Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"Progress" and Responsibility to the Future

Ernest Partridge

American Museum of Natural History, New York City

October 22, 1998


This is the text of a presentation to a conference on "Wolves and Human Communities: Biology, Politics, and Ethics," which took place October 21-23, 1998, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Conference was co-sponsored by the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation of the Museum, and the Hastings Center.

Much of the text is drawn from the  chapter, "Future Generations," which may be found elsewhere at this website, and which was published in A Companion to Environmental Ethics, edited by Dale Jamieson and published by Blackwells.

When the conference papers were collected for the anthology, Wolves and Human Communities (Island Press, 2001), I set this paper aside and wrote an entirely new essay, better suited to the theme of the conference and the book.  That essay, "The Tonic of Wildness," appears elsewhere in this website.


Moral responsibility is characterized by four criteria: (a) a knowledge of the consequences of our actions, (b) a capacity to act, (c) a choice to do otherwise, and (d) the moral significance of the consequence. According to this analysis, it follows that we do in fact have moral obligations to future generations, and in particular an obligation to protect endangered species. Some guidelines for fulfilling these obligations to the future: (a) "Negative Utility:" a priority of mitigating evils over promoting goods, (b) "The Critical Lockean Proviso" -- leaving "as much and as good," not of specific resources (impossible) but of capacities, (c) "Just anticipations" through technological and environmental impact studies, (d) "Critical Conservatism," the preservation of just institutions, in particular science, scholarship and education, and (e) "Just Stewardship," the protection of life support systems -- air, water, ecosystems.


I would like to open on a personal note, if I may. I grew up across the river in New Jersey, and while a youngster frequently visited this museum. It never occurred to me at that time that I would ever be honored with the opportunity to speak in a professional capacity to an audience in this hall and at this Museum. I am profoundly grateful to the Hastings Center, The American Museum of Natural History, and to the National Science Foundation for that opportunity.

Yesterday, I once again visited the Museum as an ordinary tourist, after an absence of a couple of decades. I spent most of my time in the Human Evolution and Biodiversity exhibits. Those of you who have seen them will agree that they are both masterpieces of museum display. And they both vividly present the two fundamental themes of my remarks today: the naturalness of our species, and our moral responsibility toward the natural estate from which we evolved, which continues to sustain us, and upon which future generations of our species will depend.

This presentation will consist of basically two parts: first, an analysis of the concept of moral responsibility, and through this analysis, a defense of the claim that the present generation has moral obligations to future generations. Second, assuming the claim of responsibility to the future, I then suggest some policy guidelines for fulfilling our obligations to future generations.

This exercise will thus propose a theoretical moral groundwork for protecting in perpetuity, populations of wolves and other wild creatures, and also the preservation of the habitats and ecosystems which are, of course, necessary for the survival of these creatures.

Time constraints forbid me to explore and justify an essential assumption: namely, that wolves and their supporting ecosystems are intrinsically valuable. This I will assume, confident in the additional assumption that the outstanding scholars at this table, and at this conference, have proven that point to the satisfaction of all. My two fundamental questions are simply this: why, if we value wolves today, should we be obligated to ensure their existence in the remote future; and if we are so obligated, how might we best fulfill this obligation?



"Future Generations" and "Posterity" are terms that are frequently encountered in popular journalism, in political rhetoric, not to mention significant historical documents and literary works. For example, the Preamble to the US Constitution cites as one of its purposes, to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Scarcely a week goes by that one does not hear of "future generations" or "posterity" in the popular media.

And yet, serious philosophical attention to the issue of the moral responsibility to future generations is quite recent. Of the approximately one million doctoral dissertations presently listed in Dissertation Abstracts, the first to contain the either the terms "future generations" or "posterity" in its title was completed in 1976: "Rawls and the Duty to Posterity" (by this writer). Since then, nineteen dissertations have been completed which fit that description. The Philosophers Index lists 134 items under "future generations" and "posterity." Of these, all but three have been published since the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

Why this apparent neglect, until very recently, of moral philosophers with an issue of such manifest interest to the general public?

The answer might be found in an analysis of the concept of moral responsibility. To say that a moral agent or a corporate body is morally responsible, for his or her actions would seem to entail at the very least that the agent: (a) has, or is capable of having, knowledge of the consequences of those actions; (b) has the capacity to bring about these consequences; (c) has the choice to do otherwise; and (d) that these consequences have value significance. The second and third conditions reiterate the common metaethical insight that the realm of morality is found between the extremes of the impossible and the inevitable -- or, to quote and then extend Kant's maxim: "ought implies can," -- and yet might not.

If this analysis of the concept of responsibility is accurate, then the reason for the emergence of the posterity problem becomes clear: the issue has arisen with the extraordinary advances in science (knowledge) and technology (capacity). Before mid-century, the very idea that human activities might seriously and permanently affect the global atmosphere and oceans, or the gene pool or our species and others, seemed preposterous. We were just too puny, we believed, and the planet too vast for such consequences. Raised with stories of Red Riding Hood and the Three Pigs, we just assumed that when wolves roamed freely, we were the endangered ones. Now the sciences have disabused us of such assurances, as technology has produced chemicals and radioactive substances unknown to nature, and as evidence proliferates of permanent anthropogenic effects upon the seas, atmosphere, and the global ecosystem, and as more of our brother species pass into extinction at an ever-accelerating rate. Furthermore, such consequences of industrial civilization as ozone depletion, global warming, the contamination of aquifers, and the deposition of radwaste, while the byproducts of benefits to the present generation, exact postponed costs to remote generations.

Not coincidentally, the posterity question arose alongside the emergence of the environmental movement. While not all posterity issues are necessarily environmental in nature (the preservation of landmark buildings and works of art come to mind as exceptions), the preservation of the natural environment is clearly the public and moral issue with the longest time entailments. And so, when in 1962 Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted the public to the moral implications of bio-scientific knowledge and agro-industrial technology, and when, during the same decade, the Sierra Club and other organizations decried the loss of wilderness, the consequences of these crises to future generations could not be ignored. Accordingly, the emergence of the posterity issue during "the environmental decade" of the '70s was virtually assured.

In short, the accelerating advances of science and technology have made it compellingly clear that future generations are vulnerable to our acts and policies. Furthermore, through science we have come to understand the long-term consequences of these policies, and through technology, we have acquired to capacity to affect these consequences, if only through forbearance. Accordingly, in our hands lies the fate, for better or worse, of future persons whose lives we will never share. This is a burden of responsibility that we cannot escape, so long as we willingly accept the enlightenment of science and the capacities of our technology. "To do nothing, is to do something"; namely, to assent to existing trends and entailments.

The Moral Status of Future Persons

At first glance, the posterity issue may appear to involve nothing more than a simple extension of our "moral community" to include, in addition to family, compatriots, distant contemporary victims of misfortune, and even animals and ecosystems, yet another category: persons who will be born after we have departed. By this superficial account, our responsibilities to future persons would not be significantly different in kind from our responsibilities to these contemporary "others." Put simply, it would seem that given our knowledge and capacities, future persons have the right to our responsible care and forbearance in their behalf.

A closer look reveals that the ontological and epistemological status of future persons raises numerous unique and extraordinary moral and metaethical problems. Among them:

  • most fundamentally, future persons, qua future, do not exist now, when the alleged burdens of responsibility fall upon the living. Thus the question arises: can we have duties to non-existent beings? Still worse, what sense can be made of attributing rights to those who do not exist?

  • still more perplexing is the fact that by initiating a policy to improve the lives of future persons, we will be causing different individuals to be born in the future. But if so, then we can in no sense be said to be "improving the lives" of particular future persons, who, but for our provision (or neglect) would not exist. (See Schwartz, 1968, and Parfit, 1984).

  • we can not know future people as individuals. Instead, "posterity" is an abstract category containing unnumbered and undifferentiated members. And yet, much moral theory is based upon the principle of "respect for autonomous individuals."

  • our relationship with future persons is unidirectional and non-reciprocal. Future persons will be unable to reward or punish us, as the case may be, for our provision for their lives.

  • how can we tell with any confidence just what might benefit future persons -- i.e., what will or will not be "goods" to them?

  • Who is entitled to act in behalf of future persons?

Clearly, by assigning moral significance to those not yet born, we are introducing problems that are unique to the history of moral philosophy.

What then, is the moral status of future persons? Just how much claim do they have upon us, to make provision for them or, at the very least, to forbear from causing future harm? The responses of contemporary moral philosophers cover a broad scope of the moral spectrum. To some, the contingency and non-actuality of future persons virtually excludes them from moral consideration. If any attempt to improve the lot of future persons results in a population of different individuals, then, so the argument goes, no particular lives can be "improved" by present policies.

Elsewhere, I have argued that all these difficulties can be successfully addressed and answered, leaving essentially intact a moral requirement that the living generations make just provision for future generations. (Once again, I refer you to my website. See "Should We Seek a Better Future?" and "On the Rights of Future Generations.") However, having said this much, I cannot simply walk away from the issue without offering you at least a sketch of an argument.

Regarding the objection that future persons are "indeterminate and unidentifiable as individuals," I would point out that these considerations do not invalidate our obligations to contemporaries. For example, we are clearly obliged not to scatter broken glass on a beach frequented by bathers - notwithstanding the fact that we do not know the individuals to whom these duties are owed. In fact, if we fulfill these obligations, there will be no particular individuals who will benefit thereby. Similarly, a land owner is legally obligated to cover-up any idle mineshafts on his property. Suppose that by failing to do so, a child is injured five years hence. Does it make any moral difference if that child happens at the time to be seven years old rather than five years old? Yet in the former case, the child "exists" at the time of the owners dereliction, and in the latter case he does not.

Regarding the objection that "future persons" are "merely future" and thus do not now exist, I invite you to shift your time perspective. When the framers of our Constitution wrote in the Preamble, that they were acting "for ourselves and our posterity," was that affirmation in behalf of our generation (and all other subsequent generations) somehow mistaken? Clearly, our present existence under the protection of the Bill of Rights is preferable to a mode of existence unprotected by those amendments. Can we not therefore affirm today that the framers, in that distant past, thus fulfilled their duty to the "then-merely-possible" individuals, who eventually became ourselves? It is true, as some have pointed out, that at the time of the Constitutional we were in no position to "exercise" our rights to act one way or the other - our so-called "positive right." So I will concede that future generations do not have "active rights" before they exist. But these do not exhaust the inventory of rights. Future generations can meaningfully be said to have "Negative rights" - e.g., to clean air, abundant resources, just institutions - rights, the provision of which, entails a burden of active responsibility on the part of their forebearers.



I have argued that the knowledge gained by our sciences and the capacity and choice provided by our technology, combined with our positive valuation of wildlife and wild ecosystems, places upon us the burden of moral responsibility to future generations. I turn now to the practical question just what we might do to best fulfil this responsibility.

The economic approach: cost-benefit analysis. To begin, we should turn an acute critical eye toward the "business as usual" of public policy-making: "cost-benefit analysis" -- an approach promoted by economists, widely endorsed by legislatures and administrators, and enshrined in the methodology of environmental impact analysis. Time permits only a brief statement of the most prominent criticisms of this approach.

  • that by comensurating all values into cash (a non-moral value), morality is "factored out" of policy considerations.

  • that cost-benefit analysis measures aggregated consumer preferences to the exclusion of community/citizen values.

  • that economic analysis is descriptive -- indicating what a consumer-public in fact values (economically), rather than prescribing what they should value (normatively). To put the matter bluntly, the economist asks: "What is the value? Tell me what are you willing to pay." The moral philosopher replies: "What am I willing to pay? First I must determine, independently, what is its value." This is a response that the economist cannot touch within the bounds of his discipline.

  • finally, and most significantly for the posterity issue, by measuring value in terms of cash, the future is discounted. Thus the costs and benefits to persons just a few generations into the future count for virtually nothing in economically based policy analyses.

By citing these criticisms, I do not wish to deny that the discipline of economics is an essential ingredient of wise policy decision-making. It is a valuable tool, but it must never become the only tool, of policy analysis.


The Ignorance Excuse: Before we proceed with policy recommendations, one more objection to provision for the remote future must be addressed. It is based upon the "knowledge criterion" of responsibility, and claims that we do not and in principle can not know what future generations will need or value, and thus can make no provision for them. How, for example, could previous generations have known of our need for rare semi-conducting elements such as germanium? And conversely, what if they had needlessly sacrificed by storing up vast quantities of whale oil, with no anticipation of the coming ages of petroleum and electricity? When we look back the predictions of fifty and one-hundred years ago, regarding life at the close of the twentieth century, how can we with any confidence forecast conditions of life in the remote future?

Granting all this, there are nonetheless, some fundamental facts that we can know about future generations:

  • First of all, they will be humans, with well-known biotic requirements necessary to sustain their health.

  • Second, future persons for whom we are responsible will be moral agents, which means that they will be sentient and self-conscious, having a sense of themselves and other persons as continuing beings with the capacity to choose among alternative futures, and with the capacity to reason abstractly and thus to act on principle. All this entails that these future persons will be bound by familiar moral categories of rights, responsibilities, and the demands of justice.

  • Third, if these future persons are to live and flourish, they must be sustained by a functioning ecosystem.

  • And finally, they will require stable social institutions and a body of knowledge and skills that will allow them to meet and overcome cultural and natural crises that may occur during their lifetimes.

Assuming then that we know enough about the welfare of future persons to act responsibly in their behalf, what guidelines might direct our policies toward future generations? Prominent among those proposed by philosophers and others, are the following:

"First of all, do no harm." Because "the ignorance excuse" is not without some merit, an insight from the utilitarians would be very helpful to the policy-makers: namely, we should favor policies that mitigate evil over policies that promote good. This precept is supported by common-sense considerations. First, avoidable or treatable pain demands the moral attention of everyone, while "the pursuit of happiness" is the appropriate concern of the individual. Furthermore, it is much easier to identify and address the causes of misery than it is to promote the well-springs of happiness. This is especially so with regard to the future. The pains and tribulations of future persons, like those of ourselves, can often be traced to disruptions in the fundamental biotic, ecosystemic, psychological and institutional conditions listed above. Their pleasures and satisfactions will come from a future evolution of culture, taste and technology that we cannot even imagine.

The "Critical Lockean Proviso." According to John Locke, it is morally permissible to "take from nature," mix one's labor with the taking, and claim the result as one's private property, so long as one leaves "as much and as good for others." While this may have been true in a world of frontiers and homesteads, it is no longer possible. Once a barrel of petroleum is extracted from the earth and consumed, there is no longer "as much and as good" remaining for our successors. But if we were to share equally our petroleum resources with all generations far into the future, we would be allocated a cupful each. So we must, instead, adopt a "critical Lockean Proviso," whereby we leave for the future, not the very resource that we deplete, but the opportunity to obtain whatever it was for which the original resource was utilized. Thus while future generations may not need petroleum (just as we no longer need whale oil), they will need what petroleum provides, namely energy. Thus it is our responsibility to find a replacement. The proviso also entails that we utilize recycling technologies and "interest-bearing" (i.e., renewable) resources, such as sustained yield forestry and fisheries. And this in turn validates the need to preserve natural ecosystems and wildlife habitats.

Preserve the options. This rule is clearly entailed by the previous two. While we cannot predict the technological solutions to future resource scarcity, we owe future generations a full range of options and opportunities for research and development of these technologies. This in turn entails a continuing investment in scientific and technical education and research. Happily, such an investment benefits our own generation and that of our immediate successors, as it also benefits the remote future.

Anticipation and prevention is preferable to cure. We should therefore keep an informed eye on impending impacts upon the future. "Earlier" is easier and cheaper than "later." Accordingly, our responsibility to future generations must include technological and environmental impact studies which will foresee, and expand the capacity to foresee, developing crises and the consequences of our projects and policies far into the remote future. Obvious examples of this "duty of anticipation" include studies of stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming, chemical hormone disruption, and nuclear waste disposal.

Just Forbearance ("Critical Conservatism"). This dimension of the duty to posterity clearly follows from the previous: for once we have determined, through scientific research, how our actions might affect the remote future, we may face a clear duty to forgo advantages for the sake of future generations. To cite our examples once again, studies of atmospheric physics and chemistry may determine that we face a choice between having our grandchildren protected from ultra-violet radiation or having our generation enjoy the convenience of aerosol sprays and supersonic aircraft. Similarly, due to the so-called "greenhouse effect, our voracious appetite for fossil fuel energy may be inconsistent with a tolerable climate for our successors. Accordingly, decision to favor future generations would, in these instances, require just forbearances on the part of those now living. A policy of "just forbearance" is a conservative approach to provision for the future, which is often favored by environmentalists. The ecosystem, they argue, is a network of complex and subtle inter-relationships, the intricacies and ramifications of which we can never fully comprehend. Rather than carelessly toss aside components of this system (e.g., species and nutrients), we should approach the planetary life community with humility and care. If our information is incomplete, it is better to postpone, or even to abandon, projects that threaten the integrity of the system.

Doing well by doing good. We should favor policies that work to the advantage of both us and the future -- and which, other factors being roughly equal, are least burdensome to the present generation. This rule is responsive to the constant political problem of convincing the public to accept sacrifices now to bring about benefits that they will never see. On reflection, it seems that a significant number of our "duties to the future" also benefit us and those we directly care about -- our children and grandchildren. Among these benefits are the control of pollution, population and global warming.

Educational Implications. None of the above will be accomplished unless succeeding generations acquire the moral stamina to face up to and to carry out their moral responsibilities. This can only be accomplished through a carefully devised and generously funded program of environmental and moral education. Such a program would include the teaching of critical thinking, history, ecological principles, and a respect for free institutions.

The moral education here proposed 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.

A Guardian for future generations should be established by the international community -- preferably under the sanction of international law, but, failing that, with the widespread support of non-governmental organizations. Christopher Stone suggests that such a guardian "might be authorized: (1) to appear before the legislatures and administrative agencies of states considering actions with pronounced, long-term implications; (2) to appear as a special intervener-counsel in a variety of bilateral and multi-lateral disputes, and, (3) perhaps most important, even to initiate legal and diplomatic action on the future's behalf in appropriate situations."

As we noted at the outset, the posterity issue is new to the literature and debates of moral philosophy. But now, having made its appearance, the question of our responsibility to future generations can not be returned to obscurity. For if our analysis of "moral responsibility" (as knowledge, capacity, choice and value significance) is correct, the only plausible escape from this responsibility would be a disavowal of the knowledge provided by our sciences, and an abandonment of the capacity and choice bestowed by our technology. Few seem willing to pay that price to avoid the moral burden of our duty to posterity. If, on the other hand, we continue to support the advancement of science and technology, and yet ignore the long-term consequences thereof, we will not avoid our moral responsibility -- we will be in default thereof, and will be properly condemned by the generations that succeed us.

Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge

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 .