Climate Change and the Philosophical Pitfalls of Grounding Duty to Future Generations

Two young women in the foreground of a protest march, with signs behind them saying
"TAG Climate Protest Future" by Thomas Good is licensed under CC BY 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Reports of mass extinction, extreme weather events, speedily melting ice caps and the inundation of low-lying islands by rising seas suggest that the environmental disaster scientists and activists have been warning about for several decades, has now begun.  

On the face of it, there isn’t really a good argument to be made against a moral imperative to fight climate change. Those who voice opposition to, and those who lobby against, climate action generally deny climate change is real rather than argue against an obligation to do something about it.

Governments across the world are nowhere near where they need to be on acting to prevent worst-case scenario outcomes, even where climate change is grudgingly acknowledged by the powers that be and even as its effects start to become difficult to ignore.

In January this year, David Attenborough told a cohort of business and government leaders, diplomats and influential celebrities at the Davos World Economic Forum that “What we do now, and in the next few years, will profoundly affect the next few thousand years,” and “Unless we sort ourselves out in the next decade or so we are dooming our children and our grandchildren to an appalling future.”

Few would now disagree that there is urgency about the issue of climate change; however, the question of our moral relation to future generations is philosophically complex. Does it make sense to claim that we have moral duties to persons who do not exist?  Do future persons, not already alive, have rights? How are the rights of future persons connected with moral duties that we have now?

There are some meta-ethical issues at play here (issues about what we take ethics to be centrally concerned with). A common foundation for morality is how the behavior of persons affects other persons (and sometimes other creatures/entities). The ‘moral community’ is that group to whom we owe moral consideration; whose well-being makes moral claims on us, or whose interests, or rights, provide imperatives and checks on our actions.

On one level, using a simple example given by Derek Parfit, we can see how, straightforwardly, the actions of someone now can harm an unknown, hypothetical person in the future. Parfit points out that, if I leave some broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood, which a hundred years later wounds a child, my act harms this child. This is of course familiar and quite intuitive reasoning; it forms the basis of things we tell our children every day, of the ilk: “don’t leave that there, someone could trip over it.”

Is it morally significant how far in the future that harm occurs? On one view it is not, as there is a direct causal relation between action of burying the glass and the child’s being cut by it. When I tell my child not to do something as it may harm someone, I am likely not to be thinking that far into the future as Parfit’s example, but this seems to be a result of the psychology, rather than the morality, of temporal distance.

However, it could be argued that moral accountability is weakened by temporal distance, because part of what it means to be in a moral community is that there is moral accountability, by virtue of reciprocity, between members – so that there is an in-principle possibility of the wronged party holding the other to account.

In response to Parfit’s example it should also be noted the person burying the glass is only causing a future harm as long as the child (or someone else) is later cut by it. That outcome is highly contingent. If the lack of reciprocity between individuals who are not one another’s contemporary, together with the contingency involved in any particular outcome, are problematic then it may be even more difficult to make decisions about the behaviour of a current population’s effect on a future population.

The question about how current people’s actions harm, or directly impact, future people encounters a paradox: because each person born is the product of so many and such complex contingencies, and all future persons are a product of actions taken in the present, a different set of actions (even one different variable) will produce a different human being.

Imagine two possible scenarios. In the first, no action is taken and climate change produces a disastrous future for all people on the planet. In the second, massive effort is undertaken, now with the outcome that disaster is averted and future generations are able to pursue happiness and have the opportunity to flourish.

Because of this paradox, it isn’t quite right to say that particular future persons will be better off if action is taken, since particular future persons who come into existence in the first scenario, if action is not taken, would not have existed in the second scenario. Can the people of the future in the first scenario really blame us, since had we made different choices they would not exist?

This line of thinking may appear to yield the conclusion that even if we do not conserve the environment for future generations of people, it cannot consistently be said that we have wronged them. But can we cogently argue that they cannot complain since in any other set of circumstances they would never have existed?

This is a difficult moral question – borne out in other problems or areas of practical ethics, such as whether to choose to have a disabled child. It opens up issues of how we value existence, what type of existence we value, and what level of difficulty we would be prepared to accept for the sake of existence itself. I shall not try to resolve this problem here – but it is not necessarily agreed that such future persons, in unbearable hardship, have no right to complain of the actions of their forebears that led to that hardship.

This paradox seems to arise in part where morality is taken to be centrally concerned with how actions of certain individuals affect other individuals – the problem here is that there is too much focus on particular individuals.  (Parfit himself thought that we should rescind the principle of morality being centrally concerned with individuals and employ a more impartial principle to ground morality in actions which produce the most wellbeing.)

But this solution creates another problem, which is encountered in consequentialist ethics of a utilitarian persuasion. Since utilitarianism is based on a principle of maximising happiness or wellbeing, it functions as a calculation of total possible happiness. This produces the counterintuitive outcome that a very large number of people who were borderline miserable would be preferable to a very small number of very happy people. Obviously this system cannot provide a foundation for a reasonable, binding, moral relation to future generations.

An argument from the notion of rights appears to fare better. If we acknowledge universal and inalienable human rights such as a right to life, liberty and security then, by virtue of their universality, we could extend them to future persons by including them in the moral community of holders of rights.

It has been noted by some philosophers, however, that the concept of rights is in some sense morally inadequate – it can fail to capture the moral seriousness of a situation. Imagine having to answer to future persons living with the devastation of our failure to act when we had the means and opportunity. It would not go all the way to the heart (so to speak) of their moral grievance to simply note that their right to live a full human life was violated – in the same way that the moral terribleness of murder is not adequately captured by noting that the murdered person’s right to life has been violated.

A still better grounding might be in a notion of moral duty as suggested by Immanuel Kant in the principle of universalisation: that we discover our moral duty by asking if we could will any action to be a universal law. Applying this principle our moral duty to future generations becomes clear when we simply ask what we would have endorsed were we to find ourselves in the same situation.

The window, we are being told by scientists, is closing fast. We may have little more than a decade to avoid unstoppable climate catastrophe. This means that the future is arriving. In a sense, the future is already here. Children born in this decade may be alive at the end of the century, and will be directly affected by our current actions or failure to act. Those future generations that appear in the abstract in the philosophical discussions of the past twenty to thirty years are already here. There are some hopeful signs; the new generation is starting to demand action as high-profile strikes by schoolchildren across the world put pressure on those in power to act to rescue the future they will inherit.


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Dr Desmonda Lawrence received her PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2017, with a dissertation on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. She is a freelance writer, poet, and lecturer. Her research and teaching specialties include ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, criticism and poetics.