Livin’ in the future
Global warming and intergenerational justice
As environmental activists and their allies mourn the death of the climate bill, the ethics of environmental protection bring up many interesting questions. In this post, I’d like to take a look at one often overlooked issue. The true effects of global warming (and other environmental problems), even at its worst, will probably be felt most by a generation that has not yet been born. Does this change the moral calculus? What do we owe future generations?
Theoretically, it is tempting to think that we owe them nothing. After all, future generations by definition do not exist, and it is hard to imagine persons who do not exist having rights. Classic conceptions of justice rely on reciprocity or consent – concepts that cannot be applied to future generations. Yet, this position is obviously counter-intuitive. Nobody thinks it’s morally permissible to leave the planet an inhospitable wasteland when we die.
Still, it is difficult and complex to formulate a theory that can successfully defend the rights of future generations. Such a theory would have to rely on the fact that future persons will have rights after they are born, and past actions can violate those rights, even if the violation occurred when the rights themselves did not exist. There are many ways to spell out just how an action can affect the future in this way, but likely something to this effect will be correct.
But even if this is established, there is a further question about the extent to which we owe future generations. A classic solution to this type of problem was formulated by John Rawls, using his famous original position. Imagine all generations of a society meeting together to form the rules of intergenerational justice. These persons are under a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing anything specific about themselves that might bias their decisions, including which generation they are from. They now deliberate on justice between generations.
The specifics on how these theoretical persons might deliberate require much more argumentation, but it is easy to see approximately how this solves something like the ethics of global warming. Since the deliberating persons know they might end up in a generation where global warming could seriously harm their quality of life, they would want to make sure preceding generations take appropriate environmental precautions. However, since they might also end up in a generation where global warming has not yet taken full effect, they would not want to be exceedingly burdened by obligations to future generations.
In real life, one fact that makes environmental concerns difficult to deal with is that the possible consequences are often very long term, while sacrifices are immediate. This is an instance where analytic philosophy becomes incredibly useful in making clear how to think about these problems. Rawls’ solution gives us good reason to think that it is unfair to weigh the cost benefit analysis with a generational bias.
Photo by Flickr user citizenswaine used under Creative Commons Attribution license