Obligations to future generations


A note from Martin P. Golding that accompanied this 1972 paper explained that it was highly speculative and an attempt to extend the author's article on a theory of human rights. Yet its explorations still have much relevance today, several decades later. It is another exploration of the nature of obligations, this time to future people. Questions of claims, moral communities, contracts and how far we can and should look into the future are all explored.

§ [...] [T]he notion of obligations to future generations [...] finds increasing use in discussions of social politics and programs, particularly as concerns population distribution and control and environment control. Thus, it may be claimed, the solution of problems in these areas is not merely a matter of enhancing our own good, improving our own conditions of life, but is also a matter of discharging an obligation to future generations.

Before I turn to the question of the basis of such obligations - the necessity of the plural is actually doubtful - there are three general points to be considered: (1) Who are the individuals in whose regard it is maintained that we have such obligations, to whom do we owe such obligations? (2) What, essentially, do obligations to future generations oblige us to do, what are they aimed at? and (3) To what class of obligation do such obligations belong, what kind of obligation are they? [...]

[...] Obligations to future generations are distinct from the obligations we have to our presently living fellows, who are therefore excluded from the purview of the former, although it might well be the case that what we owe to future generations is identical with (or overlaps) what we owe to the present generation. However, I think we may go further than this and also exclude our most immediate descendants, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, perhaps. What is distinctive about the notion of obligations to future generations is, I think, that it refers to generations with which the possessors of the obligations cannot expect in a literal sense to share a common life. [...]

But if their inner boundary be drawn in this way, what can we say about their outer limits? Is there a cut-off point for the individuals in whose

£ regard we have such obligations? Here, it seems, there are two alternatives. First, we can flatly say that there are no outer limits to their purview: H all future generations come within their province. A second and more '<2 modest answer would be that we do not have such obligations towards ¡^ any assignable future generation. In either case the referent is a broad and ¡2 unspecified community of the future, and I think it can be shown that we £ run into difficulties unless certain qualifications are taken into account. v Our second point concerns the question of what it is that obligations to future generations oblige us to do. The short answer is that they u

-o oblige us to do many things. But an intervening step is required here, o for obligations to future generations are distinct from general duties to § perform acts which are in themselves intrinsically right, although such •¡5 obligations give rise to duties to perform specific acts. Obligations to "g future generations are essentially an obligation to produce - or to attempt to produce - a desirable state of affairs for the community of the future, to promote conditions of good living for future generations. [...] If we think we have an obligation to transmit our cultural heritage to future generations it is because we think that our cultural heritage promotes, or perhaps even embodies, good living. In so doing we would hardly wish to falsify the records of our civilization, for future generations must also have, as a condition of good living, the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. [...]

To come closer to contemporary discussion, consider, for example, population control, which is often grounded upon an obligation to future generations. It is not maintained that population control is intrinsically right - although the rhetoric frequently seems to approach such a claim - but rather that it will contribute towards a better life for future generations, and perhaps immediate posterity as well. (If population control were intrinsically anything, I would incline to thinking it intrinsically wrong.) On the other hand, consider the elimination of water and air pollution. Here it might be maintained that we have a definite duty to cease polluting the environment on the grounds that such pollution is intrinsically bad1 or that it violates a Divine command. Given the current mood of neo-paganism, even secularists speak of the despoilment of the environment as a sacrilege of sorts. When the building of a new dam upsets the ecological balance and puts the wildlife under a threat, we react negatively and feel that something bad has resulted. And this is not because we necessarily believe that our own interests or those of future generations have been undermined. Both views, but especially the latter (Divine command), represent men as holding sovereignty over nature only as trustees to whom not everything is permitted. Neverthe less, these ways of grounding the duty to care for the environment are distinguishable from a grounding of the duty upon an obligation to future generations, although one who acknowledges such an obligation will also properly regard himself as a trustee to whom not everything is permitted. Caring for the environment is presumably among the many things that the obligation to future generations obliges us to do because we thereby presumably promote conditions of good living for the community of the future.

The obligation [...] is not an immediate catalogue of specific duties. It is in this respect rather like the responsibility that a parent has to see to the welfare of his child. Discharging one's parental responsibility requires concern, seeking, and active effort to promote the good of the child, which is the central obligation of the parent and out of which grow the specific parental obligations and duties. The use of the term 'responsibility' to characterize the parent's obligation connotes, in part, the element of discretion and flexibility which is requisite to the discharging of the obligation in a variety of antecedently unforeseeable situations. Determination of the specific duty is often quite problematic even - and sometimes especially - for the conscientious parent who is anxious to do what is good for his child. And, anticipating my later discussion, this also holds for obligations to future generations. There are, of course, differences, too. Parental responsibility is enriched and reinforced by love, which can hardly obtain between us and future generations.2 (Still, the very fact that the responsibility to promote the child's good is an obligation means that it is expected to operate even in the absence of love.) Secondly, the parental obligation is always towards assignable individuals, which is not the case with obligations to future generations. There is, however, an additional feature of likeness between the two obligations which I shall mention shortly.

The third point about obligations to future generations - to what class of obligation do they belong? - is that they are owed, albeit owed to an unspecified, and perhaps unspecifiable, community of the future. Obligations to future generations, therefore, are distinct from a general duty, when presented with alternatives for action, to choose the act which produces the greatest good. Such a duty is not owed to anyone, and the beneficiaries of my fulfilling a duty to promote the greatest good are not ^ necessarily individuals to whom I stand in the moral relation of having n. an obligation that is owed. But when I owe it to someone to promote . his good, he is never, to this extent, merely an incidental beneficiary of ® my effort to fulfill the obligation. i

He has a presumptive right to it and can assert a claim against me g

£ for it. Obligations to future generations are of this kind. There is something which is due to the community of the future from us. The moral H relation between us and future generations is one in which they have a '<2 claim against us to promote their good. Future generations are, thus, ¡^ possessors of presumptive rights.

This conclusion is surely odd. How can future generations - the not-£ yet-born - now have claims against us? This question serves to turn us v finally to consider the basis of our obligations to future generations. I think it useful to begin by discussing and removing one source of the u

-o oddity.

It should first be noticed that there is no oddity in investing present § effort in order to promote a future state of affairs or in having an owed •¡5 obligation to do so. The oddity arises only on a theory of obligations "g and claims (and, hence, of rights) that virtually identifies them with acts of willing, with the exercise of sovereignty of one over another, with the pressing of demands - in a word, with making claims. But, clearly, future generations are not now engaged in acts of willing, are not now exercising sovereignty over us, and are not now pressing their demands. Future generations are not now making claims against us, nor will it be possible for them to do so. (Our immediate posterity is in this last respect in a different case.) [...]

[...] [T]here is a distinction to be drawn between having claims and making claims. The mere fact that someone claims something from me is not sufficient to establish it as his right, or that he has a claim relative to me. On the other hand, someone may have a claim relative to me whether or not he makes the claim, demands, or is even able to make a claim. (This is not to deny that claiming plays a role in the theory of rights.) Two points require attention here. First, some claims are frivolous. What is demanded cannot really be claimed as a matter of right. The crucial factor in determining this is the social ideal, which we may provisionally define as a conception of the good life for man. It serves as the yardstick by which demands, current and potential, are measured.3 Secondly, whether someone's claim confers an entitlement upon him to receive what is claimed from me depends upon my moral relation to him, on whether he is a member of my moral community. It is these factors, rather than any actual demanding, which establish whether someone has a claim relative to me. [...]

Who are the members of my moral community? (Who is my neighbor?) The fact is that I am a member of more than one moral community, for I belong to a variety of groups whose members owe obligations to one another. And many of the particular obligations that are owed vary from group to group. As a result my obligations are often in conflict and I experience a fragmentation of energy and responsibility in attempting to meet my obligations. What I ought to desire for the members of one of these groups is frequently in opposition to what I ought to desire for the members of another of these groups. Moral communities are constituted, or generated, in a number of ways, one of which is especially relevant to our problem. Yet these ways are not mutually exclusive, and they can be mutually reinforcing. This is a large topic and I cannot go into its details here. It is sufficient for our purpose to take brief notice of two possible ways of generating a moral community so as to set in relief the particular kind of moral community that is requisite for obligations to future generations.

A moral community may be constituted by an explicit contract between its members. In this case the particular obligations which the members have towards each other are fixed by the terms of their bargain. Secondly, a moral community may be generated out of a social arrangement in which each member derives benefits from the efforts of other members. As a result a member acquires an obligation to share the burden of sustaining the social arrangement. Both of these are communities in which entrance and participation are fundamentally a matter of self-interest, and only rarely will there be an obligation of the sort that was discussed earlier, that is, a responsibility to secure the good of the members. In general the obligations will be of more specialized kinds. It is also apparent that obligations acquired in these ways can easily come into conflict with other obligations that one may have. Clearly, a moral community comprised of present and future generations cannot arise from either of these sources. We cannot enter into an explicit contract with the community of the future. And although future generations might derive benefits from us, these benefits cannot be reciprocated. (It is possible that the [biologically] dead do derive some benefits from the living, but I do not think that this possibility is crucial. Incidentally, just as the living could have obligations to the distant unborn, the living also have obligations to the dead. If obligation to the past is a superstition, then so is obligation to the future.)4 Our immediate posterity, who will share a common life with us, is in a better position in this respect; so that obligations towards our children, born and unborn, conceivably could be generated from participation in a mutually beneficial social arrangement. n This, however, would be misleading. .

It seems, then, that communities in which entrance and participation O

are fundamentally matters of self-interest do not fit our specifications. i [...] g

So far, in the above account of the generation of my moral community, the question of membership has been discussed solely in reference to H those towards whom I initially have the sentiments that are identified '<2 with fellow-feeling. But we can go beyond this. Again we take our clue ¡^ from the history of the development of rights. For just as the content of a ¡2 system of rights that are possessed by the members of a moral community £ is enlarged over time by the pressing of claims, demanding, so also is v the moral community enlarged by the pressing of claims by individuals who have been hitherto excluded. The claiming is not only a claim for u

-o something, but may also be an assertion; 'Here I am, I count too.' The o struggle for rights has also been a counter-struggle. The widening of § moral communities has been accompanied by attempts at exclusion. It •¡5 is important for us to take note of one feature of this situation.

The structure of the situation is highlighted when a stranger puts forward his demand. The question immediately arises, shall his claim be recognized as a matter of right?5 Initially I have no affection for him. But is this crucial in determining whether he ought to count as a member of my moral community? The determination depends rather on what he is like and what are the conditions of his life. One's obligations to a stranger are never immediately clear. If a visitor from Mars or Venus were to appear, I would not know what to desire for him. I would not know whether my conception of the good life is relevant to him and to his conditions of life. The good that I acknowledge might not be good for him. Humans of course are in a better case than Martians or Venusians. Still, since the stranger appears as strange, different, what I maintain in my attempt to exclude him is that my conception of the good is not relevant to him, that 'his kind' do not count. He, on the other hand, is in effect saying to me: Given your social ideal, you must acknowledge my claim, for it is relevant to me given what I am; your good is my good, also.6 If I should finally come to concede this, the full force of my obligation to him will be manifest to me quite independently of any fellow-feeling that might or might not be aroused. The involuntary character of the obligation will be clear to me, as it probably never is in the case of individuals who command one's sympathy. And once I admit him as a member of my moral community, I will also acknowledge my responsibility to secure this good for him even in the absence of any future claiming on his part.

With this we have completed the account of the constitution of the type of moral community that is required for obligations to future generations. I shall not recapitulate its elements. The step that incorporates future generations into our moral community is small and obvious. Future generations are members of our moral community because, and insofar as, our social deal is relevant to them, given what they are and their conditions of life. I believe that this account applies also to obligations towards our immediate posterity. However, the responsibility that one has to see to the welfare of his children is in addition buttressed and qualified by social understandings concerning the division of moral labor and by natural affection. The basis of the obligations is nevertheless the same in both instances.7 Underlying this account is the important fact that such obligations fall into the area of the moral life which is independent of considerations of explicit contract and personal advantage. Moral duty and virtue also fall into this area. But I should like to emphasize again that I do not wish to be understood as putting this account forward as an analysis of moral virtue and duty in general.

As we turn at long last specifically to our obligations to future generations, it is worth noticing that the term 'contract' has been used to cover the kind of moral community that I have been discussing. It occurs in a famous passage in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure - but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked upon with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.

It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.

Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.8 m

The contract Burke has in mind is hardly an explicit contract, for it is Q

'between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to .

be born.' He implicitly affirms, I think, obligations to future generations. ®

In speaking of the 'ends of such a partnership,' Burke intends a concep- i tion of the good life for man - a social ideal. And if I do not misinterpret g

£ him, I think it also plain that Burke assumes that it is relatively the same conception of the good life whose realization is the object of the efforts H of the living, the dead, and the unborn. They all revere the same social '<2 ideal. Moreover, he seems to assume that the conditions of life of the ¡^ three groups are more or less the same. And, finally, he seems to assume ¡2 that the same general characterization is true of these groups ('all physical £ and moral natures, each in their appointed place').

Now I think that Burke is correct in making assumptions of these sorts if we are to have obligations to future generations. However, it is u

-o precisely with such assumptions that the notion of obligation to future o generations begins to run into difficulties. My discussion, until this point, § has proceeded on the view that we have obligations to future genera-•15 tions. But do we? I am not sure that the question can be answered in "g the affirmative with any certainty. I shall conclude this note with a very brief discussion of some of the difficulties. They may be summed up in the question: Is our conception - 'conceptions' might be a more accurate word - of the good life for man relevant9 to future generations?

It will be recalled that I began by stressing the importance of fixing the purview of obligations to future generations. They compromise the community of the future, a community with which we cannot expect to share a common life. It appears to me that the more remote the members of this community are, the more problematic our obligations to them become. That they are members of our moral community is highly doubtful, for we probably do not know what to desire for them. [...]

[...] One might go so far as to say that if we have an obligation to distant future generations it is an obligation not to plan for them. Not only do we not know their conditions of life, we also do not know whether they will maintain the same (or a similar) conception of the good life for man as we do. Can we even be fairly sure that the same general characterization is true both of them and us?

The [...] more distant the generation we focus upon, the less likely it is that we have an obligation to promote its good. We would be both ethically and practically well-advised to set our sights on more immediate generations, and perhaps solely upon our immediate posterity. After all, even if we do have obligations to future generations, our obligations to immediate posterity are undoubtedly much clearer. The nearer the generations are to us, the more likely it is that our conception of the good life is relevant to them. There is certainly enough work for us to do in discharging our responsibility to promote a good life for them. But it would be unwise, both from an ethical and a practical perspective, to seek to promote the good of the very distant.

And it could also be wrong, if it be granted - as I think it must - that our obligations towards (and hence the rights relative to us of) near future generations and especially our immediate posterity are clearer than those of more distant generations. By 'more distant' I do not necessarily mean 'very distant.' We shall have to be highly scrupulous in regard to anything we do for any future generation that also could adversely affect the rights of an intervening generation. Anything else would be 'gambling in futures.' We should therefore be hesitant to act on the dire predictions of certain extreme 'crisis ecologists' and on the proposals of those who would have us plan for mere survival. In the main, we would be ethically well-advised to confine ourselves to removing the obstacles that stand in the way of immediate posterity's realizing the social ideal. This involves not only the active task of cleaning up the environment and making our cities more habitable, but also implies restraints upon us. Obviously, the specific obligations that we have cannot be determined in the abstract. This article is not the place for an evaluation of concrete proposals that have been made. I would only add that population limitation schemes seem rather dubious to me. I find it inherently paradoxical that we should have an obligation to future generations (near and distant) to determine in effect the very membership of those generations.10 [...] It appears that whether we have obligations to future generations in part depends on what we do for the present.

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  • elisa
    Do we have obligation to future martin golding?
    8 years ago
  • philip
    Do we owe an obligation to future generatio?
    1 year ago
  • robert eisenhower
    What enviromental responsibility do we have to future generations?
    12 months ago
  • Leigha Williamson
    Who is martin golding future obligations?
    8 months ago
  • frances
    What responsibility do we have to future generation on environment?
    7 months ago
  • kristian
    What responsibilities do we have to future generations?
    6 months ago
  • Renee
    What responsibilties we have to future generation?
    6 months ago
    What kind of enevironment do we owe future generations?
    4 months ago
  • Gianfranco Lorenzo
    What environmental obligations do humans need to keep for future generations?
    3 months ago
  • kisanet
    Do we have enviromental obligations to future egnerations?
    3 months ago
  • Vicki
    What are our environmentalobligations to future generations?
    2 months ago
  • amalda
    Do current generations owe a duty to future generations?
    2 months ago

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