Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"The Other Profession




Posterity and the "Strains of Commitment"


By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside


For the First International Future Generations Forum
Kyoto Japan -- November, 1994

Published in Creating a New History for Future Generations,
Ed., Kim and Dator, Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations,
Kyoto, Japan, 1995.



Can We Care Enough About the Remote Future?

What can we do in behalf of future generations? The answer to that question is incomplete, unless it addresses the question of our capacity to make just provision for the future. And this question of capacity is itself subdivided into two issues: that of our actual capacity and of our potential capacity. That final issue ("potentiality") presents daunting challenges to educators, journalists and media professionals.

It is not difficult to suggest a list of proposals in behalf of future generations. But no benefit accrues to future generations from benefactions which we are unable to carry out. Thus our proposals to act in behalf the remote future must be such that they can, in John Rawls's phrase, withstand the "strains of commitment."

Can human societies make just provision for future generations? The historical record is not very helpful, since we find there evidence of both extraordinary sacrifice and myopic self-indulgence. The biologist, Garrett Hardin has argued that under conditions of severe deprivation and falling expectations, egoism triumphs over altruism, and thus the interests of the future are sacrificed in the struggle for survival. Yet, in virtual contradiction of this claim, he cites two striking counter-examples, both from the Soviet Union. In the first case, he reports that in 1921 starving refugees on the Volga refused to eat the seeds for the coming harvest. "We do not steal from the future," they said. Similarly, Hardin points out, during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, nearly a million residents of the city died of exposure and starvation. Yet, during this time, a large quantity of edible seeds, "a precious repository of genetic variety," were untouched.(1)

Other examples of significant sacrifices in behalf of the remote future, can be found in the historical record of cultures throughout the world. In my own country, the National Park Act of 1916 set aside valuable land "for the enjoyment of future generations," often at considerable economic sacrifice to those alive at that time. Other examples abound: the establishment of universities, the building of great cathedrals such as Chartres in France, and of cities such as Kyoto, all are undertaken with no expectation of an economic "payoff" to the original planners and builders.

Sadly, there is abundant evidence that of late, our willingness to act in behalf of the future has contracted, even as our wealth (and thus our economic capacity) has expanded. Again, in the United States, the decade of the eighties saw an enormous burden placed upon future generations, as the national debt increased from one to four trillion dollars. And despite the warnings of the scientists, the continued production of nuclear wastes and the relentless build-up of "greenhouse gasses" in the atmosphere, threatened potentially disastrous consequences for the remote future.

History, then, provides evidence only of a wide range of possible moral attitudes toward future generations: from extraordinary constraint and solicitude, to complete, reckless, indifference. However, the very fact that the upper range of moral responsibility can be realized, however rarely, provides justification for renewed moral commitment on behalf of our successors.

Following a brief analysis of the concept of "moral responsibility, I will address three inter-related questions: (a) What can we do in behalf of the future? (b) Have we the capacity and will to do what duty requires? And finally, (c) if we do not, can this incapacity be remedied?


On the Concept of "Responsibility to Future Generations."

The central question of this paper, and this conference -- "What can we do for future generations?" -- rests upon a structure of presupposition, most of which I have addressed at length elsewhere.(2) Foremost among these is the concept of moral responsibility -- a concept which demands explication, if we are to profitably proceed with this inquiry.

To say that a person P is "morally responsible" for an act, X, entails:

(a) P knows the consequences of X.

(b) P has the capacity to do X.

(c) P also has the capacity to do otherwise.

(d) X affects the welfare and/or rights of morally considerable entities.

Applying this to future generations, we then ask: (a) Do we know (however imperfectly) the consequences of our actions? (b) Have we the capacity to favorably affect the future? (c) Have we the choice to do otherwise? (d) Can we affect the lives of future persons in ways that have value significance? (E.g., avoiding misery, promoting well-being, respecting rights?)

If the answer to all of the above is "yes", then morality demands "just provision" -- a responsibility to the future. Moreover, note that with advances in science (knowledge) and technology (capacity) , that responsibility increases as well. Thus it might well be the case that the present generation carries an unprecedented burden of responsibility toward the future.

The Ignorance Excuse. The above analysis, however, suggests a justification for indifference toward the remote future; namely, the claim that we do not and cannot know enough about the future to make appropriate provision for it Evidence for this claim is widespread. For example, attempts of nineteenth century authors and scientists to predict the course of our century seem quaint in retrospect. Even within our lifetimes, we see rapidly fluctuating notions of the future. Consider how the conception of the "25th Century" has changed in the 25 years between the two productions of the "Star Trek" television series. Even the professional "futurologists" made conspicuous errors. For example, in 1967, at the time of the publication of "The Year 2000,." Herman Kahn's massive book on the future, the words "oil", "energy" and "petroleum" did not appear in the index. Six years later, the oil crisis was upon us.

The Future, in short, constantly surprises us. Can we have any responsibility toward that of which we are totally ignorant? Perhaps not. But then, perhaps our ignorance is not total. Accordingly, I would suggest that we are nonetheless responsible to future persons, simply because there are some fundamental things that we can know about them.

  • First of all, of course, that they will be biological humans -- with fundamental somatic needs to sustain health.

  • Second of all, they will be persons in the moral sense, with a sense of themselves as continuing beings with alternative futures, capable of acting on principle, in a community of other persons to which they are bound by moral categories of rights, responsibilities, and demands of justice.

  • Finally, so long as they live and flourish, they will, as they must, be sustained by a functioning ecosystem, and with social institutions and a body of knowledge and skills that will allow themselves to meet and overcome cultural and natural crises .

If we acknowledge this much, then, I submit, we cannot appeal to ignorance to evade our responsibilities to the future.


Futures Policy for a Society of Saints

Let us for the moment ignore the question of moral capacity, and ask what a hypothetical "society of saints" might establish as a policy of just provision on behalf of future generations.(3) By "saints" I mean "perfect altruists" who hold the interests and claims of all persons (including themselves) to be equal, and who act accordingly with perfect compliance.

What might such an ideal society establish as its policy toward future generations? In his monumental contribution to moral philosophy, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls offers a helpful proposal. "Just savings," he writes, entails that "each generation must . . . preserve the gains of culture and civilization, . . . maintain intact those just institutions that have been established . ..[and] put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of real capital accumulation."(4) By "capital," Rawls means "not only factories and machines, and so on, but also the knowledge and culture, as well as the techniques and skills, that make possible just institutions and the fair values of liberty."(5) This is an important qualification, since it indicates that our "savings" are not simply of "consumables" which are forgone today to be "used" tomorrow. For unlike depletable resources, the intellectual and cultural "capital" to which Rawls refers become more valuable to the future, the more they are used with advantage by the present generation. As we shall see, this is a crucial consideration as we face "the motivation problem."

This is a good beginning, but only that. In the first place, the terms "savings" and "capital" suggest that the problem of justice between generations is primarily, if not exclusively, an economic issue. Secondly, our duties may be more of a negative kind ("forbearances") than positive (active commissions). Finally, Rawls has little to say about our ecological responsibilities as stewards of the planet and its life community. Let's examine some of these additional dimensions of just provision for the future.(6)

(a) We should favor policies that mitigate evil over policies that promote good. This precept, modeled after the so-called "principle of negative utility," is supported by several common-sense considerations. First of all, avoidable or treatable pain demands the moral attention of everyone, while "the pursuit of happiness" is a private matter. Moreover, it is much easier to identify and address the causes of misery, than to promote the wellsprings of happiness. This is especially so with regard to the future. Their pains and ours can be traced to our common somatic needs and the status of the planetary ecosystem which sustains us both. Their pleasures and satisfactions will come from developments in culture, taste and technology that we cannot even imagine.

(b) "Savings," "Capital" and the Critical Lockean Proviso. John Locke stated that it was morally permissible to "take from nature," mix one's labor with the taking, and claim the result as one's property, so long as one leaves "as much and as good" for others. "(The Lockean Proviso"). While this may have been true in a world of frontiers and homesteads, it is no longer, strictly speaking, possible. Were we to share equally our petroleum resources with all, far into the future, we would be allocated a cupful each. So we must, instead, adopt a "Critical Lockean Proviso," whereby we leave for the future, not the very resource that we deplete, but the opportunity to obtain whatever the resource is used for. Thus while future generations may not need petroleum per se, they will need what petroleum provides, namely energy. Our responsibility, then, will be to find a replacement.

The proviso also entails that we utilize recycling technologies and "interest-bearing" (i.e., renewable) resources. And this, in turn, validates the need to preserve natural ecosystems, which are more valuable to us and the future than we can ever fully discover, or even imagine.

Most fundamentally, we must preserve the options! And this means the institutions that find and develop the options: scientific education and research. Of course, to return to an earlier point, the support of scientific research and development benefits our generation while it benefits the future.

(c) Just Anticipations. Our duties to the future must include technological and environmental impact studies which seek to assess the consequences of projects and policies several hundred years into the future. To be sure, such studies exact costs, in research and manpower, and in the delay and even the cancellation of projects that are beneficial in the short term. The duty of just anticipation, then, entails a responsibility to foresee, and to expand the capacity to foresee, developing crises, and furthermore to enact appropriate remedies for the sake of future persons while the time is available to act effectively. Obvious examples of such a duty would include studies of stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming, and nuclear waste disposal.

(d) Just Forbearances. This dimension of the duty to posterity clearly follows from the previous: for once we have determined, through scientific research, how our actions might affect the remote future, we may face a clear duty to forgo advantages now for the sake of future generations. To cite our examples once again, studies of atmospheric physics and chemistry may determine that we face a choice between having our grandchildren protected from ultra-violet radiation or having our generation enjoy the convenience of aerosol sprays and supersonic aircraft. Similarly, due to the so-called "greenhouse effect, our voracious appetite for fossil fuel energy may be inconsistent with a tolerable climate for our successors. Accordingly, decision to favor future generations would, in these instances, require forbearances on the part of those now living.

(f) Just Stewardship. Whatever else they may need in terms of just institutions, knowledge, skills, resources and capital, future generations will need air, water, food and a viable gene pool. To have these essentials, they will need that which has capably, reliably and continuously provided up to our present generation; namely, a functioning ecosystem. For posterity to have it, this ecosystem will have had to have been further preserved, maintained, even cherished through the continuing observance, by intervening generation, of just stewardship of the planetary life-support system.


The Motivation Problem

The foregoing, let us recall, was an inventory of duties in a "society of saints," capable and willing to treat the rights and claims future persons as fully equal to their own. In such an ideal society, there is, qua hypothesis, no problem of motivation. But of course, in our "real world," motivation is the essential problem. "Ideal" principles of provision for the future are of no practical significance if they cannot, in Rawls's words, survive "the strains of commitment."

So we must face, at last, that troublesome question: Have we the psychological capacity to do what our moral duty requires? Fifteen years ago, in an important essay, "Future Generations, Public Policy, and the Motivation Problem,"(7) Norman Care expressed serious doubts, as he argued:

a) We can have no bonds of love or concern for indefinite futures. "Their interests cannot interest us."

b) We have no "community bond" with future persons. There is no "sense of belonging to some joint [reciprocal] enterprise."

c) We feel no "extended or unbounded shared-fate motivation" There is no "sense of common humanity."

Sadly, the events of the past dozen years seem, to validate Care's argument. For not only are we cheating remote posterity, we are cheating our own children. For consider: in the United States, the Libertarian complaint: "taxation is theft," has become sufficiently respectable to be openly spoken in the Congress, and even by a recent President (Reagan). This immensely popular slogan neglects the basic distinction between taxes with and without representation, and forgetting Justice Holmes' observation that "taxes are the price of civilization." A significant portion of the public has embraced this facile equation of greed with patriotism.

In short, posterity has taken a terrible beating this past decade. For that matter, our immediate progeny belongs to the first American generation in memory to be worse off than its predecessor. I am sure that Norman Care feels no joy in his vindication.


The Moral Paradox: "Doing Well by Doing Good"

Yet the demands of morality Persist -- If only as supererogatory. What, then are we to do? "Trash the future" on the grounds that we are psychologically incapable of doing otherwise? After all, if "ought implies can," and we can't help ourselves, then we are off the moral hook. And posterity is just out of luck. Still, there may be a paradoxical twist to this issue, which just might offer posterity, and us, a way out. It is simply this: instead of asking what our neglect of the future is doing to our successors, let's ask instead what it might be doing to us. Kenneth Boulding reflects:

Why should we maximize the welfare of this generation at the cost of posterity? Apres nous le deluge has been the motto of not insignificant numbers of human societies. The only answer to this, as far as I can see, is to point out that the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future... This whole problem is linked up with the much larger one of the determinants of the morale, legitimacy, and "nerve" of a society, and there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with the present problems and soon falls apart.(8)

Very eloquent. But is there any reason to believe him? I think so. As I have argued elsewhere,(9) by confining our concerns to ourselves and our generation, we impoverish ourselves. Our life is emptied of significance, and with that emptiness, we lose that essential "primary good" of self-respect. The common fate of mortality becomes an unbearable burden, when nothing which survives us has any value to us. Conversely, our sense of personal significance, of vital engagement, expands as things we value are perceived as enduring beyond our lifetimes -- places such as Yosemite Park, Lake Baikal, and Kyoto, things such as monuments, activities such as philosophy, institutions such as representative democracy, ideals such as justice. But if they are to endure, then we must protect them, the conditions that sustain them, and yes, the conditions of life of those who will, even into the remote future, cherish them as we have. So it comes to this: if emotional health and moral integrity are not only admirable, but rationally preferable (for the individual) as well, then we owe it to ourselves to make just provision for the future.

If this seems paradoxical, then so be it. "The moral paradox" is well-known to moral philosophers, from Aristotle to John Rawls: "if you would have a happy life, don't focus on your own happiness." Or as Michael Scriven puts it, "there are circumstances in which one can give a selfish justification for unselfishness."(10)


The Need for a "Moral Overhaul"

But does our generation have the moral fortitude to do what duty requires? Perhaps not. I have reluctantly come to agree with Norman Care, as he observes: "... that certain familiar sorts of motivation are not available to support policies demanding serious sacrifice for the sake of future generations, and we may well be discouraged by the further apparent fact that the cultivation of a form of motivation directly supportive of such policies might require something close to an overhaul of main elements in the makeup of our society which influence the moral psychology of citizens."(11)

Thus we seem to be faced with the following options:

(a) We leave ruin for our successors. The conscientious among us will suffer pangs of regret and even conscience. The rest will enjoy the comfort of denial. (The most likely outcome, I fear)

(b) We will all, forthwith, mobilize ourselves to do all that morality requires to "salvage the future." (Most unlikely!)

(c) Prof. Care's "moral overhaul" -- i.e., We should support policies that will move us from (a) and toward (b), but in ways that minimize, as much as possible, the "sacrifice factor."

In sum, I must come to the melancholy conclusion that, at least in my country, we now lack the actual capacity to fulfill our duties to posterity. But do we lack the potential capacity? Herein lies a glimmer of hope. For we are of the same species, and even the same civilization, which has produced saints and heroes who have sacrificed there very lives in behalf of others, both contemporary and in the remote future. And the sacrifice demanded of us, while considerable, is much less than that displayed by a saint or a hero. We might, then, rise to the moral challenge and realize our potential to make just provision for the remote future. But we will do this only through determined effort and a constant and conscious awareness of "the motivation problem."

How are we to thus accomplish the "moral overhaul" that will equip us to meet our responsibilities to the future?

a) First and foremost, We must take Education Seriously! That is, we must:

  • Teach critical thinking -- what Bertrand Russell called "intellectual sales resistance." Only then can we wisely choose our political leaders, and resist the onslaught of commercial hedonism and privatism in the public media.

  • Institute moral education, not of precepts, but of practical, problem-solving capacities. Conduct serious research into moral education, then apply it.

  • Teach history -- both human and "natural," with the aim of instilling a "time sense" and an historical and community consciousness. Thus we might counteract the shrinking attention span and historical sense, brought on, again, by the "entertainment" driven mass media.

  • Instill a pride in free institutions, and the value of self-respect.

  • In short, teach the next generation to do happily what we recognize to be right, but are unwilling to do.

We can hear the complaints already: "Moral education? That's nothing but indoctrination! You are proposing to invade the dignity of the individuals." While this is often the case, it need not be. The moral education of which I speak, is one, not of content but of process -- not of answers, but of the skills to find the answers for oneself. As such, this approach prizes above all else, the dignity and autonomy of the individual -- qualities assaulted and threatened by our mass culture. Be that as it may, let us acknowledge that the youth will be "morally educated" somehow, if only by default. That is to say, they will have some set of values, for better or worse. Better that we assume the task deliberately, and do a good job of it.

(b) We must adopt policies that advantage both us and the future -- and which are least burdensome to us. We might call this "moral judo" -- using the strength of "the opponent" (i.e., our self-interest) to the advantage of our objective (i.e., provision for the future). It is also popularly known as "doing well by doing good." On reflection, it seems that a remarkably large number of our "duties to the future" benefit us and those we directly care about (i.e., the next generation) -- e.g., pollution control, population, global warming, etc.

(c) We should keep an informed eye on impending impacts, and favor prevention over cure. "Earlier" is easier and cheaper.

(d) And finally, we must choose policies that will work, and will be perceived to work, as they work.


The Cynic's Last Inning -- With Rebuttal

"How can we expect such a commitment to the future from a species which produced the holocaust, the Stalinist purges, and the narcissistic consumerism so widespread today?" We can only reply that such responsibilities just might be met by a species which produced the leaders of the American Revolution, Gandhi, King, Sakharov and Mandella, along with the millions of "ordinary people" who facilitated their peaceful victories.

I'd guess the chances of success as approximately the same as the probability, fifteen years ago, of the fall of communism or the election of a freely elected majority government in South Africa.

Clearly, an appropriate fulfillment of our responsibilities to the future is not assured. Still worse, it may be quite unlikely. But it is, at the very least, possible to some significant degree. And that is all that is required for conscientious moral agents to act.

Copyright, 1994, by Ernest Partridge


1. Garrett Hardin, "Who Cares for Posterity," in Partridge (ed.), Responsibilities to Future Generations, (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981), p. 226.

2. See especially, my "Why Care About the Future?" in Responsibilities to Future Generations, op. cit., p. 203. Also, "On the Rights of Future Generations," in D. Scherer (ed), Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 40.

3. Here I am employing a theoretical device indispensable to the physical sciences, where we encounter such "ideal types" as "frictionless machine," "absolute zero" and "total vacuum" -- in all cases, "end limits" which are found nowhere in nature.

4. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 285.

5. Ibid. p. 288.

6. This critique of Rawls's "Just Savings Principle," in particular the following account of "just anticipations," "just forbearances," and "just stewardship," is drawn from my unpublished paper, "Beyond Just Savings." A briefer version of that paper, which has its origins in my Doctoral Dissertation, Rawls and the Duty to Posterity, (University of Utah, 1976), was presented at the Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, March, 1978.

7. Environmental Ethics, 4:3, Fall, 1982, pp. 195-214. For other doubts about the motivation to care for the future, see Robert L. Heilbroner, "What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?", and Thomas H. Thompson, "Are We Obligated to Future Others," both in my anthology, Responsibilities to Future Generations, op. cit..

8. "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth," in The Environmental Handbook, ed. Garrett deBell, (New York: Ballantine, 1970), p. 99-100.

9. "Why Care About the Future?", in Responsibilities to Future Generations, op. cit.., pp. 203-220.

10. Primary Philosophy, (New York: McGraw-Hill), p. 240.

11. Care, op. cit., p. 213.

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 .