What Do We Owe Future Generations?

Sunday, September 19, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Is It

We talk about owing future generations a better world. We might also think that we should do things for future generations even if our actions might not benefit present-day people. But is it possible to have obligations to people who are not yet born? Can people who do not exist be said to have rights that we should respect? And if they do, what do we do if our rights and theirs conflict? Josh and Ken are obliged to welcome Rahul Kumar from Queen's University, editor of Ethics and Future Generations.

Comments (8)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 23, 2018 -- 1:02 PM

Upon completing an essay on

Upon completing an essay on enlightenment philosophy, I looked at the PT blog and found this post. An ending portion of my essay is given below. It may give some clue, as to what debt we have to those who are not yet in control of that of which we are not yet in control:

I think we have to wonder---more now than did our enlightened ancestors. If the famous 2nd law of thermodynamics holds for closed systems, what means that for us? Sure, it holds in matters of physics, but all things, animate or no, are vulnerable to obligatory constraints and land mines. Might it not be that entropy is stalking us while we carelessly look the other way? You cannot hope to ask the right questions if you have already arrived at the wrong answers.

Cordially, Neuman

Mark P's picture

Mark P

Sunday, February 10, 2019 -- 11:31 AM

Speaking of Utilitarianism, I

Speaking of Utilitarianism, I'd love to hear what the commentators think of the Utility Monster thought experiment -- which I believe is another nail in the coffin for Utilitarianism. I see examples of it in society today. But I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, August 15, 2021 -- 8:37 PM

Mark,

Mark,

Strictly the Utility Monster (UM) isn't a part of this OP or show, but Utilitarianism will never die, so here is a short take on Nozick's UM.

This thread jack is worth its own show/blog. PT has done a recent show on Rawls, but it didn't get into the UM that much, which is the thought experiment of Rawl's greatest critic Robert Nozick. Thought experiments are themselves worthy of a separate show and span literature, and science, as well as philosophy. Ursula Le Guin's short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Derek Parfit's Mere Addition Paradoxare both towering rebuttals/commentaries to Nozick's UM.

We need to be mindful of our criteria for happiness. It can be widely different. The beads given for Manhattan Island and terms weren't understood (by either party.) Old or disabled humans can not generate happiness as readily as young and fully-abled persons. If we generalize happiness and measure it in the proximate present time, Utilitarianism makes some sense. The present moment is the criterion I would examine the UM. Once we look to the future, and even if we look to the past, things become less clear. Who is a monster, and what utility is gained?

For the most part, the diminishing marginal utility as anyone gains resources makes their relative return on pleasure lesser. Houseless people are UM s relative to the housed but lose their monster hood quickly once off the streets. CoVid vaccinations were arguably and inversely given to the UM s of our world, yet the vaccine-hesitant don't even realize the horror of their own making.

I'm not sure of what examples you were thinking. Each scenario brings out its own set of qualifications. Super Intelligent machines, Google, Obamacare, and homelessness are some UM-worthy examples I can think of, but each leads down its own threadjacking details. In general, the UM is unhelpful. Utilitarianism is much too large a beast to be slain by any monster. The future generation argument Rahul enters put easily removed nails in Utilitarian arguments. The climate situation is way too far gone, the resources of Africa are too scarce, and for the most part, the diminishing marginal utility as anyone gains resources makes their relative return on pleasure lesser. Most importantly, the political will is too vulnerable to assume growth and world order in the near future.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 13, 2021 -- 4:57 AM

Am drafting a longview

Am drafting a longview commentary on this question. Will share pieces of that, as it develops, explaining why I think any answer is ultimately out-of-time.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 13, 2021 -- 6:27 AM

Experience teaches us that we

Experience teaches us that we are not so concerned about the long view on actions. The Covid crisis is a good example. Posing an existential threat to our kind, it received pretty swift attention and vaccine development unparalled.. What we may or may not owe future generations is much less an issue than whether there will be future generations...

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 18, 2021 -- 8:31 AM

Long views are not very sexy.

Long views are not very sexy. The matter of global warming is finally gaining some traction, but mostly among the scientific realm. It is not goog for commerce, progress or any form of government based on profit. In other words, all of them. And so, those who remain among the doubtful have vested interests that are at risk, should science and it's supporters be believed. It does not seem likely that anyone can have it both ways...we don't yet have all the wrinkles ironed out so as to move somewhere else. Millionaires are making strides with their innovative (space-worthy?) vehicles. But, if science is right, time for ironing is short. An average person can see the dilemma. I think. Mine is a layman point of view, best I can offer, based on what I have and know.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, August 23, 2021 -- 3:58 PM

Seeing the light at the end

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is difficult while amid clear and present dangers like climate change or Covid19. There may be no clear path to recovery or a future generation that resembles anything like our current or recent past.

Philoso?hy Talk did a show similar to this one in 2005, which is helpful to me in thinking about these times - https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/intergenerational-obligations. Though that was 16 years ago, the show's core is as relevant today as back then, even if the sense of dread wasn't as prevalent. That show led off with a line from Groucho Marx "Why should I care about future generations – what have they ever done for me?" Ken finished that show with his answer – Future generations give our lives meaning.

I remember years ago holding my first and only child thinking about this. I didn't post to PT back then, blogging/posting didn't seem like a thing, and being a Dad was all I could manage. Honestly, global warming didn't seem like the thing it is now. It is a dark tunnel.

I appreciate this new show all the more in light of the previous one. Philosophy helps me think about my worries and concerns. Like most other callers and bloggers here, I share their pessimism and ennui. But I am bolstered by their shared thought and attention. They are my leaders and companions in passing down the lessons, debts, and possible solutions to the generations to come.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, August 29, 2021 -- 2:04 PM

Read with interest your

Read with interest your remarks, Tim. I offer for any who are interested, one more installment on the long-view thesis:
The long-view is a development, unique to human consciousness., whatever we believe that to be. Our abilities to reason; infer; intuit; assess and analyze are what give us this capability. Natural selection has some small bend in this direction, but does not plan, based upon experience.(s). So, we have an 'upper hand', not available to primary consciousness-endowed creatures. Even with this benefit, we still fail to read the signs. The rampant resurgence of covid is signal. We were advised of this probability, told to use PPE, advised to get vaccinated and all the rest. Vaccination efforts fell short of what were attainable. Politics won out over science and a long-view. The tail wagged the dog. And we are in a continuing world of hurt because of it. Call this simplistic if you like. We had algorithms (ska, tools). They were not taken seriously after covid fatigue took hold. Now. Is there an ethic associated with tools? It depends on where you sit, whether that ethic stands as valid.

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