What is the nature of our relationship to future generations? Since the 1960s, when what has become known as “intergenerational justice” became a topic of interest moral philosophers, this question has produced a lot of perplexity. Future people are nameless, faceless, purely potential people. When we consider the actual people with whom we share the planet, then we find they stand to us in a variety of personal - friends, lovers, children, employers - and impersonal – fellow citizens, contractees, bearers of rights – relationships. With our contemporaries, we have relationships which may be taken to impose upon us duties of various kinds – the duty of care of a parent, the duty not to harm another’s interests or deprive them of their property and so on – which we either fulfil or not. Depending on how we bear ourselves towards these others, our relationship with them may change – possibly quite radically.
What is our relationship with future people? When we speak of “descendants”, it is implicit in this term that we mean specific people who, one day, will be able to look back at us as their ancestors. In other words, the personal relationship we bear to them does not yet exist. We might speak of “posterity” instead. But this impersonal term (a noun derived from the Latin posterus which simply means “coming after’) is impersonal in a radical sense – it simply refers to the totality of the generations that succeed us, however many there may be. It has a purely temporal reference, rather than implying (unlike impersonal concepts like that of legal person or contractee) any set of social practices carrying moral implications.
|John Rawls (Wikipedia)|
It's easy to suspect that assuming the situation is entirely novel in every way is likely to lead to paralysis rather than down any productive path. Most philosophers who have dealt with these issues have therefore sought to strike a balance between the need for conceptual novelty and the need to work with concepts which are already meaningful to us. Brian Barry, for example, has consistently argued that working from the familiar to the unfamiliar, making “adjustments along the way” (Barry 1997, pp. 43-4) is a more practical strategy, as well as providing conclusions that will be “stronger” for the “rather strange case of future generations” if they can be shown to be “plausible in more familiar cases” (Barry 1983, p. 18). The concept of justice itself, Barry suggests, is where we need to begin from, and more concretely, justice conceived of in terms of the sharing of opportunities (rather than, say, the distribution of utility).
Exactly what conceptual resources we begin with, however, is a question which demands some skepticism, and that we carefully clear some ground. For example, whether "justice" is appropriate (as opposed to, say, beneficence) as a way of thinking about the normative implications of our relationship with posterity is not entirely obvious. Is it an overextension of this concept to immediately use it to explicate how we need to think about future obligations? If it is, then it might be so because it already implies a concept of our relationship with posterity which is inaccurate. This point is already present in one of the seminal discussions of intergenerational obligations, that provided by John Rawls in his 1972 A Theory of Justice.
Two hundred-odd years before, David Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding (1748), observed that the idea of justice could only logically be applied to situations with certain characteristics. Justice can only become a consideration when people find themselves in situations of limited objective scarcity, between “extreme abundance” and “extreme necessity” and limited subjective self-interest, between “perfect moderation and humanity” and “perfect rapaciousness and malice” (Sec. III, Pt. II). Rawls develops this definition by noting that it concerns a condition in which cooperation between people is necessary to serve the interests of all and in which individuals possess their own substantive conception of the good which they view as worthy of wider recognition. All humans in this situation are subject to deficits of knowledge with respect to their and others’ situation, cognitive biases etc. which may be culpable faults but may more likely simply be part of the existential constitution of human beings (1972, pp. 109-110). Above all, the circumstances of justice apply only between individuals who are able to help or hinder the interests of others.
The key point here is that this criterion does not apply in the intergenerational context. The “threat advantage” possessed by present people with respect to future people is not opposed by any comparable capacity on the part of posterity. Posterity cannot harm our present interests in the same way that we can, through our power (whether intentionally or unintentionally exercised) over the living conditions of future people."the question of justice does not arise” (Rawls, 1972, p. 254). How then, should we proceed to link the familiar concepts we use to think about obligations to the "unusual situation" in which we find ourselves when considering posterity?
Barry, B. 1983. “Intergenerational Justice in Energy Policy”, in MacLean, D. and Brown, P. G., eds, Energy and the Future, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 15-30.
Barry, B. 1997. Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice. Theoria 45(89), pp. 43-63.
Rawls, J. 1972. A Theory of Justice. Oxford Clarendon Press.