Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge



"Justice Between Generations," according to John Rawls, is accomplished when each generation sets aside "savings" for the succeeding generation which serve to "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." Contrary to Rawls's principle of "just savings," I argue (a) that just provision for the future must involve a deliberate and informed concern for remote generations, as well as adjacent generations, and (b) that just provision must involve several additional dimensions not acknowledged by Rawls. Among these additional dimensions of just provision are: "just anticipation" by means of "impact studies," etc., "just forbearances" from causing future harm, and "just stewardship" of the planetary ecosystem.


"Just Savings." Midway through his book, A Theory of Justice2, in a section titled "the Problem of Justice Between Generations," John Rawls presents his "principle of just savings" according to which each generation should set aside a portion of its goods and preserve its advantages for the benefit of its immediate successors. "Just savings," writes Rawls, 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." (285) By "capital," Rawls means "not only factories and machines, and so on, but also the knowledge and culture, as well as the techniques and stills, that make possible just institutions and the fair values of liberty." (288)

Is this interpretation of "just savings" sufficiently far- sighted and broad in its requirements to encompass "justice between generations"? I will argue that it is neither. Instead, I will contend, several additional dimensions of duty to posterity must be included in any adequate policy of what I call "just provision" for the future. I will suggest, however, that a strong case for this broader interpretation of justice between generations might be made within the context of Rawls's own contract theory, and from the point of view of his "original position." But first, let us review the central tenets of Rawls's account of "just savings."

As noted above, Rawls contends that the primary burden of intergenerational duty is between adjacent generations. This follows from his provision that the parties in the original position "are regarded as representing family lines, say, with ties of sentiment between successive generations." (292) Thus, "their good will stretch over at least two generations. (128)3

Motivated by these circumstances in the original position, the parties will devise a schedule of "just savings," based upon what is perceived to be "reasonable for members of adjacent generations to expect of one another at each level of advance." (282)

A significant feature of this scheme of "just savings" is Rawls's proposal that "justice between generations" be enacted on a step by-step basis. Thus, each generation is to attempt to balance:

How much at each stage [of social and economic development] they would be willing to save for their immediate descendants against what they would feel entitled to claim of their immediate predecessors. Thus imagining themselves to be fathers, say, they are to ascertain how much they should set aside for their sons by noting what they would believe themselves entitled to claim of their fathers. When they arrive at an estimate that seems fair to both sides, with due allowance made for the improvement in their circumstances then the fair rate (or range of rates) for that state is specified. (289-90)

The next step is startling: "Once this is done for all stages, we have defined the just savings principle. When this principle is followed, adjacent generations cannot complain of one another; and in fact no generation can find fault with any other no matter how far removed in time." (290) If I read this correctly, Rawls seems to be claiming that just savings between adjacent generations will add up to justice among generations, however remote they might be, through the course of history.

What, then, are the rates and limits of "just savings?" Rawls replies that "how the burden of capital accumulation and of raising the standard of civilization and culture is to be shared between generations seems to admit of no definite answer." (286) But an admission that there is no "definite answer" need not entail the conclusion that there is no answer whatsoever, or "that certain bounds which impose significant ethical constraints cannot be formulated." (186) Very well, what then are the imprecise rules for establishing a fair rate of savings? Rawls argues that, in seeking this rate:

The persons in the original position are to ask themselves how much they would be willing to save at each stage of advance on the assumption that all other generations are to save at the same rates . . . In effect, then, they must choose a just savings principle that assigns an appropriate rate of accumulation to each level of advance. Presumably this rate changes depending upon the state of society. When people are poor and saving is difficult a lower rate of saving should be required; whereas in a wealthier society greater savings may reasonably be expected since the real burden is less. Eventually, once just institutions are firmly established the net accumulation required falls to zero. At this point a society meets its duty of justice by maintaining just institutions and preserving their material base. (287)

It is important to remember that, while each generation should save as much as is fair, it should not be called upon to save more than is fair. While each generation should contribute its fair share to the advancement of civilization toward the ideal, "well ordered," condition, each generation has the right to secure and protect its own interests and to pursue its own appropriate aims. In other words, generations "are not subordinate to one another any more than individuals are. The life of a people is conceived as a scheme of cooperation spread out in historical time. It is to be governed by the same conception of justice that regulates the cooperation of contemporaries." (289) It follows, then, that there is an "upper bound on how much a generation can be asked to save for the welfare of later generations . . . Each age is to do its fair share in achieving the conditions necessary for just institutions and the fair value of liberty; but beyond this more cannot be required." (298)


The Span of Responsibility. Rawls believes that, if each generation cares for the needs of its successor, the needs of remote generations will be met. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to find, in the current news, refuting cases which indicate that some technological innovations and social policies enacted during the past quarter century, and others now being contemplated, may result in both short-term advantages for some of our contemporaries and immediate successors, and devastating long-range effects upon remote generations. Such long-term effects, which are tied to their remote causes by quiet, continuing, and accumulating processes are called, by ecologists, "time-lag effects." [New and more timely examples and citations are needed here]. Consider some examples: First, a decision in this decade to invest heavily in nuclear fission energy will result in the production of highly toxic, long-lasting, radioactive by-products. Some of these substances (i.e., the actinides) must then be isolated from the biosphere for as long as 500,000 years.4 If, in the intervening time, a geological event should cause the release of these materials into the biosphere, the results could be catastrophic. The "time lag" between the disposal of these substances and their possible reappearance is unknown and unknowable. [Cite Routleys in P-RFG]

Another case concerns the accumulation of chlorofluorocarbons in the stratosphere. [CO2 and greenhouse effect may be a better and more timely case]. In the last three decades, several million tons of these compounds have been released into the atmosphere. Two chemists, Rowland and Molina, have speculated that chlorofluorocarbons, now irrevocably in the atmosphere, may drift up to the stratosphere where they will deplete the ozone shield that protects life forms from harmful ultraviolet radiation. If this is so, it is expected that the worst effects of ozone depletion might become evident well into the twenty-first century, which means that, due to "time-lag effect," the deadly results might affect neither the generation that introduced these substances into the atmosphere nor its immediate successor.5

A third case arises out of the current "fossil fuel subsidy." In the United States today, less than seven percent of the population feeds the other ninety-three percent, plus millions of individuals abroad. At the same time, prime agricultural land is being taken out of production. How is this possible? This is accomplished by the fact that for each unit of food energy produced, many units of energy are expended, in the form of fossil fuels, to produce the food. For example, natural gas and petroleum is used to produce and transport fertilizers, and to produce and operate heavy farm implements. Ecologist Kenneth Watt estimates that in the third quarter of this century, eleven million horses were retired from agricultural work. If all their pasturage had been converted to growing crops for human consumption (as it has not), this would produce food for about forty-four million persons.6 In India there is a corresponding conversion from bullock-power to tractor power, all this thanks to the "fossil fuel subsidy." Most interested geologists agree that, at present rates of use, petroleum reserves will be depleted in the twenty-first century. (The estimates range from thirty to one-hundred years.7 The implications are sobering in the extreme. Says Watt:

Mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble. . . The world can probably support between one and four billion people at the absolute outside without a fossil-fuel energy subsidy. My guess is that the number is closer to one billion. By the time we run out of this fossil fuel energy subsidy, there will be ten to twenty billion people in the world. Now suppose we run out of fossil fuel and it turns out that we don't have nuclear energy. What's going to happen during the period when we drop very suddenly, in about three years, from between ten and twenty billion people to between one and four. I'll let your imagination handle that problem.8

Mankind, at this moment, should be investing enormous resources in research and development in a determined and sustained effort to win this "gamble." At the moment, mankind is not. And world population continues to increase at a rate of 1.8 percent.

For our purposes, the interested point here is that the catastrophe predicted by Watt might not affect us or our loved ones in the next generation, and, according to Rawls's principle of just savings, we should take for ourselves and our immediate successors the advantages won by the fossil fuel subsidy and leave it to later generations to find a solution to this catastrophic emergency that they will likely have neither the time nor the resources to solve.

Technological and ecological policy dilemmas similar to these are outlined in the Club of Rome's influential and controversial studies, The Limits to Growth9 and Mankind at the Turning Point.10 [Cite additionally, or perhaps instead, "Global 2,000]. The methods and findings of these studies are too complex and broad to be cited in detail. However, virtually all the scenarios converge on this stark conclusion; unless the current generation (a) institutes a series of radical political and economic reforms, (b) accepts stringent curtailments upon prevailing consumption habits, (c) adopts policies a of technological caution and forbearance, and (d) adopts values consonant with ecological laws and planetary finitude, persons living three and four generations hence will face catastrophes of unimaginable magnitude and severity. (Several models in the first study, The Limits of Growth, show the time of collapse to be near the coming turn of the century, and well within the lifetime of the next generation. Provision against these contingencies falls within the scope of Rawls's principle of just savings. However, those models that show collapse beyond the time of the next generation cause difficulty for Rawls's principle).

Each of the above cases, and many more, suggest plausible accounts of how careless and callous disregard of present trends and practices might have devastating results beyond the lifetime of the next two generations. In each case, these disasters might be prevented or minimized with sacrifices to the present and the next generation that are relatively minuscule when assessed alongside the predicted catastrophes. Clearly, then, an optimum course of long-term policy is not necessarily accomplished by splicing together a series of short-term advantages. A "caring" for adjacent generations does not automatically "add up" to justice to all generations. Rawls has advised us that when putative principles sufficiently violate "considered moral judgments," a review of these principles, and the conditions in the original position which produced the, may be in order. I suggest that these projections outlined above are sufficiently plausible and grave to require a re-assessment of Rawls's limitation of responsibility to the future to immediately adjacent generations.


The Trouble with "Savings." Rawls's choice of the term "just savings" may incline the reader of his book to believe that provision for the future involves resources which, like the proverbial cake, may be "had" now or kept until later but not both. In many cases (e.g., that of depletable natural resources) this describes the circumstance precisely. However, in still other cases, the "cake paradigm" manifestly does not apply. Rawls acknowledges some of these non-depletable "savings" (e.g., the preservation of culture and the maintenance of just institutions). Others he does not.

Consider first the cultural "capital" described by Rawls; i.e., the "gains of culture and civilization" and just institutions. Surely these are not "saved" by setting them aside. They are not "used up" as they are employed and utilized. Quite the contrary, the more knowledge, skills, artistic expression, scientific research, and just institutions are "used," the more valuable they become through use. To be sure, some investment in buildings, printing, education, and so forth is necessary to maintain these cultural assets (as is well-known by any informed taxpayer or city manager or school superintendent seeking to meet his budget). Even so, in most cases societies best "save" and "preserve" such institutions by utilizing them for their own benefit.

There are additionally, some essential modes of provision for the future about which Rawls has little to say, and which can only with considerable verbal license be called "savings." We will now consider just a few of these.

Just Anticipations. According to the time-honored rule that "ought implies can," moral responsibility toward the future applies to circumstances which the agent can foresee and affect. This presents something of a paradox for our generation. On the one hand, with the rapid acceleration of scientific knowledge and the dramatic increase of technological capability, the time span of reliable foresight and the scale of significant social, ecological and technological impact have, in some cases, greatly expanded. Paradoxically, the accelerating pace and multiplying facets of social and technological change and innovation have, in other instances, contracted the range of our foresight and the scope of effective intentional provision for the future. (It is not my purpose here to identify and distinguish the expanded and the contracted areas of action and foresight). To the degree that those alive and active are capable both of forecasting and affecting the life conditions of the future, and furthermore of deliberately expanding the scope of this knowledge and control, to that degree they acquire a moral responsibility that I would call "just anticipation." Examples of such a duty would 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. These sacrifices, which are assumed by the living for the sake of those yet to be born, are appropriately regarded as instances of "just provision" for the future. It seems conceptually inappropriate, however, to apply Rawls's term of "just savings" to such anticipations. After all, what, in such cases, is being "saved."?

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. In our earlier discussion of nuclear waste, ozone depletion and "the limits of growth," [?still applicable?] we considered some "distant early warnings" and the implied duties to act immediately to forestall impending and ecological disasters and to escape technological traps.

Just Forbearance. As often as not "future studies" (or "anticipations) will indicate what we must not do, rather than what we might do. 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. [Apply to CO2 and fossil fuels?] Nuclear fission power may offer a parallel case. A 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. (I will have much more to say about this in the next section.)11

In the duty of "just forbearance," then, the prevailing rule is "preserve the options." Writes Delattre; "It seems fairly clear that no generation should needlessly foreclose the decisions of future generations by destroying the options which would be available to them under sustaining environmental conditions."12 Like "just anticipation," the concept of "just forbearance" seems to be well beyond Rawls's confining notion of "just savings," as explicated in his discussion of "Justice Between Generation." (#44)13


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 them 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 system. How well does Rawls articulate and defend this crucial dimension of "just provision for the future?" Not well at all. My most extensive remarks will be devoted to a defense of that charge.

Before we continue with this examination of the level of Rawls's "environmental consciousness," a caveat is in order. It is all too easy, by succumbing to an overabundance of ecological enthusiasm, to be unfair to Rawls.14 In writing A Theory of Justice he did not, after all, attempt to articulate a metaphysics of nature. Nor did he need to. In a careful paragraph late in the book (512), Rawls reminds us that "a theory of justice" does not encompass the question of "right conduct in regard to animals and nature." Rather, "justice," as Rawls states in his opening page, "is the first virtue of social institutions." (3) Thus, for Rawls, the subject of justice is "the basic structure of society" (7), particularly "the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens of social cooperation." (4) Accordingly, "justice between generations" deals with principles which guide social and institutional provision for future generations, particularly as these rules articulate the intergenerational "distribution of benefits and burdens." The relevance of an "ecological conscience" to these issues may be indirect at best.

And yet, "the ecological facts of life," unlike "ecological morality," are not irrelevant to the question of "just provision" for the future. Such facts, qua objective and general facts, are available for consideration in the original position. More significantly, these are facts which bear directly upon the needs of future persons, their life circumstances, and the ability of the present generation to foresee and to affect the quality of future life. It follows that, in drawing upon the rules of "justice between generations," the parties in the original position will be well advised to review the facts and laws of life-support (viz, the science of ecology), and to have their rules of "just provision" reflect the implications of these "ecological facts of life." Similarly, as we simulate the deliberations in the original position, we will be well-advised to confine our attention to hard and relevant ecological facts and laws, and to be wary of the ill-grounded ideological and metaphysical claims of "the environmental movement." Only thus might "just stewardship" be appropriately added to the roster of "just provision."

Very well, with these precautions on the record, let us examine Rawls's approach to nature as a "life support resource," and the adequacy of this approach in the context of ecological facts and laws, and the consequent integration thereof into the "ecological point of view."

Rawls and Nature. While Rawls gives little direct attention to ecological issues, he does, in the course of his long book, leave clues as to his covert attitude toward nature and the moral significance thereof. Many of these attitudes appear to be at considerable variance with key components of what I will call "the ecological point of view." The following are a few of the ecologically significant attitudes that I detect in A Theory of Justice. [Confine this to points relevant to POP's!]

(a) "The Infinite Earth." We may assume, of course, that Rawls understands that the earth has limited space and resources. Yet, in careless moments, he writes as if this were not the case. For instance, we read of just societies and their institutions "preserving their material base" (288) as if this were a steady- state enterprise, unaffected by resource depletion and dispersal. In point of fact, the earth's resources are finite and are being used up, and these are facts which have direct bearing upon population policies and other provision for the future. Yet, in Rawls's discussion of "just savings," the topics of resource depletion and population policy is scarcely, if ever, raised.

(b) Man as Apart From Nature. Man, writes Paul Shepard, "did not arrive in the world as though disembarking from a train in the city"15 On the contrary, if the evolutionists and ecologists are to be believed, our bodies and brains have developed through constant interaction with our physical environment and within the life community of which we are a part. From the DNA in each of our cells to the sea water in our blood stream we are the result of countless natural experiments through two billion years of "research and development." And yet, in a brief and solitary remark late in his book, concerning "right conduct in regard to nature," Rawls expresses, quite clearly, his belief that a theory of justice can be stated apart from a consideration of man's natural condition. "A correct conception of our relations to animals and to nature," he writes, "would seem to depend upon a theory of the natural order and our place in it." (512) Such a theory is not presented by Rawls and coordinated with his theory of justice. Instead, as noted earlier, he remarks that the question of "the natural order and our place in it" is a separate, and separable, issue, and he gives it no further attention. But "nature" feeds us! "Human nature" is a part of nature-in-general. If nature is disordered, so too is mankind, his society, his institutions. Moreover, it is within our capability either to preserve or destroy the diversity and integrity of nature and thus the prospects of our successors. All this would be known to the parties in the original position and would influence their deliberations concerning "justice between generations." Yet Rawls believes that he can leave, unstated, a "theory of the natural order and our place in it."16

(c) Environmental goods are not included in Rawls's list of "savables" to be set aside, and/or preserved for the benefit of future generations. As we will recall, Rawls's inventory includes "the gains of culture and civilization," "just institutions," "real capital accumulation" (e.g., "machinery and other means of production," "investment in learning and education"). (285) Missing from this list are such bequests as abundant land (i.e., not overpopulated), unspoiled wilderness, clean air and water, an ozone shield in the stratosphere, the absence of radioactive wastes in the lithosphere, and so forth. Interestingly, as I pointed out in the previous section, just provision for these goods is less a matter of "savings" and more a matter of "anticipation" and "forbearance," and perhaps "restitution" as well.

(d) A flourishing ecosystem is not a primary good to Rawls. The primary goods, says Rawls, are those goods that would be desired whatever else might be desired. These include, of course, the "goods" that sustain all other goods. Now we can assume that a wise and knowledgeable contractor (e.g., a party in the original position) would not fail to "desire" that which he clearly and objectively needed. Furthermore, it should be clear that none of the primary goods listed by Rawls, either "natural" or "social" could be obtained on a ruined planet; not health, not vigor, not liberty, not opportunity, not wealth. Rawls's primary goods sustain the various individual personal goods, but a functioning ecosystem sustains the primary goods. Thus it is the most "primary" of these primary goods. With all general knowledge at their disposal, surely the parties in the original position would know this. Rawls, however, has neglected to take note of this crucial fact and its implications.


An Alternative: The Ecological Perspective. The ecological point of view opposes Rawls on each point outlined above. Drawing from the hard facts and prevailing concepts and laws of ecology, the science of the structure, function, and maintenance of life communities, this position holds: (a) the earth is finite, containing a limited number of resources and importing only the radiant energy from the sun from which all life-supporting energy is derived either directly or indirectly. (b) Man is an integral part of nature, and thus cannot be adequately understood apart from nature. In other words, a part of the world ecosystem (e.g., human society) can best be understood only in terms of the whole life system. (c) No human goods can be obtained and sustained without the support of a thriving ecosystem; thus (d) responsible provision for the future implies a preservation of such an ecosystem. The empirical basis of these tenets seem firm, and thus this "ecological point of view" would be appropriately considered in the original position.

Beyond the science of ecology we move on to the rich, provocative, and timely topic of "ecological ethics."17 It would be tempting to move ahead and to explore this fascinating issue. However, as indicated at the opening of this section, this is a temptation that must be resisted, lest we be drawn far away from the issue and concerns of this paper. Instead, we will examine a few clear and prominent implications of environmental science [the ecological point of view] (as sketched above) for the issue of "justice between generations," and the challenge raised thereby for Rawls's just savings principle.


Just Provision and the Ecological Point of View. It should not be difficult, at this point, to anticipate how the parties in the original position might, with the facts, laws and concepts of ecology at hand, formulate rules of "just stewardship." The basic, prevailing rule would be: "Preserve the Ecosystem!" This means, in turn, "preserve the stability of the system." Furthermore, since, according to ecological law, stability is a function of species diversity, the basic maxim implies that species diversity also be protected. In addition, a policy of ecosystem maintenance would entail a protection of the system from chemical and physical disruption; for instance, atmospheric and soil standards must be determined and sustained, nutrient cycles kept intact, foreign and toxic substances quarantined, etc. Once again, "just stewardship" can be seen to incorporate and enrich our earlier concepts of "just anticipation" and "just forbearance."

[Possibly a new sub-section here: "Beyond Just Provision: Rawls and the Ecological Conscience. Note that "ecological conscience" goes beyond questions of justice, thus Rawls is not to blame for omissions. Cf. "Justice" file, also Hubin/Wick comments and my replies].

Is there room for accommodation? How does the duty of "just stewardship" stand against Rawls's "just savings principle" (i.e., the duty to save the gains of culture, just institutions, and material and non-material "capital")? Superficially, there appears to be no direct inconsistency, but this is only because Rawls has articulated his "savables" in high levels of abstraction. Once we begin to specify the content of these "gains of culture" and of this "capital," we might encounter conflicts aplenty. But beyond these areas of possible disagreement, there is the pervasive matter of priority. "Duty to the ecosystem" appears nowhere in Rawls's system and, even worse, seems not to be derivable therefrom. To the ecological moralist, this duty is one of supreme importance. This difference alone would be certain to raise fundamental disagreements between a Rawlsian policy of "just savings" and an ecologist's program of "just stewardship." [Marginal Note: Some possible problems in this par. (WW's "new religion" again?). Why is "duty to ecosystem" missing in ATJ? Because it is not a matter of justice? Or is it? Only to the degree that ecology affects community of persons in the circumstances of justice (the subject of justice)]

Is there no possibility of a compromise? Again, superficially it seems that there might be. It is difficult, however, to conceive of a full accommodation and synthesis of justice as fairness and the ecological ethic. Perhaps some convergence might be accomplished if Rawls would include "maintenance of the ecosystem" on his index of primary goods. Since there is strong and, I believe, sufficient empirical evidence to support the idea that a functioning ecosystem is necessary to most, and perhaps all, of Rawls's primary goods, it is hard to imagine how he could further deny its presence on the list. Put another way, the parties in the original position may be presumed to be aware of the general laws of ecology and the biological prerequisites of human life and health. Accordingly, if what I have sketched about the ecological perspective is valid, and if the parties would, in fact, have concern for the welfare of all generations, it follows then that a rational policy of just provision would necessarily encompass a duty to preserve the integrity of the ecosystem -- the life community of this planet.18

But even this is not enough for the ecological moralist, since the best that Rawls could do, I suspect, would be to acknowledge that a well functioning ecosystem is the supreme instrumental good; i.e., that it is a matter of the highest human importance to keep the planetary life-support system in operating order. The ecological moralist, however, requires more. He would insist that the life community be treated with respect, reverence, and love; that is to say, that it be regarded as an intrinsic good. [And this is how "the new religion" goes beyond justice]. Anything less will lead to a policy of prolonged, but eventually ruinous, exploitation.19 Thus, he argues, we must not simply acknowledge the need for nature as a "primary good guarantor," we must also understand that we need the presence of unspoiled nature as an aesthetic and spiritual resource and that advanced human culture cannot endure in a totally domesticated, artificial environment. In other words, the ecological moralist might insist that the so-called "leisure," "recreational," "spiritual," and "aesthetic" "uses (!) of nature are more than pleasant and enriching diversions. They are, at their base, primary needs and primary goods.20

This is the step that Rawls would almost surely resist. If we allow the aesthetic preferences of a Henry David Thoreau, or a John Muir, or a David Brower, on the list of primary goods, how then are we to exclude, as Rawls requires, any personal conception of the good? And unless there are no such exceptions, how can there be any agreements in the original position? Furthermore, even if principles are agreed to, how could these principles of right be said to be prior to, and constraints upon, the "good?"21

Justice as fairness, I suggest, may be caught in a difficult dilemma here. The acceptance of "ecosystem maintenance" onto the list of primary goods may not secure an extensive and abundant future for mankind if the ecosystem is considered to be nothing more than the basic instrument of human survival. (This, at least, is the contention of such ecologically sensitive writers as Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Hugh Iltis, and others.) On the other hand, if the stronger concept of "earth loyalty" (i.e., of nature as an intrinsic good) is introduced into the original position, the essentially anthropocentric and formal premises supporting the principles of just savings will be severely compromised. [and the topic extended beyond useful scope] It is difficult to imagine what the final dialectical outcome of such a radical revision might be. Earlier we decided not to pursue the fascinating digression of ecological ethics. That decision now obliges us to leave this controversy unresolved. Suffice it to say that surely some ecological facts of life, and possibly a few ecological values, entail a perspective upon and a duty to the future that far transcends "just savings" to our immediate successors - the policy advocated by Rawls.


"Just Savings and just Provision." If my argument has been persuasive, then it would appear that the range of appropriately "just" responses to the needs and rights of future generations cannot be contained in Rawls's principle of "just savings." Yet, even within the restricted realm of "savings," there is a large and persistent question: "savings" of what? Of Goods? Resources? Machinery? Mores? Social Structures? Institutions? The needs vary according to the time and circumstances of history. Thus we are led to ask: What rules and principles are to guide our selection from this inventory of "savables?" And when we extend the realm of provision for the future to include anticipations, forbearances, stewardship, etc., the problem expands accordingly. I will not, of course, attempt in this brief space to answer this question. I might, however, close with one suggestion. The various modes of just provision (i.e., savings, anticipation, forbearance, stewardship, etc.) have variable "cost- benefit ratios." As historical and social circumstances differ, some types of provision will yield more benefits for posterity at reduced costs to the living. Indeed, some types of provision enjoy a favorable cost-benefit ratio in almost any condition of society. The preservation of just institutions may be the best example of this. Furthermore, risk-aversion, a factor of great significance to Rawls's theory (169), would suggest the favoring of a policy of "just anticipation" and "just forbearance."

All too soon, I must terminate this analysis of provision for the future "beyond just savings." It is merely a superficial sketch of the sort of critical work that must be done by policy analysts, social theorists, social planners, and moral philosophers if we are to obtain a manageable conceptual grasp of the issue of the duty to posterity. Rawls has chosen to focus his attention on only a portion of the conceptual realm of justice between generations. As I have argued elsewhere,22 I am convinced that he did not need to so limit his argument and conclusion. Within his general theory, I believe, may be found abundant means with which to devise a much more broad, inclusive and compelling principle of just provision for future generations. To do this, he need only acknowledge and explicate, in the original position and in the conditions of ordinary life, the need of all well-functioning human beings to identify and be personally concerned with the flourishing of communities, projects, artifacts and ideals which transcend immediate, personal, and selfish interests. Unfortunately, I haven't the space here to elaborate upon this concept of "self transcendent concern," and its application to the question of just provision for future generations.23




1. A briefer version of this paper was read at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, San Francisco, March, 1978. Much of this material is drawn from 32, 41, and 42 of my doctoral dissertation, Rawls and the Duty to Posterity (University of Utah, 1976).  The paper has benefited from suggestions of Clayton Hubin, Warner Wick and John Rawls  I gratefully acknowledge assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities during preparation of the APA colloquium paper.

2.. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971). Henceforth, all references to this work will be cited within parentheses in the body of the paper.

3. Elsewhere, I have argued that Rawls's "heads of families" condition is untenable in that it is (a) in violation of his requirements of generality and universality (Cf. Rawls, \#23), (b) has no warrant in his theory apart from its intended function of promoting concern for "saving" for the succeeding generation (i.e., it is an ad hoc assumption) and (c) still worse, it fails reliably to perform even this intended motivational function in the original position. [Cite Inquiry paper if possible. If not, P-RDP \#39]. In Part II of the present paper I discuss yet another reason for rejecting the "heads of families condition," namely that even if allowed in the original position, this motivational assumption leads to unacceptable consequences.

4. William H. Millert and Albert J. Fritsch, Nuclear Energy: The Morality of Our National Policy, CSPI Energy Series IV (Washington: Center for Science in the Public Interest), pp. 41- 47. [Use more recent examples and citations].

5. Paul Brodeur, "Inert," The New Yorker (April 7, 1975), p. 48. [Use more recent examples and citations].

6. Kenneth Watt, "Whole Earth," Earth Day-The Beginning, New York: Bantam, 1970, p. 9.

7. Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power, New York: Bantam, 1977.

8. Watt, op. cit., 10-1

9. Donella Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens, III, The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe, 1972. [Use more recent examples and citations. Try "Global 2,000"].

10. Mihajlo Mesarovic and Edward Pestel, Mankind at the Turning Point (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974).

11. From a broader perspective than that of the environmentalist, Daniel Callahan offers a suggestive set of general rules of "just forbearance": "(a) Do nothing which could jeopardize the very existence of future generations. (b) Do nothing which could jeopardize the possibility of future generations exercising those fundamental rights necessary for a life of human dignity. (c) If it seems necessary, in the interest of the existing rights of the living , to behave in ways which could jeopardize the equivalent rights of those yet to be born, do so in that way which would as far as possible minimize the jeopardy. (d) When trying to determine whether present behavior will in fact jeopardize future life calculate in as responsible and sensitive a manner as one would in trying to determine whether an act with uncertain consequences would be harmful to one's own children. If you would not conjure up the possibility of magical solutions occurring to save your own children at the last moment from the harmful consequences of your gambling with the future, do not do so even with future generations." "What Obligations Do We Have to Future Generations?" [Cite in P-RFG].

12. Edwin Delattre, "Rights, Responsibilities and Future Persons." Ethics 82 (April, 1972), p. 256. In only one instance, concerning "genetic endowments," does Rawls hint at the question of "just forbearance." Early in his book he writes: "In the original position . . . the parties want to insure for their descendants the best genetic endowment (assuming their own to be fixed). The pursuit of reasonable policies in this regard is something that earlier generations owe to later ones, this being a question that arises between generations." (108) However, after a few additional comments, Rawls announces that he will "not pursue this thought further." Unfortunately, he is as good as his word.

13. In fairness to Rawls, however it should be noted that "just forbearance" is clearly, albeit briefly, suggested in his earlier discussion of the "principles of insufficient reason." There he writes of "the desire to have one's decision appear responsible to one's descendants who will be affect by it. He continues:

We are more reluctant to take great risks for them than for ourselves; and we are wiling to do so only when there is no way to avoid these uncertainties, or when the probable gains, as estimated by objective information, are so large that it would appear to them irresponsible to have refused the chance offered even though accepting it should actually turn out badly. (169)

14. I confess that I did just that in an earlier draft of this paper. I am grateful to Warner Wick for bringing this excess to my attention.

15. Paul Shepard, "Ecology and Man - a Viewpoint." The Subversive Science, edited by Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), p. 4.

16. Lawrence Tribe [(rev) also questions Rawls's willingness to "reason about human society only, leaving aside all questions of what might be called 'ecological morality' despite the possible (and indeed plausible) inseparability of the two at some important levels" (earlier draft qted this in text)]. "Policy Science: Analysis or Ideology?" Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2 (Fall 1972), p. 94.

17. A definitive contemporary ecological ethic (incorporating modern philosophical concepts and current scientific data) has not, to my knowledge, been written. Many biologists have the inclination but lack the philosophical skills to do it, while the philosophers who might have the capability, have not displayed the interest or inclination to approach the topic. A noteworthy exception is Holmes Rolston's suggestive and illuminating paper, "Is there an Ecological Ethic?" Ethics, 85 (January 1975), pp. 93-109. Rolston presents some of the significant problems, opportunities, and insights to be found in an ecological approach to ethics. [This note is dated: THOROUGHLY revise it]

18. Marginal Note: Try this: Does the ecologist have anything to tell Rawls -- to require changes in "justice as fairness"? Not in the sense of extending justice as fairness to encompass the "ecological point of view," for then it would expand beyond the conceptual realm of "justice." But ecological data and insights are relevant to the POP's as they devise rules of justice, particularly between generations. That is our problem.

19. Joseph Wood Krutch writes: "The wisest, the most enlightened, and most remotely long-seeing exploitation of resources is not enough, for the simple reason that the whole concept of exploitation is so false and so limited that in the end it will defeat itself and the earth will have been plundered, no matter how scientifically and farseeingly the plundering has been done." Krutch seems to be saying that man's best interest, paradoxically, is not in acting directly in his own best interest, but in acting out of love, respect, and reverence for the community of nature as an intrinsic good "Conservation is Not Enough." The American Scholar, 23, No. 3 (Summer 1954), pp. 297-298.

20. Consider the following suggestions of botanist Hugh Iltis:

May we not say that the best human environment is one in which the human animal can have maximum contact with the type of natural environment in which it evolved and for which it is genetically programmed without sacrificing the major advantages of civilization; that is, does not the optimum modern environment require a compromise between our genetic heritage, which we cannot deny, and the fruits of civilization, which we are loath to give up? . . . Every basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning access to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100 million years . . . We, who are Darwin's grandchildren, can thus easily appreciate that, like the need for love, the need of nature, the need for its diversity and beauty, has a genetic basis. We cannot reject nature from our lives because we cannot change our genes.

Hugh Iltis, "To the Taxonomist and the Ecologist: Whose Fight is the Preservation of Nature" BioScience (December 1967), p. 887. (Emphasis in original).

21. Concerning the exclusion of personal goods in the original position, see Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 31, 137.

22. In Chapter VII of my doctoral dissertation, Rawls and the Duty to Posterity (University of Utah, 1976).



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 .