The Myth of Inter-generational Justice

OXFORD: "Why do anything for posterity?" is an old rhetorical question, usually followed by "after all, posterity has never done anything for us." This supposedly absolves us from obligations to future generations. The opposite view is held by many social and environmental activists. We must respect the "rights" of future generations, they say, we must take account of their interests in accordance with the dictates of some principles of justice.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Future generations do not have any rights, but this does not absolve us from moral constraints on those of our policies that may affect their interests.

The reason why unborn people do not have any rights is that unborn people do not have anything. They do not have legs, or hair, or a taste for Mozart. They are not here; they do not exist; period. Unborn people should not be thought of as some special class waiting in the wings for the cue to bring them onstage.

Of course, when born these future generations will have rights. The debate over what form these rights should take has been going on for over two millennia, so it is difficult to summarise. Nevertheless, it can be said that the debate has been almost entirely about the rights that people have to what is available at the time, and this applies equally to future generations. If, at any point in time, people have any moral rights at all, they are rights to what is available.

To begin with they will have basic natural rights to life and as much freedom and security to pursue whatever it is that makes their lives valuable to them as is compatible with the maximum freedom and security of others. These "rights" may also entail secondary moral rights to a certain share of the "goods" available to society at any point. But they have no "right" to what was, or will become, available at any other time.

For example, we may regret that we can no longer see some species of wild animal that has been hunted to extinction by people who lived centuries ago. But we would not claim that, in doing so, they violated our "rights".

If we have a moral "right" it must be possible for us, in principle, to insist on its being respected, or to complain to whoever has the counterpart obligation if it is not being respected, or to delegate somebody else – such as our lawyer – to claim that our rights be respected. In practice, in many parts of the world today, these courses of action are not open to most people.

But this is because of a deficiency in their social arrangements and their political or judicial systems. It is not a matter of logical impossibility. Between distant generations, however, such is logically impossible. Even in lawsuit-happy America one could not find a lawyer to represent my claim against the hunters who, three centuries ago, deprived me of the chance to see the now-extinct Dodo. And if you have rights you must be able to waive them. But there is no way I can say "O.K. Go ahead. Hunt the Dodo as much as you like. I never did care much for the beasts anyway."

If future generations lack moral "rights" it follows that they cannot be incorporated into any theory of justice. For all theories of justice implicitly define moral rights.

But although future generations will only have rights to what is available when they are alive, decent human beings today should nevertheless be concerned about the interests that future generations will have. To make "rights" or its related notion of "justice" the whole of morality would narrow and impoverish the very concept of morality.

The reason why most of us would be horrified by the notion of killing or injuring somebody is not that we feel that we would be depriving the person concerned of his "rights", or that we would be violating some principle of justice. It would be an outrageous violation of our humanitarian instincts and feelings of compassion.

For the same reason we should take into account the interests of future generations. We should not condemn them to poverty by depriving them of some essential resource. But the whole of history and economic theory shows that there is no danger of this happening. Instead, our most valuable contribution to the welfare of future generations would be to bequeath to them institutions that will help them respect each others' basic natural rights.

This work could start now, by promoting greater respect for basic human rights in those many parts of the world where they are inadequately protected. We should also bequeath to them the best features of our culture, as well as qualities of mind and spirit, and tolerance of differences between people, that will help future generations live together peacefully and resolve their own conflicts of interest fairly and justly. [None of these things is a ‘finite' or ‘scarce' resource the allocation of which between generations has to be governed by some principles of inter-generational justice].

In other words we should shift attention away from concern with the "rights" of future generations to some allegedly scarce resources and concentrate on the non-material legacy which can add far more to the well-being of future generations than a bit more oil or whatever. It is typical of the intellectual confusion that permeates most environmentalist thinking and is repeated parrot-like by politicians, that their emphasis on resource conservation and "sustainable development" is totally in conflict with assertions that the trouble with modern civilization is its pre-occupation with material prosperity.

It will not help future generations if they live in authoritarian regimes but have plenty of materials with which to build palaces for their rulers.