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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Future generations: society as an on-going enterprise

5. I want to comment on the second vision referred to early in the previous paragraph. If (as it must be) organized concern for the needs of future members of the community is put forward as an essential requirement of the just society, understanding of human society is involved in a way which puts the temporal dimension firmly in the forefront. I do not want to suggest that a strong case for intergenerational equity cannot be made in social philosophy on the basis of such general ethical foundations as treated above. But has the temporal dimension of the issue been sufficiently accounted for? Very simply, putting itself on a sustainable course, society is taking care of its own future existence. Insofar as future generations do not merely face us as aggregates of human beings whose claims against us, the living, derive from a shared humanity. They also face us as representatives of the future of that community itself. Without them, that community would cease to exist, and should future life not be endangered but conceivably be "nasty, brutish and short," that community would not readily recognize itself in such a gloomy prospect. In caring for the future, society sees itself as an on-going enterprise; the justice it strives for in regard to its future members is one of equal rights for all to the basic benefits of membership, these rights being granted by anticipation so as to secure social continuity (the term "rights" is used here in a primarily moral, and not legal sense). I do not think that this specifically temporal theme of durability reflects a completely new understanding of human community, at least on the level of social instinct. In speaking about education, Michael Walzer says that "[every] human society educates its children, its new and future members. Education expresses what is, perhaps, our deepest wish: to continue, to go on, to persist in the face of time. It is a program for social survival." [Op.cit., p.197.] In our present world, that "deepest wish" must deal with more than education: it has to meet the many long term dangers caused by ecological disruption. There is a change not of substance, but of scale.

This theme of social duration cannot be missed in a philosophical account of obligations to future generations. I said that intergenerational justice can be rooted in a principle of equality of opportunity, within the framework of moral impartiality. But these notions have no specific relation with time: what they do (in one move) is to overcome temporal distance in the same way as distance in space, thereby consider future people as human beings like us, and see the dependent condition of those people as an instance, among others, of social asymmetry. The theme of duration thus captures an independent moral reality. It makes justice an instrument in the search for social continuity. This way of interpreting the intuitive idea of justice between generations seems to have much stronger psychological roots than the one discussed before. Though valid in its own way, the vision of moral impartiality may cause us to believe that we live in an essentially timeless world, which just happens to have a queer addendum (the future) anxiously waiting to be neutralized by the timeless categories of moral reason. But human beings live in time, and they have the future on their agenda as something to be conquered that they may persist. Humans live in the face of time, they experience it through the many concerns of daily life. So the long term future, if it is to be made real at all in our minds, can only become so by enlarging the time horizon of our loves, either personal or impersonal. "When men act for the sake of the future they will not live to see, it is for the most part out of love for persons, places and forms of activity... To love care about the future of what we love." [John Passmore, Man's responsibility for nature, New York 1974 p.88.] And by anticipating the love of our grandchildren for their grandchildren etc., we can establish "a chain of love and concern running throughout the remote future." [Ibid. p.89.]

At the deepest level, it is this active engagement in time which makes us see our own generation in a temporal sequence, as a link connecting the past with the future. It makes us conceive of time as a dimension in which people presently alive occupy a position which is not privileged in relation to other generations. I suspect that this capacity of seeing ourselves, the living, as a part of a wider scheme of things, is material to our being able to strive for intergenerational impartiality at all. Moreover, this capacity lies at the basis of concepts like heritage or trust, which suggest that the relations between generations can be construed on the lines of a continuing implicit agreement. Such concepts require that we conceive of time as an unbroken succession in the first place: they interpret that succession in a certain way.

Now, all this cannot readily find support in an individualistic conception of the social bond. Wanting things to go on is something which is related to a perception of valuable forms of life, worthwhile activities, just institutions etc. Such values are shaped by the social environment we live in and upon which a meaningful exercise of freedom depends. So communitarian trends in social philosophy may be particularly relevant when it is the roots of our concern with the future we are interested in. There surely is a stronger foundation for that concern when we can say, with Michael Walzer, that the social contract is a "moral bond." "It connects the strong and the weak, the lucky and the unlucky, the rich and the poor, creating a union that transcends all differences of interest, drawing its strength from history, culture, religion,language, and so on." [Michael Walzer, op.cit. p.82-83.]  Burke's famous description of society as a "partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born" then lies waiting just behind the corner.

Could such a communitarian view imply a lesser regard for justice between generations? If our collective "going on" is considered, in effect, as "going somewhere" (towards some state of affairs which it is the meaning of history to reach), should this not have priority and justify, if necessary, a very unequal distribution between generations of the sacrifices needed to reach Utopia? John Rawls had to deal with this problem in his theory of justice, because he conceived a "scheme of cooperation" extending though all successive generations, the aim of which was the full realization of just institutions. He however rejected the idea that this end was "to be thought of as that alone which gives meaning and purpose to the whole process. To the contrary, all generations have their appropriate aims. They are not subordinate to one another any more than individuals are." [Rawls, op.cit. p.289.]   I take it that it also is the freedom of individual persons Rawls is thinking of when rejecting such a subordination between generations. These persons should be free to define anew their common values (the "aims" of their own generation) at each moment of history. So "going somewhere" is kept within bounds by a vision of fundamental equality: our concern for the future may express our present values and aims, but these cannot pretend to limit the right of future people to define and pursue their own. I think that what is happening here is that the one moral vision makes its influence felt on the other.

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