What Do We Owe Future Generations?
Ken Taylor

13 February 2019

Exactly how much should we care about future generations? It seems obviously wrong to say that we shouldn’t care about them at all. We would not be doing justice by them if we decided to just live it up and let them figure out how to deal with whatever mess we left behind on their own. It also seems wrong to say that we should care about them as much as we do about ourselves. After all, they don’t even exist—at least not yet. Future generations are merely hypothetical, and hypothetical beings surely do not matter as much as existing beings. Right?   


It’s also worth noting that, in fact, it is entirely up to us whether these hypothetical future beings ever actually come into existence. It is also up to us in what numbers they come to exist is entirely up to us.   We have it within our power to bring a lot of them into existence, or just a few of them into existence or even none of them at all. And in case this last thought shocks you, I should say that I am not advocating the extinction of humankind. I admit I can imagine someone (but not me) thinking, “Well, we humans have had our go at it. We’ve mostly just ruined the planet in the process. So maybe it’s time for us to exit the stage and leave the planet to others who will certainly do less damage and may even do some good.”


Myself, I’m just not enough of a misanthrope to give into that kind of thinking. I want to see the human adventure continue into the indefinite future. And I bet most other people do too. But if that’s right, we should act now on the assumption that there will be future generations. How numerous they will be is perhaps an open question. But that there will be generations to come seems all but assured.  


So what do we owe the generations to come? You might answer that since we don’t even owe to them to bring them into existence in the first place, we can’t possibly owe them anything all. But this line of reasoning misses the point that choices have consequences. Maybe my parents didn’t owe it to me to bring me into existence, for example. But once they decided they were eventually going have a kid, they weren’t free to just squander all their resources.  


To be sure, that still leaves open the question of exactly how much of their resources my parents were obligated to save for their future child (who turned out to be, but was not guaranteed to be, me.) Maybe they shouldn’t have wasted money on a yacht—which luckily for me they didn’t—but should I, as their future child, really begrudge their having taken evening classes or having gone to the theatre—things that would contribute to their own happiness and flourishing? I want to say, probably not. But surely if they had been so profligate that they made the future me permanently worse off, wouldn’t I have had the right to be retrospectively pissed at them for having done such a terrible harm to me? Similarly, if we don’t take care of the planet now, won’t the future generations that will someday inherit it have the right to look back at us and be pissed off at us too?


But then, think about this interesting philosophical twist. Suppose fear of what would have turned out to be my future righteous anger if they had given birth to me had caused my parents not to have a child at all. I can’t say I would like that better. Indeed, I wouldn’t have been around to complain, would I? And I’m actually most grateful that they didn’t reason that way and take that cowardly way out.   


Now the very fact that I am tempted to feel grateful to my parents for not letting fear hold them back from having me suggests that maybe it’s not my parents who owed something to the future me, but it’s me who owes them for their generosity in giving birth to me. Perhaps they had no particular duty as future parents to save up for their future child. Perhaps, rather, we should see the act of deciding to have a kid, making sacrifices for it before it was even conceived, stuff like that, as acts of forward looking charity! So maybe, just maybe, it’s just a mistake to think of our relations to people of the future in terms of duties and obligations at all.


But a still small voice inside of me says, “Wait a minute. Not so fast. Suppose we in the here and now do lay complete waste to the planet? Wouldn’t the people of the future be within their rights to look back at us and ask, ‘Given that you despoiled our planet, why did you even bother bringing us into existence?’”


But I reply to the small voice, “But in that case, why couldn’t we say to them ‘So you would rather not exist?’” And then the still small voice replies, “And what if they said back to us, ‘Under these conditions, we would rather not exist! So we’re suing you past people for wrongful existence in the court of intergenerational justice!’”


But now haven’t we shown that not only do we not have any positive obligations to them—since it’s all a matter of forward directed charity, anyway—but maybe we might actually have an obligation not to bring future people into existence, at least if we’re going to mess things up enough to make their hypothetical lives unbearable.


“Wait, that’s not what I was getting at all,” the still small voice insists. “What, I was trying to get you to see is that we have an absolute duty to future generations not to ruin their future planet.”


But look, even if you are right, still small voice, isn’t there a huge difference between leaving them a completely wrecked planet and leaving them one that’s got a little wear and tear, you know—a planet that’s been “lovingly used”? The real question is how much we should sacrifice for the sake of future generations. Should we live like monks so that they can live a life of plenty?


That certainly can’t be the right asnwer. That would imply that future people count more than us. And who thinks that? Certainly not me. I’m not even sure they count the same as us. That leaves us with only one option. I hate to say it, but future people surely count less than we do—at least a little less. But that's not surprising, is it? I mean we have real, concrete, and urgent interests. Think of today's teeming masses, displaced by violence and climate change, wandering the world in search for a safe harbor. In comparison to all that present day concrete suffering, the hypothetical suffering of hypothetical future people seems sort of distant and abstract.


Before you attack me and say that that’s just the kind of present-centric attitude that explains our lack of action on things like climate change, I should say that I am actually all for combating climate change. And I am all for weighing both the interests of present people and the interests of future people in the calculus of what is to be done about it.  I just don’t think it’s obvious how much weight we should give to the wellbeing of hypothetical future people as opposed to our own.


Maybe you have a thought or two of your own though. So listen to the episode, join the conversation, and help us think through how much we owe to future generations.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 -- 12:37 PM

I suppose we owe future

I suppose we owe future generations the opportunity to BE...that is, if we feel the human race (or something like it) is worth continuation. I have been reading Richard Rorty. His offerings are useful as are his uses of quotations from other philosophers. Particularly, a tidbit from Wilfrid Sellars, regarding philosophy: Philosophy is the attempt to see how things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together, in the largest sense of the term. When I read this I thought about this post and also about a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's alleged quote said: We must all hang together or we shall surely hang separately. While not widely known as a philosopher, Ben certainly met some of the criteria. Hanging together, in the largest sense of the term, should mean a willingness to do whatever is necessary to ensure the continuation of our species (or something like it). We had better figure that out. Soon. Else-wise, there will be no need to wonder about what we owe anyone.