visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Obligations to Future Generations: a Short Essay on the Ethics of Sustainability
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Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) Introduction dot.gif (101 bytes) Future generations: a shared humanity
dot.gif (101 bytes) A challenge for social ethics dot.gif (101 bytes) Future generations: society as a shared enterprise
dot.gif (101 bytes) A difficult subject: deciding for baseline ethics dot.gif (101 bytes) The challenge of scale: toward a world society?
dot.gif (101 bytes) Responsibility and the growing scale of human action dot.gif (101 bytes)


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3. The environmental problems we face show that the growth of our technological powers calls for a new, more forward-looking notion of moral responsibility, which endeavours to trace and anticipate the far-flung consequences of our actions. Traditional concepts of responsibility for fault tend to become irrelevant when the issue is one of agricultural or industrial practices caused, inspired or even favoured by our present economic system. Rather than the notion of individuals having to answer for culpable actions committed in the past, in those cases, what is needed is the more forward-looking concept of collectivities (economic or political entities) bearing responsibility for the long-term risks which their policies create. In this consideration, one is quickly led from morals to politics. One is indeed reminded of Max Weber's "Verantwortungsethik." But one may reach the unhappy conclusion that in the end responsibility rests, quite anonymously, on our cultural priorities as a whole and on the structures in which these priorities are invested!

This is not the place for further exploration of this fascinating matter (fascinating for lawyers, too!). I add only that Hans Jonas in his well-known book Das Prinzip Verantwortung [Insel Verlag 1979.] has done the most to give its rightful place to the concept of a forward-looking responsibility which compels us to stretch our foresight as far as we can, and to base our actions on the worst possible scenario, the potential dangers being what they are. This concept links up very well with the intuitive conception of intergenerational equity. What we need is moral inspiration on the level of public action and organization.

The ethics of environmental responsibility support and spell out that forward-looking attitude which we try to take when asking for justice between generations. They require that we widen our moral horizon to keep pace with the full extent of our destructive capacities. It is by close examination of the growing scale of our collective practices that we can explore, in the environmental context, the philosophical dimensions of intergenerational equity. We have to deal with a threefold extension of the traditional reach of human power. That power firstly reaches much further in time. For instance, nuclear waste can cause harm for extremely long periods. Second, there is the question of spatial extent. Ecological mismanagement may have global effects (ozone layer, global warming). Third, we must face the potentially radical character of the impact we are making on our environment and the chance that we already are putting the future of human life on the planet at risk.

Future generations: a shared humanity

4. The time aspect is the most intriguing. Our children and grandchildren we can see; at a greater distance in time, we contemplate a formless collective of individuals hidden in complete anonymity. Moral responsibility for the long term consequences of our actions has to bridge a span more profound than distance in space: we cannot see those future people on television. Their fate nevertheless is made a concern of ours by the claim to intergenerational equity. On what ethics do we rely implicitly in order to give them a place in our moral world?

My argument is that two different but complementary moral visions control our judgment. First, there is the central aim of ethics as such, which is to deal with practical questions from a detached point of view. Such an objectivity requires that we do not treat persons in an unequal way because of mere distance in time. Distance in time is irrelevant when considering relations between persons. The other vision, on the contrary, is fully centred on time itself, in the sense of duration: distance in time is not nullified as it is in the other vision, it is bridged by our collective wish for continuity. In the first case, people remote in time are regarded in general terms as members of a shared humanity. In the second, they appear in a more concrete way, as human beings who hopefully will perpetuate our own community and all other things we have an affection for. The first vision appeals to moral reason. The second is much nearer to the realities of psychological motivation.

Let me now comment on moral objectivity. When we make a claim on behalf of later generations, we implicitly endow the persons composing these generations with a moral status. We cannot reach them individually (they are quite anonymous), but it is individual chances we want to respect by respecting the presumed interests of the generation they are a part of (this is why the problem of numbers can be a formidable one). Because they do not yet exist, those people are completely at our mercy, the power relation being quite asymmetrical. Yet we bring them into our presence through an act of mind, as human beings whom we consider to have a right to fair treatment. This involves a rejection of the social practice of discounting, which consists in valuing future lives and future interests less than contemporary ones, for reasons of temporal distance only. As already noted, what we find at work here is a general principle of impartiality which many philosophers would describe as forming the core of the moral point of view, one which makes distance in time just as irrelevant for moral purposes as distance in space. "[It] is clear that the time at which a man exists cannot affect the value of his happiness from a universal point of view." [Henry Sidgwick, Methods of ethics, 1874, London: Macmillan p.385.] Thus far, no conceptual obstacle would seem to be met by the idea of intergenerational ethics as such.

Things look different however, when we apply the concept of a just society to relations with future people. The moral point of view requires that once the specific demands of justice are attended to, these demands must be considered to govern the relations with future people with no lesser urgency than the relations between the living. Now, the criteria of justice which seem to be relevant in our relations with the future seem to be those of a distributive justice providing for a minimum of equality. The utterly dependent position of future generations calls for corrective strategies, just as social handicaps do within the framework of equitable relations between contemporaries. But such an even-handed treatment of future generations meets obstacles of a peculiar kind in political theory.

In requiring environmentally sound policies for reasons of intergenerational equity, one introduces into social thought and practice a new way of looking at the requirements of the just society. One is asking for a political community the express aim of which is to care for its future members as well. Because of its public nature, and because of its vast economic and cultural implications, the principle of sustainability is presently acquiring a quasi-constitutional status.

Traditional doctrines of political philosophy (since the Greeks) never had to contemplate the long term in such a conscious. Next to caring for the next generation and trying to secure good (and thus stable) institutions, there was no way in which men could exert a direct, foreseeable influence upon the more remote future. So political philosophy very naturally considered human society to be an arrangement between people living as contemporaries. And within this framework, a strong (though not uncontroverted) tradition developed which gave prominence to notions having to do with the interaction between individuals such as conflict, cooperation or contract, and considered justice to be a matter of mutual advantage. But no such reciprocity can obtain between us, the living, and future people who do not yet exist. Classical political philosophy sought to define society as a rational answer to the human predicament. There was, for instance, the need for a division of labour in order to survive; there was (still more fundamentally perhaps) the constant fear of death at the hand of other men, and the call it inspired for a powerful common authority. In our case, the problem is that a strong social commitment in favour of the long term future does not fit within such categories of thought. If one is of opinion that the issue of defining just social arrangements can only arise within the context of a search for peaceful coexistence, one is at a loss to understand what down-to-earth interest in survival can explain the endeavour to be just towards future generations. We surely do not coexist with them.

The best answer is probably not to make too much of the hard-headed rationalist (contractualist) tradition, whatever its importance for explaining the origins of human society. As Michael Walzer formulates it, "[the] political community is something more than a mutual benefit club." [Michael Walzer, Spheres of justice, Oxford University Press, 1983 p.81.] One meaning of justice has always been to provide for the needs of the poor and the incompetent, who have no bargaining power or cannot make a contribution to the common welfare. The meaningful use of the concept of justice thus is not confined to social situations which already show some reciprocity of interests between individuals; justice itself here takes the initiative in trying to restore the balance. So why should it be difficult to understand that we try to be just towards these typical underdogs, the future generations?

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