Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Future Generations

Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside


From A Companion to Environmental Ethics,
Edited by Dale Jamieson (Blackwell, 2001)


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

Abraham Lincoln


"Future Generations" and "Posterity" are terms that are frequently encountered in popular journalism and in political rhetoric, not to mention significant historical documents and literary works.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. 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. 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. (Schwartz, 1968).

Other responses:

Libertarianism: Some libertarians insist that with the privatization of all resources, future generations will be well cared for — as a beneficent "by-product" of rational, self-serving behavior. Because, they argue, no rational property owner will deliberately degrade the value of his property, private individuals are, in effect, suitable surrogates of the interests of future generations. Accordingly, writes Martino (1982, p. 33), 

it is quite possible to take the needs of the future into account by permitting the establishment of markets in which assets with future values can be bought and sold... [S]peculation in resources with an expected large future demand automatically results in conservation. Thus the interests of the people who will live in the future are actively protected...

It follows that the libertarian society will leave "as much and as good" for successor generations, with little need for individuals, and much less for governments, to concern themselves about the fate of remote posterity. As for resources, optimistic economists such as Julian Simon argue that so long as human ingenuity is mixed with the profit motive, suitable resources for an abundant life will be found, developed and utilized, as they are needed at the time. 

Critics reply that this account disregards, first of all, the diminution of economic value through time (i.e., "the discount rate"), and second, that these optimistic forecasts favor abstract economic models over fundamental scientific facts and principles, most notably ecosystemic complexity and the laws of thermodynamics. (See my "Perilous Optimism").

Utilitarianism: Though future individuals are implicitly factored into Bentham's "hedonic calculus" (in particular, through the criterion of "social extent"), considerable difficulties in the utilitarian approach to the posterity issue have only recently entered into philosophical debate. 

First, how far into the future does our provision for posterity extend? Do we "discount" the future, or are the interests and preferences of furthest generations to count equally to those of our own children and grandchildren? Both alternatives present difficulties. If all future generations count, then equal distributive shares with this indefinite but enormously large number leaves us with virtually nothing for ourselves. And yet as Derek Parfit and others have pointed out, there seems to be no moral justification for a "pure time preference" for nearer over further generations.

Second, how can we calculate the "utility" of our provision for future individuals whose tastes, preferences and needs we do not and cannot know?

Third, among the decisions that we make regarding future persons is the very size of that future population. Do we harm "might have beens" by denying them existence by adopting stringent population control policies? And most profoundly, what do the utilitarians propose to maximize: the average utility of future persons or the total utility in a future population? This issue of average vs. total utility, absent in utilitarian calculations regarding populations of fixed numbers (such as the present generation), arises with the question population policy — i.e., how many future persons should we cause to exist? Full commitment to either average or total utility leads to counter-intuitive "repugnant conclusions." According to "the average utility principle," Adam and Eve, before "the fall" lived in a "better" world than a hypothetically later world of thousands or millions of individuals who, though quite happy on average, were slightly less so than the original couple. On the other hand, "the total utility principle" requires fertile couples to produce children whose lives will be on balance slightly happier than unhappy — an obligation which applies even in an overcrowded world. The "average vs. total utility" dilemma leads to a question which lies at the very foundations of utilitarian philosophy: are we obliged to create people for happiness (total utility), or should we create happiness for people (average utility)? (Warren, 1977). (For the most comprehensive examination of the average vs. total utility issue see the Sikora and Barry anthology, 1978).

Communitarianism: Avner de-Shalit argues that we are morally bound to future generations through shared membership in a "community." This might appear to be an unpromising approach, for reasons now familiar to us: namely, that the present generation and its successors cannot interact — that their relationship is non-personal and non-reciprocal. Well aware of this difficulty, de-Shalit stipulates that just "one of three main conditions must be met in order for a group of people to count as a community: ... interaction between people in daily life, cultural interaction, and moral similarity." (p. 22) Clearly, the first condition is not applicable between non-concurrent lives. But, de-Shalit contends, in a figurative and restricted, yet significant, sense, the second condition, "cultural interaction" is applicable, as is the third condition, "moral similarity." These two conditions bind us with future generations into a "community."

De-Shalit explains that while we do not "converse" with non-concurrent generations, we do have "cultural interaction" with them. To understand this concept, consider the U. S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. As the Preamble states, the document was enacted "for ourselves and our posterity," and thus it is clear that the framers of that document understood that they were affecting the life conditions of future generations. Reciprocally, every case that is heard before the Supreme Court today is responsive to this document, which was framed by our predecessors. Similarly, as we make provision for the remote future, we fully expect that future generations will be mindful of and responsive to these (then past) provisions. 

"Moral similarity," de-Shalit's third condition, does not mean full agreement among generations of all moral precepts; indeed, rational moral debate along with moral adaptation and evolution is essential to a vital transgenerational community. Consider once again the example of the U. S. Constitution. That document was hotly debated and framed in the context of received moral and political presuppositions — a "frame of reference" or "form of life" (to use Wittgenstein's useful concept). It is within this context of agreement that moral debate takes place (or, to continue with our example, the Constitution is interpreted and occasionally amended). So long as this context of moral debate and interpretation remains essentially intact, de-Shalit argues, a "transgenerational community" can exist and continue. However, this concept carries with it the implication that this community across generations is time-contingent, and thus as the moral "frame of reference" itself evolves, "the time will come when it becomes questionable whether [remotely] future generations will still speak of the same transgenerational community." (47).

De-Shalit's book contains a sensitive and astute analysis of moral psychology — in particular an examination of the "time-binding" and "projective" aspect of human thought, action and evaluation that is reminiscent of Heidegger. Human life and experience, he argues, is incomprehensible without an awareness of the fact that we all, in an inescapable sense, live both in the present and the future, including a future that extends far beyond the span of our own lives. 

Deontological Views focus on the moral status of future persons and the moral categories that apply to them, in particular, the issue of the putative rights of and duties to the not-yet-actual. Can we, in fact, be said to "have duties toward" non-actual future persons? If so, do these duties correlate with the rights of these future persons? The answer to that question may bear upon the moral urgency of our responsibility toward the future. "Uncorrelated" duties (also called "imperfect duties") may have less priority than those duties which correlate with the rights of others. Richard deGeorge is among those who recognize "duties toward" future persons, but deny that these duties correlate with the rights, now, of future persons. On the contrary, he insists, future generations "cannot now ... be the present bearer or subject of anything, including rights... [They] should correctly be said to have a right only to what is available when they come into existence." (deGeorge, 1979, pp. 95-6).

Partridge (1990) replies that this argument succeeds in denying only one category of rights to future persons: what Feinberg and others call "active rights" — i.e., rights "to do such and such." However, "passive rights" (e.g., the right not to be deprived of opportunities, or not to be harmed, etc.), are quite applicable to future persons before they become actual. This is so, since, unlike "active rights," the option to honor or to violate passive rights falls upon the correlative "duty bearer" — in this case, the present generation. (See "On the Rights of Future Generations")

John Rawls and the "Hypothetical Contract:" One the most influential and provocative treatments of the posterity issue appears in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971), where Rawls proposes a "contractarian" approach to the question of what he calls "justice between generations." At first, a contractarian approach to the issue seems unpromising, for the very same reasons that it is troublesome for the communitarians: namely, that the "contractors," having non-concurrent lives, are incapable of bargaining and arriving at reciprocal agreements.

Fully aware of this difficulty, Rawls concedes at the outset that fundamental principles of justice can not be arrived at through actual contract negotiations. Instead, the "contract" must be "hypothetical," and constructed through an elaborate thought-experiment which he calls "the original position." While we cannot describe here the details of Rawls's theory, suffice to say for our purposes that the "contractors," in drawing out the rules of "justice between generations," are denied knowledge of which generation in human history they belong. Thus, the rules of intergenerational justice are devised in the original position to apply to all generations. Accordingly, the parties in the original position do not know whether, in the conditions of their actual lives, the rules of "just savings" will turn out to be a burden or a benefit. All they know is that, in either case, due to the conditions of "the original position," the rules will be "fair."

As a result of these deliberations in the original position (more traditionally, one might say, "from the moral point of view"), Rawls believes that the following rules of "just savings" would be adopted: [1] preserve the gains of culture and civilization..., [2] maintain intact those just institutions that have been established..., [and 3], put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of real capital accumulation." He adds that "this saving may take various forms from net investment in machinery and other means of production to investment in learning and education." (Rawls, p. 285).

Conspicuously absent from this list is any direct reference to the conservation of natural resources or the preservation of the natural environment (though such considerations are not specifically excluded, and are arguably implicit in these principles). This omission is remedied by Edith Brown Weiss (1989), who stipulates as a fundamental "principle of intergenerational equity" that each generation leave to its successor a planet in at least as good a condition as that generation received it. Like Rawls, Weiss believes that principles of intergenerational justice should be drawn behind a "veil of ignorance" — without knowledge of which generation in the span of history, is one's own. However, unlike Rawls, Weiss is attempting to derive principles that apply, not within a national entity, but to all nations — which is to say, will serve as a foundation of international law.

The Motivation Problem

Are human beings, either individually or communally, capable of making just provision for remotely future persons who they will never know and who can not reciprocally reward or punish those of the present generation? While this question may seem to be more psychological and sociological than philosophical, it nonetheless is of profound concern to the moral philosopher.

Recall that one of the criteria of moral responsibility is capacity. While we earlier identified this as "technological capacity" to bring about or prevent foreseeable long term consequences of our actions, "capacity" can also refer to psychological conditions. John Rawls recognizes this issue as he asserts that moral principles, if they are to be valid, must be such that human beings are able to abide by them -- they must, in Rawls's words, be capable of withstanding "the strains of commitment."

In an important paper, Norman Care presents doubts regarding "our ability to solve the motivation problem relative to what morality requires on behalf of future generations." (1982, p. 195). He argues that: (a) we can have no bonds of love or concern for indefinite future persons: "their interests cannot interest us;" (b) we have no "community bond" with future persons -- no "sense of belonging to some joint enterprise;" and finally, (c) we feel no "extended or unbounded shared-fate motivation," no "sense of common humanity." (pp. 207-9) Consequently, Care concludes:

... certain familiar sorts of motivation are not available to support policies demanding serious sacrifice for the sake of future generations, and we may well be discouraged by the further apparent fact that the cultivation of a form of motivation directly supportive of such policies might require something close to an overhaul of main elements in the makeup of our society which influence the moral psychology of citizens. (213)

However, this conclusion does not completely close the door to a just provision for the remote future. Care does, after all, concede the possibility of a "moral overhaul" in society. Not only that, but the mere possibility of appropriate sacrifice for the sake of posterity is exemplified in the supererogatory acts of saints and heroes.

Garrett Hardin, who largely shares Care's pessimism, nevertheless recounts two examples of extraordinary sacrifice in behalf of the future, both from the Soviet Union. (Hardin, 1977, p. 78-9). In the first, during the 1921 famine, peasants in a starving village on the Volga refused to eat the seed grain stacked in an adjacent field. "We do not steal from the future," they said. In the second case, during the 900 day siege of Leningrad, while nearly a million residents starved, large stores of edible seeds in an agricultural research institute were untouched. Still, the essential question remains: notwithstanding known cases of extraordinary sacrifice in behalf of the remote future, can people in general and their established governments be persuaded to submit to "ordinary" constraints in order to make fair provision for posterity?

Rawls believes that to assure "just savings" for the future, the parties of his original position must understand themselves to be "heads of families," with parental ties and concerns for the immediately succeeding generation or two. (Rawls, 128-9). Provision for remote generations is thus accomplished through a "chain linking" of one generation to the next. This proposal immediately suggests two problems: first, it implies that childless individuals are incapable of caring for future generations, and thus are excused from making just provision. Second, Rawls's "heads of families" condition presents a "discounting" problem even more severe than that of the economists, for a parent's love and concern for a child is generally greater than for a grandchild, and so on, diminishing to insignificance within a very few generations.

A more positive account of the motivation question has been offered by Partridge (1981). Not only is significant "self transcendent" concern for the remote future possible, he argues, it is in fact healthy -- the result of normal processes of maturation and socialization. A "self transcending concern" for persons, communities, locations, causes, artifacts, institutions, ideals, etc., arises from (a) the social origins of the self concept, (b) from the "objectification of values" (i.e., the perception of values as being "in" the valued objects), and (c) the universal awareness of one's mortality. All this leads to an interest in believing that these entities will continue to flourish beyond the span of one's lifetime. As further evidence of the claim that "self transcendent concern" is healthy, Partridge points out that a lack thereof, described by clinical psychologists as "alienation" and "narcissism," is an unenviable condition. (204) (See "Why Care About the Future?")

In this account of "self transcendent concern" we find an echo of an ancient yet timely moral insight, known as "the moral paradox:" namely, that it is in one's own best interest not to seek deliberately one's own best interest -- that the most fulfilling life is realized in outwardly directed activity and concern. If this condition is true of human nature, and if a widespread realization of "self-transcending concern" is available through educational and institutional reform, then the means of accomplishing Norman Care's "moral overhaul" may be at hand. Such an accomplishment may be difficult and even highly improbable given contemporary social conditions. However, mere possibility may suffice to prompt moral concern and involvement. Recall that capacity is a condition of moral responsibility, and that the arena of moral activity is found between the extremes of impossibility and inevitability.

Policy Implications

We have explored the metaethical issue of whether future generations can be said to have rights, and have reviewed a variety of normative approaches to the posterity issue. Now we turn to the practical question of just what we might do to best fulfill our responsibilities to the remote future.

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. Moral philosophers have found much to criticize in economic cost benefit analysis.  Most prominent among these criticisms are the following:

  • 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.

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 examine 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:

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

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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. (See my "Posterity and the Strains of Commitment," 1994).

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.

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. 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. (Stone, 1996; Weiss, 1989). 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." (p. 71-2).

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, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
By permission of the Editor, Dale Jamieson.


Care, N.: "Future generations, public policy, and the motivation problem," Environmental Ethics, (Fall, 1982, p. 195). [Raises serious doubts as to the psychological capacity of the present generation to make morally adequate provision for the future].

deGeorge, R.: "The environment, rights and future generations," Ethics and Problems of the 21st Century, ed. K. Goodpaster and K. Sayre, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979). [Argues that while the current generation has some general duties toward future generations, future persons, qua "future," have no rights at the present time].

de-Shalit, A.: Why Posterity Matters (London: Routledge, 1995). [Proposes that there is an "intergenerational contract" binding the present and future generations].

Laslett, P. and Fishkin, J., eds. Justice Between Age Groups and Generations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. [A significant and relatively recent collection of essays, with an extensive list of recent publications on the topic. Prominent attention to application of contract theory and discounting to intergenerational justice].

Martino, J. P.: "Inheriting the Earth," Reason, November, 1982, p. 30. [A libertarian approach to the issue, which contends that future generations will be best served through the protection of property rights and the promotion of free markets in the present].

Parfit, D.: Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). [Important book in ethical theory and the problem of personal identity. Significant insights into the problem of future discounting and the moral status of future persons].

Partridge, E. "On the Rights of Future Generations," Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, Donald Scherer, ed., (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). [Defends "passive" rights-claims of future generations (e.g., not to be harmed) upon the present generation, while conceding that future persons do not now possess "active rights" (i.e., "to choose among options") in the present].

Partridge, E., "Posterity and the ‘Strains of Commitment,'" Creating a New History for Future Generations, Kim, T. and Dator, J. eds. (Kyoto: Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, 1974). [Public policy proposals aimed toward a fulfillment of the responsibilities of the present generation to its successors].

Partridge, E., "Why care about the future?," Responsibilities to Future Generations, E. Partridge, ed. (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1981). [Affirms the potential capacity of present persons to be motivated to act morally toward future generations].

Passmore, J., Man's Responsibility for Nature, (New York: Scribners', 1976). [Comprehensive historical and philosophical examination of "ecological problems and western traditions." The chapters on "Conservation" and "Preservation" deal explicitly with issues of the motivation to provide for the future and of appropriate public policies toward future generations].

Rawls, J.: A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971). [A landmark work in political and ethical theory, offering an "hypothetical-contractarian" alternative to utilitarianism. Rawls's proposals of "just savings" for the future has prompted numerous responses – specifically noted in this essay, are the responses of de-Shalit, Partridge and Weiss].

Sikora, R. and Barry, B. eds.: Obligations to Future Generations, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978). [One of the first anthologies on the subject of future generations, still very timely. Deals with future discounting and the moral status of future persons, with prominent attention given to the defenses and criticisms of the utilitarian approach to the future].

Stone, C.: "Should we establish a guardian for future generations?", Should Trees Have Standing? and other essays on law, morals and the environment, Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana, 1996. [Answers the title question affirmatively. Defends the concept of a "guardian of the future" from the perspective of legal practice and theory]

Warren, M.; "Do potential people have rights?" Canadian Journal of Philosophy, June, 1977. [Addresses the questions of the status of future persons and of average vs. total utility, as these issues imply competing policies toward population and savings. Affirms duties toward persons who will exist, while denying a duty to produce "merely potential" persons].

Weiss, E.: In Fairness to Future Generations: International Law, Common Patrimony, and Intergenerational Equity (New York: Transnational Publication and the United Nations University, 1989). [Proposes a theory of intergenerational justice from the contractarian perspective of Rawls's A Theory of Justice]


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 .