem quaint in
retrospect. Even within our lifetimes, we see rapidly fluctuating
notions of the future. Consider how the conception of the "25th
Century" has changed in the 25 years between the two productions of
the "Star Trek" television series. Even the professional
"futurologists" made conspicuous errors. For example, in 1967, at the
time of the publication of "The Year 2000,." Herman Kahn's massive
book on the future, the words "oil", "energy" and "petroleum" did not
appear in the index. Six years later, the oil crisis was upon us.
The Future, in short, constantly surprises us. Can we have any
responsibility toward that of which we are totally ignorant? Perhaps
not. But then, perhaps our ignorance is not total. Accordingly, I
would suggest that we are nonetheless responsible to future persons,
simply because there are some fundamental things that we can know
First of all, of course, that they will be biological
humans -- with fundamental somatic needs to
Second of all, they will be persons in the
moral sense, with a sense of themselves as continuing beings with
alternative futures, capable of acting on principle, in a
community of other persons to which they are bound by moral
categories of rights, responsibilities, and demands
Finally, so long as they live and flourish, they will, as they
must, be sustained by a functioning ecosystem, and with social
institutions and a body of knowledge and skills that will allow
themselves to meet and overcome cultural and natural crises .
If we acknowledge this much, then, I submit, we cannot appeal to
ignorance to evade our responsibilities to the future.
Futures Policy for a Society of
Let us for the moment ignore the question of moral capacity, and
ask what a hypothetical "society of saints" might establish as a
policy of just provision on behalf of future
generations.(3) By "saints" I mean "perfect altruists" who
hold the interests and claims of all persons (including themselves)
to be equal, and who act accordingly with perfect compliance.
What might such an ideal society establish as its policy toward
future generations? In his monumental contribution to moral
philosophy, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls offers a helpful
proposal. "Just savings," he writes, entails that "each generation
must . . . preserve the gains of culture and civilization, . . .
maintain intact those just institutions that have been established .
..[and] put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of
real capital accumulation."(4) By "capital," Rawls means
"not only factories and machines, and so on, but also the knowledge
and culture, as well as the techniques and skills, that make possible
just institutions and the fair values of liberty."(5) This
is an important qualification, since it indicates that our "savings"
are not simply of "consumables" which are forgone today to be "used"
tomorrow. For unlike depletable resources, the intellectual and
cultural "capital" to which Rawls refers become more valuable to the
future, the more they are used with advantage by the present
generation. As we shall see, this is a crucial consideration as we
face "the motivation problem."
This is a good beginning, but only that. In the first place, the
terms "savings" and "capital" suggest that the problem of justice
between generations is primarily, if not exclusively, an economic
issue. Secondly, our duties may be more of a negative kind
("forbearances") than positive (active commissions). Finally, Rawls
has little to say about our ecological responsibilities as stewards
of the planet and its life community. Let's examine some of these
additional dimensions of just provision for the
(a) We should favor policies that mitigate evil over policies
that promote good. This precept, modeled after the so-called
"principle of negative utility," is supported by several common-sense
considerations. First of all, avoidable or treatable pain demands the
moral attention of everyone, while "the pursuit of happiness" is a
private matter. Moreover, it is much easier to identify and address
the causes of misery, than to promote the wellsprings of happiness.
This is especially so with regard to the future. Their pains and ours
can be traced to our common somatic needs and the status of the
planetary ecosystem which sustains us both. Their pleasures and
satisfactions will come from developments in culture, taste and
technology that we cannot even imagine.
(b) "Savings," "Capital" and the Critical Lockean
Proviso. John Locke stated that it was morally permissible to
"take from nature," mix one's labor with the taking, and claim the
result as one's property, so long as one leaves "as much and as good"
for others. "(The Lockean Proviso"). While this may have been true in
a world of frontiers and homesteads, it is no longer, strictly
speaking, possible. Were we to share equally our petroleum resources
with all, 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 the resource is used for. Thus while
future generations may not need petroleum per se, they will
need what petroleum provides, namely energy. Our
responsibility, then, will be to find a replacement.
The proviso also entails that we utilize recycling
technologies and "interest-bearing" (i.e., renewable)
resources. And this, in turn, validates the need to preserve natural
ecosystems, which are more valuable to us and the future than we can
ever fully discover, or even imagine.
Most fundamentally, we must preserve the options! And
this means the institutions that find and develop the options:
scientific education and research. Of course, to return to an earlier
point, the support of scientific research and development benefits
our generation while it benefits the future.
(c) Just Anticipations. Our duties to the future must
include technological and environmental impact studies which seek to
assess the consequences of projects and policies several hundred
years into the future. To be sure, such studies exact costs, in
research and manpower, and in the delay and even the cancellation of
projects that are beneficial in the short term. The duty of just
anticipation, then, entails a responsibility to foresee, and to
expand the capacity to foresee, developing crises, and furthermore to
enact appropriate remedies for the sake of future persons while the
time is available to act effectively. Obvious examples of such a duty
would include studies of stratospheric ozone depletion, global
warming, and nuclear waste disposal.
(d) Just Forbearances. 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 now
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 forbearances on the part of those now
(f) Just Stewardship. Whatever else they may need in
terms of just institutions, knowledge, skills, resources and capital,
future generations will need air, water, food and a viable gene pool.
To have these essentials, they will need that which has capably,
reliably and continuously provided up to our present generation;
namely, a functioning ecosystem. For posterity to have it, this
ecosystem will have had to have been further preserved, maintained,
even cherished through the continuing observance, by intervening
generation, of just stewardship of the planetary life-support
The Motivation Problem
The foregoing, let us recall, was an inventory of duties in a
"society of saints," capable and willing to treat the rights and
claims future persons as fully equal to their own. In such an ideal
society, there is, qua hypothesis, no problem of motivation.
But of course, in our "real world," motivation is the
essential problem. "Ideal" principles of provision for the future are
of no practical significance if they cannot, in Rawls's words,
survive "the strains of commitment."
So we must face, at last, that troublesome question: Have we the
psychological capacity to do what our moral duty requires? Fifteen
years ago, in an important essay, "Future Generations, Public Policy,
and the Motivation Problem,"(7) Norman Care expressed
serious doubts, as he argued:
a) We can have no bonds of love or
concern for indefinite futures. "Their interests cannot
b) We have no "community bond" with future persons. There is no
"sense of belonging to some joint [reciprocal]
c) We feel no "extended or unbounded shared-fate motivation"
There is no "sense of common humanity."
Sadly, the events of the past dozen years seem, to validate Care's
argument. For not only are we cheating remote posterity, we are
cheating our own children. For consider: in the United States, the
Libertarian complaint: "taxation is theft," has become sufficiently
respectable to be openly spoken in the Congress, and even by a recent
President (Reagan). This immensely popular slogan neglects the basic
distinction between taxes with and without representation, and
forgetting Justice Holmes' observation that "taxes are the price of
civilization." A significant portion of the public has embraced this
facile equation of greed with patriotism.
In short, posterity has taken a terrible beating this past decade.
For that matter, our immediate progeny belongs to the first American
generation in memory to be worse off than its predecessor. I am sure
that Norman Care feels no joy in his vindication.
The Moral Paradox: "Doing Well by Doing
Yet the demands of morality Persist -- If only as supererogatory.
What, then are we to do? "Trash the future" on the grounds that we
are psychologically incapable of doing otherwise? After all, if
"ought implies can," and we can't help ourselves, then we are off the
moral hook. And posterity is just out of luck. Still, there may be a
paradoxical twist to this issue, which just might offer posterity,
and us, a way out. It is simply this: instead of asking what our
neglect of the future is doing to our successors, let's ask instead
what it might be doing to us. Kenneth Boulding reflects:
Why should we maximize the welfare of this generation at
the cost of posterity? Apres nous le deluge has
been the motto of not insignificant numbers of human societies.
The only answer to this, as far as I can see, is to point out that
the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he
can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory
individual identity is that which identifies not only with a
community in space but also with a community extending over time
from the past into the future... This whole problem is linked up
with the much larger one of the determinants of the morale,
legitimacy, and "nerve" of a society, and there is a great deal of
historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its
identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the
future loses also its capacity to deal with the present problems
and soon falls apart.(8)
Very eloquent. But is there any reason to believe him? I think so.
As I have argued elsewhere,(9) by confining our concerns
to ourselves and our generation, we impoverish ourselves. Our life is
emptied of significance, and with that emptiness, we lose that
essential "primary good" of self-respect. The common fate of
mortality becomes an unbearable burden, when nothing which survives
us has any value to us. Conversely, our sense of personal
significance, of vital engagement, expands as things we value are
perceived as enduring beyond our lifetimes -- places such as Yosemite
Park, Lake Baikal, and Kyoto, things such as monuments, activities
such as philosophy, institutions such as representative democracy,
ideals such as justice. But if they are to endure, then we must
protect them, the conditions that sustain them, and yes, the
conditions of life of those who will, even into the remote future,
cherish them as we have. So it comes to this: if emotional health and
moral integrity are not only admirable, but rationally
preferable (for the individual) as well, then we owe it to
ourselves to make just provision for the future.
If this seems paradoxical, then so be it. "The moral paradox" is
well-known to moral philosophers, from Aristotle to John Rawls: "if
you would have a happy life, don't focus on your own happiness." Or
as Michael Scriven puts it, "there are circumstances in which one can
give a selfish justification for unselfishness."(10)
The Need for a "Moral Overhaul"
But does our generation have the moral fortitude to do what duty
requires? Perhaps not. I have reluctantly come to agree with Norman
Care, as he observes: "... that certain familiar sorts of motivation
are not available to support policies demanding serious sacrifice for
the sake of future generations, and we may well be discouraged by the
further apparent fact that the cultivation of a form of motivation
directly supportive of such policies might require something close to
an overhaul of main elements in the makeup of our society which
influence the moral psychology of citizens."(11)
Thus we seem to be faced with the following options:
(a) We leave ruin for our successors. The conscientious among us
will suffer pangs of regret and even conscience. The rest will enjoy
the comfort of denial. (The most likely outcome, I fear)
(b) We will all, forthwith, mobilize ourselves to do
that morality requires to "salvage the future." (Most unlikely!)
(c) Prof. Care's "moral overhaul" -- i.e., We
should support policies that will move us from (a) and
toward (b), but in ways that minimize, as much as possible,
the "sacrifice factor."
In sum, I must come to the melancholy conclusion that, at least in
my country, we now lack the actual capacity to fulfill our
duties to posterity. But do we lack the potential capacity?
Herein lies a glimmer of hope. For we are of the same species, and
even the same civilization, which has produced saints and heroes who
have sacrificed there very lives in behalf of others, both
contemporary and in the remote future. And the sacrifice demanded of
us, while considerable, is much less than that displayed by a saint
or a hero. We might, then, rise to the moral challenge and realize
our potential to make just provision for the remote future. But we
will do this only through determined effort and a constant and
conscious awareness of "the motivation problem."
How are we to thus accomplish the "moral overhaul" that will equip
us to meet our responsibilities to the future?
a) First and foremost, We must take Education Seriously!
That is, we must:
Teach critical thinking -- what Bertrand Russell
called "intellectual sales resistance." Only then can we wisely
choose our political leaders, and resist the onslaught of
commercial hedonism and privatism in the public media.
Institute moral education, not of precepts, but of
practical, problem-solving capacities. Conduct serious research
into moral education, then apply it.
Teach history -- both human and "natural," with the
aim of instilling a "time sense" and an historical and community
consciousness. Thus we might counteract the shrinking attention
span and historical sense, brought on, again, by the
"entertainment" driven mass media.
Instill a pride in free institutions, and the value of
In short, teach the next generation to do happily what we
recognize to be right, but are unwilling to do.
We can hear the complaints already: "Moral education? That's
nothing but indoctrination! You are proposing to invade the dignity
of the individuals." While this is often the case, it need not be.
The moral education of which I speak, is one, not of content
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.
(b) We must adopt policies that advantage both us and the
future -- and which are least burdensome to us. We might call
this "moral judo" -- using the strength of "the opponent" (i.e., our
self-interest) to the advantage of our objective (i.e., provision for
the future). It is also popularly known as "doing well by doing
good." On reflection, it seems that a remarkably large number of our
"duties to the future" benefit us and those we directly care about
(i.e., the next generation) -- e.g., pollution control,
population, global warming, etc.
(c) We should keep an informed eye on impending impacts, and
favor prevention over cure. "Earlier" is easier and
(d) And finally, we must choose policies that
will work, and
will be perceived to work, as they
The Cynic's Last Inning -- With
"How can we expect such a commitment to the future from a species
which produced the holocaust, the Stalinist purges, and the
narcissistic consumerism so widespread today?" We can only reply that
such responsibilities just might be met by a species which produced
the leaders of the American Revolution, Gandhi, King, Sakharov and
Mandella, along with the millions of "ordinary people" who
facilitated their peaceful victories.
I'd guess the chances of success as approximately the same as the
probability, fifteen years ago, of the fall of communism or the
election of a freely elected majority government in South Africa.
Clearly, an appropriate fulfillment of our responsibilities to the
future is not assured. Still worse, it may be quite unlikely. But it
is, at the very least, possible to some significant degree. And that
is all that is required for conscientious moral agents to act.
Copyright, 1994, by Ernest Partridge