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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The challenge of scale: toward a world society?

6. I argued that intergenerational equity can be "read" in two ways, and that these two visions probably work simultaneously in our minds. Now, in order to have a better look at their actual interplay, we want a fuller description of basic facts. This is to say that we haven't yet paid enough attention to the diffuse character of intergenerational relations, which is reinforced (in our case) by the potentially global impact of environmental disruption. The point I would make is that the moral vision with the greatest motivational strength (the vision of continuity) tends to get lost within such a wider scale of events.

Let me start by turning back to the time dimension for a moment, and to the initial moral step of "seeing" future people as human beings at all. Our children and grandchildren, of course, are not part of the problem. We see them directly enough. It is when looking further in time that it is purely potential people we are dealing with, whom we bring into our presence through an act of mind. These people have no names, they can have no individualized existence for us. They confront us as formless collectives (aggregates) of individuals which constantly renew themselves through time, and which can only be structured as successive "generations" by (temporal or spatial) stipulations on our part. The generations we thus define ourselves can only be described in general terms (probable numbers, territorial location, distance in time etc.) It is clear that although future people thus appear to us in a collective guise, they do so in a very diffuse manner which does not allow to speak of future generations as collective entities in the same sense as clubs, corporations or states. [But they of course can participate, through a mental act of identification on our part, in the fully collective nature of presently existing entities.]  These people still are individuals, though individuals sharing a common condition of structural anonymity. It is individual persons whom we want to reach when showing concern for intergenerational equity. The harms we want to avoid are harms to individual lives. But of necessity our concern must be an indirect one: it must reach future persons through the measures it inspires on behalf of generational collectives as a whole. It is the average life chances of these persons we are concerned with: the problem of numbers therefore is a capital one.

The anonymity of future people is due, in part, to the circumstance that it soon enough makes little sense to establish a mental relation with them in terms of genealogy. "Your great-great grandchild will also be the great-great grandchild of fifteen other people in the current generation, many of their identities now unknown. Presumably your great-great grandchild's well-being will be as much an inheritance from each of these fifteen others as from yourself. Therefore it does not make sense for you to worry too much about your particular descendant...." [Herman Daly and John B.Cobb, For the common good, Boston 1989, p.39.] So present concern for that descendant cannot be very particular either. "The further in the future is the hypothetical descendant, the greater the number of co-progenitors in the present generation, and consequently the more in the nature of a public good is any provision made for the future." [Ibid.] Herman Daly claims that "[the] thrust of these evident consequences of sexual reproduction is toward community and away from individualism." [Ibid.]  I agree with Daly: these "evident consequences" strongly underpin the moral vision of social continuity in its more communitarian aspects. Being a public good, concern for the future is inspired by values held in common; and because of their aggregate character and continuous succession in time, future generations appear to us as an embodiment of our collective wish to go on, based as it is on a perception of what is good in our social environment. Does this make it senseless to imagine a personal "chain of love and concern running though the remote future," which carries forward, one step at a time, the love we feel for our children and grandchildren? I am not sure; but in any case, one has to realize this cannot affect the analysis I just proposed. It is now, in the present, that the presumed interests of the grandchildren of my grandchildren etc. need protection, and this inevitably calls for measures taken on some level of public action and directed at living conditions shared by a certain future population. So communitarian motives again come into their own. We care, for instance, for the future inhabitants of our city or of our country, or for the future members of some cultural or religious group. The link we establish with them in our minds has nothing to do with genealogy; it is those individuals who will continue some common life form or enterprise whom we feel related to.

Such concerns presuppose that one can, in effect, make the difference for the future generations in question, providing for them in a special way. By creating a public park in our home town, we are certain to benefit the future inhabitants of that city. By providing for better schools, we can hope to raise our country's cultural level, etc. Quite another picture emerges when we look at the potentially global impact of environmental phenomena. It may be meaningful, in many cases, to consider future generations living on some particular territory (a city, a region, a country) as the object of specific measures taken on their behalf. The future neighbours of a particular nuclear plant will probably have a greater chance of deriving a benefit from security measures taken in that plant than people living at the antipodes. But there is a strong pull in the opposite direction (what populations, by the way, should we consider to be future "neighbours" of the nuclear plant?). Industrial pollution in the UK and the US Midwest causes acid rain damage in Sweden and Canada respectively. The ozone layer and global warming issues concern the world atmosphere as a whole (the atmosphere is a world commons): though we may intend to protect our own future nationals by taking measures against those dangers, this can only be accomplished by participating in global programs which in effect are directed at the future world population as a whole. The further we stretch our time horizon, the more this global spread of environmental disruption is certain to occur. Environmental interdependence is accompanied, moreover, by a growing interdependence on most other fronts of human activity. "Our rapid technological growth ensures that this interdependence will increase. Thus our concern for our own country must, as we extend our concerns into longer time horizons...focus on protecting the planetary quality of our natural and cultural environment." [Edith Brown Weiss, In fairness to future generations, Tokyo/New York 1988, p.27.]

What follows for a realistic appraisal, in terms of social ethics, of our obligations to future generations? I have stressed the public character of the topic: it wants to be made a part of any definition of the common good. "The purpose of human society must be to realize and protect the well-being of every generation." [Ibid. p.23.] This statement certainly sounds ambitious within a global context. Can the society referred to be thought of as a world society? I have suggested that the moral claim of future generations has the strongest cards (by far) when it is supported by a wish for continuity, which naturally concerns particular communities, life forms, values etc. But we now seem to face a paradox. The ecological context does not allow us to stop at any frontier at all. "Community" grows into "mankind," "future generations" become identical with "future humanity." The scale of environmental dangers and of human activities in general, seems to land us in abstractions. Michael Walzer's "union...drawing its strength from history, culture, religion, language and so on" dissolves into an utopian world society we cannot easily identify with.

One could argue, perhaps, that there is no need to look beyond national or regional self-interest. Self-regarding motives remain so even when technically speaking, circumstances call for solutions on a world scale. But the present world scene already points in another direction. Ecological conservation has become a major issue on the agenda of North-South relations. The sacrifices countries are asked to make for the future are considered more and more within a wider pattern of distributive justice on the world level. So should a realistic appraisal not take account of these first signs of a world consciousness?

In any case, we still have a long way to go. The challenge of scale remains formidable. The moral vision which sees future generations in terms of perpetuating all those things that we love seems to become less relevant, in spite of its motivational force, than the other one, which stresses universality and thus, the rights of every individual human being, particular concerns being left behind. According to that wider vision, in caring for the life chances of future generations, we add a time horizon to the protection of human rights to which we already are committed in international relations. The French philosopher Henri Bergson suggested, some time ago, that the world is moving from a "morale close" to a "morale ouverte." In his view, it is the great leaders of mankind, the great prophets (he mentions Christ) who, by their living example, create a new form of moral appeal which transcends the traditional patterns of our emotional life.

In Das Prinzip Verantwortung, Hans Jonas also remarks on the need to widen our motivational horizon. He says that a proper consideration of our responsibility towards the future must result in a critical attitude towards our own psychological motives: we should be able to overcome their limitations and build up an adequate level of actual concern. But let us pay attention to the context of this remark. When discussing the growing scale of human powers, I observed that its third major aspect is the potentially radical character of the impact we are making on our environment. There is a chance that we already are putting the future of human life on the planet at risk. Next to other dangers caused by human technology, this precisely is the risk that Jonas wants us to face in a conscious way. Bergson's "morale ouverte" not only has to be true to its own logic of justice for all human beings, whatever their distance in space or in time. It also has to broaden this concern into saving the future of mankind as such. What moral resources, if any, can we draw upon in order to make this all-encompassing aim the object of a conscious commitment?

Hans Jonas relies on an intricate metaphysical argument which has convinced few other philosophers. He admits that the topic of collective survival may be one which requires religious treatment. Personally, I feel that from a philosophical view, the concept of responsibility for the perpetuation of man's adventure on earth logically calls for the existence of a God who knows the meaning of creation and of human history, and to whom an account must be rendered by mankind as a whole. Does the topic, indeed, lend itself to any form of purely secular discourse?

We can't "prove" the worth of our continued presence on earth. There is only a form of self-analysis which shows that the meaning of our lives depends, at the deepest level, upon assuming such an indefinite perpetuation. I said that the moral vision which is centred on continuity, on society as an on-going enterprise, is essentially a particularist one. We do not love mankind, nor do we build a "chain of love and concern" linking its successive demographic incarnations. But the open future for mankind as a whole forms a necessary backdrop for our more particular loves. That could be shown in many different ways. "You may understand therefore\ that all our knowledge shall be a dead thing from that moment on\ when the door of the future is shut."*
*Dante, Inferno, Canto 10, cited by George Steiner, in In Bluebeard's castle (Some notes towards the redefinition of culture), Yale University Press 1971 p.73. Steiner remarks in this connection that we have now lost the "ontological axiom of historical progress." "[The] whole issue of a working theory of culture in the absence of a dogma or genuinely felt metaphoric imperative of progress and perfectibility seems to me one of the most difficult now facing us."

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