Intergenerational Obligations and the Rope of Lives

07 June 2005

Yesterday on the show,  John came up with a really nice metaphor.   He compared a generation to a small strand in a long rope.  Each strand is closely intertwined with a number of other nearby strands, but mostly  the strands don’t make direct contact with each other.  If you think of the rope as growing over time,  the metaphor captures a very nice fact about  relationships among the generations.  No one strand lasts very long, for example.  But the rope endures by having new strands begin where other strands have left off.   I like the  metaphor a lot and want to use it to explore a little bit further how we  might think of intergenerational obligations.

We can divide the generations up into three sets:  those that wholly precede us on the rope,  those that partly overlap with us, and those that wholly follow us.  It seems pretty clear that  how we think about our obligations to another generation depends partly on which set that generation falls into.  Our obligations, if any, to generations that wholly precede us will certainly differ from our obligations to generations that overlap or wholly follow us.  Another  important factor, I think, is the kind of  rope we're talking about --   whether the roped together generations form a family, a nation, or a school, say.

It’s tempting to believe we can have no obligations to generations that wholly precede  our own,  whether  they are generations of one’s own family,  one’s own nation, or one’s own school.    After all, they are dead and so, you might think, beyond all harm and benefit.   I think there is something right about this at it stands.   

Both Aristotle and Confucius  would disagree, I think and not entirely without  reason.  You can, for example,  tarnish someone’s reputation long after they are gone.  That plausibly is a kind of harm.  Similarly, breaking a promise to one’s dead mother, to preserve  a cherished family heirloom, say, seems like a bad thing and maybe even a harm of some sort to the dead mother.

It seems right to say that when you break a promise to a dead person or do something to (unjustly) tarnish the reputation of the dead you may have done something wrong.   But what seems less clear to me is that you’ve actually done something  wrong to the dead person.  At any rate,  it clearly doesn’t follow from the mere fact that you’ve done something wrong,  that you’ve done something wrong to the dead.

To see why it doesn’t follow, consider John’s rope.  It seems to me that you can have -- and maybe in some cases ought to have --  an attitude toward the rope as a whole  and toward your own present role in “extending” the rope. I don't see why just those atttitudes might not be the source of many obligations, without  those obligations having to be obligations to any past or future generations.  By analogy, think of one’s whole life and one’s attitudes toward that life at any given stage of that life. We tend to think of any moment in our lives as one moment in a temporally extended life.  Many of our attitudes are attitudes toward  our lives as a whole – rather than being attitudes toward  particular stages of our lives.  To be sure, attitudes toward our lives as wholes may entail various attitudes toward the various stages of our lives.   If I want my life as a whole to go well, then at earlier stages I may have to make certain efforts that will only bear fruit at later stages of my life.  But my point is that it would be wrong to simply reduce our lives to a sequence of stages and then to insist that our attitudes are all directed at particular life stages, with there being no attitudes that are direct to our lives as wholes.

The analogy strains a little bit when we get to the rope, because the rope is a series of connected but distinct lives.  Still,  it seems as though we might  sometimes have attitudes  toward the rope either as a whole or at least toward large  segments of the rope that extend forward and backward  beyond our own strands.   When we think of our own individual lives as tied up with the history of a family or of a nation or of  a school or even of  a neighborhood, we are to some extent  viewing  our lives as part of one strand on a  rope of connected  lives.

Now suppose that I do view my life as one life among a set of interconnected  lives and suppose that, in effect,  I give myself the task of perserving  and extending the rope by which I am connected to  lives gone by and lives still  to come.  I thereby commit myself to preserving and extending the rope, but not because I owe it to anyone to do so --  most especially not because I owe it to  the dead  and probably not because I owe it  to the yet to  be born.  But the important point is that as long as I am committed to preserving and extending the rope, then it can be wrong not to take certain actions, even if I do no “harm” to any past or future person when I fail to take the requisite actions.

Notice that we may find the rope handed down to us from our ancestors  to be in many ways unlovely.  We might therefore  set ourselves the task of radically altering the  future trajectory of the rope.   If, for example,  our ancestors were a slave-holding,  xenophobic, marauding people, who disrupted everything they touched,  the rope as we find it might contain division and conflict. We certainly wouldn't  owe it to them to continuing weaving  the rope together in ways that respect who and what  they were.   The rope is an inheritance that we may do with as we would, guided by no normative lights save our own.   Or so it seems to me.  If that is right,  it is wrong to think of ourselves as "obligated" to past generations.

I think something similar can be said about future generations.  We don’t owe it to future generations to pass on the rope in any particular shape.  In a sense, we do not stand in “direct moral community” with not yet  existent generations.   And the same holds, by the way, for no longer existent ones.   By this I mean that neither wholly past nor wholly future generations can make any  direct moral claim on us because we are not  in direct  dialectical engagement with them at all.   Nonetheless, in viewing  our lives as bound together by John’s rope, both with lives that have already wholly  elapsed and with lives  still to come, nothing prevents us from  commiting  ourselves to continuing  the rope in ways that honor or respect the past or in ways that will  provide an inheritance of a certain sort to those yet to come.  Indeed,  seeing our lives in this way  is  one way of endowing our lives with meaning and with a certain narrative  coherence. 

I’ve gone on way too long about generations that wholly precede or follow our own.  So I think I’ll stop now and post this as it stands.     I’ll save for another post some thoughts about generations that partly overlap our own.  Here things are quite different and quite a bit more complex.  That's partly because we are in more or less direct dialectical engagement and moral community with such generations.  They do make direct demands on us and we make direct  demands on them.   It was this kind of thing that Norman Daniels talked about on our show during the time we had him on.  But more about that in my next post.   

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, June 7, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Near the end of the show you were discussing wheth

Near the end of the show you were discussing whether one owed anything to future generations. If one admits to there being something in the individual which goes beyond the purely physical (i.e., can anyone demonstrate the chemical formulas for such things as intention, will, courage, nobility, honor, etc.?, doesn't it stand to reason that one might find himself or herself as another strand of rope in a future generation? To hedge one's bets one could answer the question posed on the show in this context: "If I was going to be another strand of rope in a future generation, in what kind of world would I like to find myself? A toxic waste dump or a sustainable environment? A free society or totalitarian state? Palo Alto or Sadr City?"

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with Ken that it does not follow simply fr

I agree with Ken that it does not follow simply from the fact that one has done something wrong that one has done something wrong TO a particular person. Still, I think one can harm or do something wrong to a dead person (say) by spoiling their reputation or mutilating their body. It is of course difficult to prove such an assertion.
It is interesting to note that it does not seem better for there to be more and more happy people currently existing. Given this, it also does not seem that it would be wrong for our species simply to go out of existence in virtue of people suddenly becoming infertile (or voluntarily deciding not to have more babies). Why would the situations be asymmetric? If this is correct, then perhaps we have obligations not to harm present and past persons, but not future generations.
The rope can be a noose, especially given the way we are treating the Earth.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Regarding the question of why we would feel we hav

Regarding the question of why we would feel we have an obligation to future generations even though they don't yet exist:
It's simply because we feel that we should avoid causing harm or suffering.
How can we harm or cause suffering to people who don't exist? Because it's nearly 100% certain that they WILL exist. If you act such that resources are depleted or the environment is severely poisoned or commit other selfish acts you can be nearly 100% certain that some people in the future WILL be harmed and suffer, until they die, anyway. To think otherwise would be similar to dumping a box of nails on an empty road in the middle of the night and excuse that act by saying: "I don't see anyone driving down this road right now, so I don't KNOW that anyone will ever drive down this road, so I don't KNOW that anyone will ever run over these nails and get a flat. So as far as I know I'm not doing harm. And if I don't KNOW [for certain]that I'm doing harm then I'm NOT doing harm."
Or you could close your eyes and drop a bowling ball from a high window of a city building and justify it by saying: "I don't see anyone on the street below [because your eyes are closed], so as far as I know the ball isn't going to hit anyone, so as far as I know I'm not doing harm. And if I'm not 100% certain that I'm doing harm then I'm NOT doing harm." Does that sound reasonable?
One reason why a person might not feel an obligation to consider the well-being of future generations is if they don't feel that causing harm and suffering is wrong in general. So it's not simply that they don't care about future generations -- they don't care about current generations either. And I'm not sure that I could make an argument about why that view is fundamentally wrong without referring to religious precepts...so I'll leave it alone.
Another reason one might not feel such an obligation to future generations is if they truly believe that the world will cease to exist before the negative consequences of their actions develop. If there are no sufferers then there can be no suffering. Now, maybe it's not unreasonable to question whether in 1000 years there will still be beings in existance who can suffer. But to assume that the end of beings-who-can-suffer will occur upon ones own death is not reasonable. Several billion people have died since the beginning of people, but not one of those deaths was accompanied by the end of people-who-can-suffer. So it's not reasonable to assume that ones own death will be any different.
I agree that it's not possible to harm a dead person. I don't believe that any consequences of my actions can propogate back in time to affect them. That's why, in the USA anyway, you can't be tried for libel or slander against a dead person.
But my actions can have consequences in the future, including the not-so-near future. Well, actually, as far as I know, ALL consequences are in the future (wacky physics aside). So it would be nonsensical for me to say that my actions cannot harm someone in the future.
An "obligation to future generations" is simply an obligation to do good and avoid causing harm in general. Only a rejection of the precept that "it's good to do good and bad to cause harm" would be consistent with rejection of an "obligation to future generations".

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I believe that my interests can be harmed by event

I believe that my interests can be harmed by events that take place in distant lands. So, if my daughter were to die in a rock-climbing accident in the Himalayas, I would be instantaneously harmed. My being harmed by her death does not require any causation in the physical sense--I am harmed even if I die before I ever find out about it. Similarly, harming a dead person does not require backwards causation. In my view, the reasons we can't be tried for libel or slander against a dead person needn't be that we can't harm such a person; after all, there are arguably harms that are not "actionable" by the law.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I owe nothing to the dead except to evolve knowled

I owe nothing to the dead except to evolve knowledge with a generational leap and the preservation of their knowledge, because they are dead. A generation is twenty years. I owe posterity the chance that the dead gave me. Posterity owes me nothing, except what I owed the dead.
I owe dead philosophers and evolution of knowledge with a generational leap. They gave me their books and advanced philosophy a small bit compared to the history of the human race. Some advanced knowledge by decades, some made very great strides making 500 year leaps like Kant, Hegel, Aristotle, and Plato. I owe posterity the preservation of past and current knowledge and the chance for them to make the same leap themselves.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, June 12, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Two points: 1. On doing something wrong, not TO

Two points:
1. On doing something wrong, not TO someone: I think this might be considered with respect to memes, vis a vis, it seems that our memes surive us and that these memes can then be the object of harm for future generations. This then pushes the question to the relationship between my meme and me, particular along the lines of when you harm my meme, how is it that you harm me, and is there a temportal qualification in order here.
2. When we consider owing generations past, it is hard to see why the fact that they (or some of them) were morally corrupt should be part of the consideration, unless one adopts a radical view of "owes." I might merely owe them where there were "right" (however I define that) but not where they were "wrong."

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, June 12, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

One point perhaps to keep in mind. One can (mista

One point perhaps to keep in mind. One can (mistakenly, I believe) conclude that we do not have obligations to dead individuals (or that we cannot harm dead individuals) because one focuses on a sub-class of putative obligations (or persons). But it would not follow from a consideration of these problematic obligations or individuals that we cannot harm dead individuals, or that we have no obligations to the dead. I may not have the obligation to continue a family tradition of being Republicans, but it would not follow that I could not harm my great grandfather by lying about his accomplishments, and so forth.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 18, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

here is an event to create intergenerational dialo

here is an event to create intergenerational dialogue
www.meditation.com/intergen

 
 
 

Blog Archive

2018

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2017

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2016

December

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2015

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2005

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

Intergenerational Obligations and the Rope of Lives | Philosophy Talk

Offline

Philosophy Talk is under maintenance

Error

The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.