Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge

Weber State College
Ogden, Utah

Read by proxy at the Semi-Annual Meeting of the
Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.
Utah State University, March 24, 1978.



In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls notes that, in the course of history, the first generation capable of saving for its successors receives no compensating benefits from its predecessors, while the last generation to require savings from its predecessors need not give in turn to its successors. Rawls is concerned that such circumstances might be deemed unjust. (Because he believes that such a situation is historically inevitable, Rawls does not believe it is unjust.) I argue, on quite different grounds, that Rawls's qualms are unfounded in that (a) no generation can be identified as the "first" in Rawls's sense, and (b) due to resource depletion and entropy, no generation in a civilized condition can ever be absolved of a duty to save for its successors.

In his examination of the question of justice between generations, John Rawls expresses concern that a continuous policy of "just savings" between generations might be thought to be unjust to the first and last generations in the historical sequence in which such savings would seem to be required (A Theory of Justice, § 44).2  The first generation would be called upon to save without enjoying the benefits of prior savings, while the last would receive without being required to save in turn (288). Rawls sees the resolution to these apparent injustices in the unalterable fact that there must be a beginning and an end to the sequence. Since the circumstance is inevitable, there is no moral issue involved. Rawls's tone, however, is one of uncertainty, as if he expects that the problem might crop up again to trouble his theory.

It seems to me that Rawls's misgivings about just treatment of the first and last generations are quite unfounded. In this regard, at least, Rawls's principle of just savings faces no difficulty whatever, although his belief that it might suggests some misconceptions in his account of justice between generations. In this paper I will examine some interpretations of the "first and last generations," and I will argue that in no case need they trouble Rawls's principle of just savings. (Other aspects of Rawls's account of "justice between generations" face serious difficulties, I believe, but these questions are outside the scope of this particular paper.)

The First Generation. Rawls's qualms concerning the "first generation" can, I believe, be dismissed by defending the seemingly audacious proposal: that there never was a "first generation". But, one might argue, if generations succeed one another in time, there must be a first member of this sequence. I submit that there is no more reason to so argue than to accent either alternative to the ancient schoolboy puzzle: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" We can, with but a minimal understanding of organic evolution and with a modest endowment of verbal sophistication, comprehend that chickens and eggs evolved concomitantly and gradually from more primitive origins; i.e., proto-fowls, reptiles, fish, and protozoa.

So, too, with human communities. Advanced contemporary civilizations, presently in conditions of "moderate scarcity" (and thus subject to Rawls's “special conception of justice") were preceded by communities facing "acute scarcity" (under the "general conception of justice"). Before that, presumably, there was a state of barbarism, preceded by savagery, preceded by . . . by what? At what identifiable moment in history do we locate a "first generation" to be capable of "just savings": among the Australopithecines?, Homo Erectus?, the first settled agricultural villages?, before or after the invention of writing?

I submit that the "circumstances of justice" evolve continuously out of more primitive conditions and that, while we might well identify their absence (in a prehistoric hunting band) or their presence (in an industrial state), we are hard-pressed to locate their emergence in any given generation. The case is analogous with that of individual development. Most persons are capable by the age of (say) thirty of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship. Few five year olds have this ability. At what particular time does a given individual acquire civic responsibility? The answer is at no particular time! Only because of social and legal convenience (or necessity) do we fix the age, by law, at eighteen.

Analogously, there are, in human history, generations so primitive and savage that "just savings' are inconceivable, impossible, and thus (of course) not required. In contrast, under most extant circumstances in civilized societies, moral personalities feel and act upon a duty to provide for future persons. However, it is neither possible nor necessary to identify a specific stage of development at which a rule of "just savings" at once applies in a hypothetical "first generation".

"The Last Generation". Rawls believes that there may be injustice in the occasion of a "last generation" receiving "just savings" when, by definition, it need not in turn make provision for its successors. We immediately face a difficulty here in that the term "last generation" is ambiguous. That is to say, the generation in question may be "final" in three distinct senses. Two of these senses are suggested by T.S. Eliot's lines:

This is the way the world ends . . .
Not with a bang, but a whimper.3

The third possibility is that the generation reaching a suitable level of affluence (i.e., supporting "the conditions of justice") will be the "last generation" required to save, although there will be many generations thereafter that will not face this responsibility.

In the first two cases (i.e. the "bang scenario" and the "whimper scenario"), the "last generations" can not properly be described as "receiving unjustly" the savings of the predecessors, not if these generations are the last to exist, and not if they are the last to enjoy a sufficient material standard of living to support a civilized condition and the circumstances of justice. While I have defended this contention elsewhere, I am obliged by space restrictions in this paper to set aside my supporting arguments.
4 Fortunately for our purposes, Rawls does not deal either with the "bang" or with the "whimper" scenarios, it is the third sense of the "last generation" (call it the "utopian scenario") that he intends. Accordingly, the remainder of my critical remarks will be directed thereto.

In Rawls's account, the "last generation" is neither the last generation to live under the circumstances of justice, or the last generation to exist at all. Rather, he perceives this generation as having attained sufficient material well-being and institutional justice that no further saving is
required to advance the circumstances of justice. While Rawls is quite explicit about this point in A Theory of Justice (287, 290), a fuller expression thereof appears in his recent paper "Fairness to Goodness." There he writes:

The target of the savings process is said to be a sufficient material base for making the equal liberties effective. Beyond this point justice requires no further accumulation of wealth and net savings may drop to zero. Of course, it is still necessary that social capital be preserved and the difference principle satisfied. But this principle can be met statically; that is, it does not enjoin a continual increase in the general level of wealth but only that the existing (and possibly constant) social product be distributed in a certain way. . . . Here it suffices to note that the just savings principle does not enjoin an unending accumulation process.5

While human civilization might well achieve a point of affluence such that no further accumulation should be required, I can not agree that this would terminate the requirement for future generations to make "just savings." Indeed, I will argue that, with such an attainment, savings would have to continue to increase, just to maintain this adequate minimum "well-ordered" state of society.

It might be useful at this point to remind ourselves just what it is that Rawls believes should be "saved" for future generations. There are, he says, three basic sorts of entities to be "saved":

Each generation must not only preserve the gains of culture and civilization, and maintain intact those just institutions that have been established, but it must also put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of real capital accumulation. Thus savings may take various forms from net investment in machinery and other means of production to investment in learning and education. (285)

Rawls does not suggest, then, that the "last generation" is totally relieved of the responsibility to "save." He asserts only that the further amassing of material wealth drops off the list of duties to future generations. Says Rawls: "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)

I submit that the "last generation" to receive "just savings" of material wealth will, in its duty to preserve and maintain its just institutions, its level of culture and civilization, and the given level of material well-being, face a burden of "just savings" no less heavy than that of its predecessors. Furthermore, it is a burden that will continue, and perhaps increase, in perpetuity.

If my contention is correct, Rawls has erred in suggesting that there is a "last generation," beyond which "no further saving is enjoined." (290) What is the basis of this error? It is, I suggest, a disregard of two fundamental and unalterable physical facts: (a) the human race lives on a finite planet and is sustained by diminishing resources, and (b) human societies, like all complex systems, are subject to the thermodynamic principle of entropy – the tendency of systems to move from states of low to high probability, from complexity to simplicity, from high to low potentiality. Let's turn first to the problem of resources.

Consider again Rawls's suggestion that "net savings may drop to zero" once a "sufficient material base" is achieved to maintain just institutions.
6  But what, ultimately, supplies "the material base?" The economy of the community? Or is it the Earth itself? Rawls quite correctly acknowledges (implicitly at least), that for the circumstance of "moderate scarcity" to obtain, some degree of civilized technology must be available -- e.g., metallurgy, agricultural implements, and an energy surplus sufficient to free enough persons from food production to support complex institutions of government, distribution, research, education, etc. Unfortunately, the energy and material resources required to sustain civilized life are constantly being depleted, leaving less concentrated and less accessible deposits. The increased cost of resource development and extraction can be offset by improved technologies, but this in turn requires greater investments in education, research and development. The prospect may not, however, be ultimately dismal if civilization moves toward what Kenneth Boulding calls a "spaceship economy" based upon a recycling of material resources. However, even this will require a perpetual import into the economy of abundant and cheap energy.7

I will not prolong what could be an extensive discussion of this point. Suffice it to say that, even if a "well-ordered society" is attained, the problem of "maintaining the material base," so casually treated by Rawls, will require constant, determined, and generous investment for the foreseeable future if the interests of future generations are to be met.

But haven't I given myself away with that phrase "for the foreseeable future"? May there not, in fact, be a time, however remote, when some generation will inherit a well functioning "spaceship economy" based upon zero population growth, a recycling of resources and nutrients, and an inexhaustible supply of solar and fusion energy? Would this not be a "last generation" in Rawls's sense, a generation no longer required to make material provision for its successors? I would reply that this generation (and its successors) might no longer be required to "save" material resources only if they continued to make considerable investments in maintaining the necessarily complex social and technological organizations requisite for such a "steady-state economy." This perpetual investment in maintenance (for the sake of future generations!) would be considerable. Why? To answer this question, we must turn next to the concept of entropy.

Social and moral philosophers have long recognized that justice is a fragile condition that requires constant effort to maintain. Thus, in The Republic (Books VIII and IX), Plato described the "inevitable" downfall of the just state. Jefferson, in a commonly quoted remark, once said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty". This ancient insight was given scientific foundation by Norberto Wiener in his brilliant little book, The Human Use of Human Beings.
8 In the book, Wiener explains that, according to the second law of thermodynamics, viable and growing organisms and communities are capable of maintaining and increasing their organizational complexity by drawing energy from their environments and thus swimming against the universal stream of entropy. Organization is maintained by "regulative feedback" whereby "effector organs" (or institutions) advise "controlling organs" (e.g. the nervous system, or governments) of the success or failure of control ("executive'') messages. Of particular interest to us is the fundamental rule that the more complex the system, the more proportional the energy that is required for "regulative feedback" and control mechanisms to maintain the growth, or homeostasis, of the system (i.e., to counteract entropy -- the universal tendency toward disorder, decay, and low potentiality).

The relevance of all this to the issue of the stability and preservation of Rawls's "well ordered society" is obvious. (Indeed, it is manifested in the very term "well ordered"). Due to the fundamental laws of thermodynamics, there can in principle be no time at which "no further savings" will be required. Increasing amounts of resources and energy must be consumed simply to maintain the systemic integrity of the civilized condition. But is this fair to Rawls? Hasn't he granted that organization (in "just institutions" and in civilization and culture) must be maintained, but only that, beyond a certain point, further accumulation of wealth need not be developed? Indeed he has. But he has further suggested that this point in human history marks a watershed at which a presumed drop in investments for future generations will be such that one might raise the question of the "justice" of this "last generation" receiving, without giving, "just savings."

I contend that there never shall be such a generation. As civilization moves toward a utopian "well ordered" stage, based upon an adequate minimum wealth for all (according to the difference principle), capital investments for increasing future per capita wealth will, of course, decrease in stages to zero. However, as this occurs, an offsetting investment must be made in governmental, technological, educational, and other institutional means for maintaining the order for subsequent generations. If resources continue to be drawn from depletable sources, these "savings" will necessarily increase and eventually no savings will be sufficient to forestall forever a final depletion and the collapse of civilization. However, if human civilization utilizes the few remaining decades of raw resource availability to establish a "steady state" cyclical economy, such an economy will likely require a quantum increase in organization and consequently a still heavier investment in institutions, technology, and education for "regulative feedback" In neither case is there any prospect for an end to "just savings'. Furthermore, it could be very dangerous ever to believe otherwise!

To be sure, the term "regulative feedback" has an ominous ring to it and raises the ever-present problem of liberty vs. control. After all, the organization and control needed to sustain the economy and the just institutions of Rawls's well ordered society" could evolve into another
sort of "order" quite as complex – an order of a Fascistic 'Brave New World" such as that described by Huxley. To avoid this eventuality, considerable investments would be required to maintain diversified, balanced, and just controls and regulations. Such investments would include the establishment and maintenance of institutional "checks and balances" (e.g., courts and legal systems), social monitoring (to detect developing threats upon individual liberties and rights), behavioral and educational research, and an expansion of the content and efficacy of citizenship education.

In Summary. If my analyses have been successful, then some heretofore troubling issues concerning "justice between generations" have been dissolved. In particular, no generation which is poor but nonetheless better off than its predecessors need be concerned that it must assume, at once, the added and unprecedented burden of setting aside "just savings" for its successors. In the slow process of human development, no generation is clearly identifiable as the "first" to be capable of significant savings for the future. At the other end of the sequence, no affluent generation will find itself absolved of its responsibilities to save. It will not, in other words, be in the fortuitous but undeserved position of receiving savings from the past but being required to set none aside for the future. On the contrary, just provision for the future is the responsibility of all generations in whatever condition, and each generation must save, care, and prepare for those that follow in a manner appropriate to their varying circumstances of knowledge, capability, and resources. Were all generations to fulfill their moral duties to the future, as alas they do not, there would be no generations to give unfairly to the successors, or to receive unfairly from their predecessors. In a "well ordered" historical sequence, there are no "first" or "last" generations.



1. At that same date, I was in San Francisco, reading a paper, “Beyond Just Savings,” at a colloquium at the meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association.

2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. Henceforth, all references to this work will be cited within parentheses in the body of the paper.

3. “The Hollow Men," Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and 'World, Inc., 1963).

4. Rawls and the Duty to Posterity, PhD Dissertation, Univ. of Utah, 1976.

5. The Philosophical Review 84 (November, 1975), p. 545.

6. The Philosophical Review 84 (November, 1975), p. 545.

7. Kenneth Boulding, The Meaning of the Twentieth Century (Harper: Colophon, 1965). Chapter VII. See also his "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth," The Environmental Handbook, ed. deBell (New York: Ballantine, 1970), pp. 96-101.

8. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954.



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 .