We have difficulty living up to our obligations to future generations. To be precise, our problem is not not that we don’t care about what happens to the world after we're gone. It is that we can’t explain why we should care, and therefore cannot systematically think through and institutionalise the responsibilities implied. That might not matter so much - it hasn't mattered too much before in human history - except that we face at least one big intergenerational problem that just can't be muddled through: Climate Change.
If the underlying problem is conceptual, philosophers should be able to help. Unfortunately, contractarianism, the best account of political liberalism, and of our democratic ideals, seems stuck in the present because it overrepresents the voices of present voters. The other main contender in what seems a rather impoverished repertoire is utilitarianism, which makes the opposite mistake of overrepresenting the interests of future people (by adding them all up and comparing them with the total number of us).
A general sense of pessimism hangs over the philosophy profession on this issue, driven especially by the political failures of climate change. But I think this is unnecessary and self-defeating. In fact there are lots of routes to systematising the moral claim of future generations upon us. Such as the team approach I present here, of identifying with future generations and asking 'What should we-over-time do about climate change?'.
The team approach does not amount to a theory. You may be disappointed by how commensical its content is and how few demands it makes of you. (For example, it doesn't require your full commitment and loyalty, as 'proper' philosophical moral theories do.) Its contribution lies mainly in providing a different perspective from which to look at the same world. From that perspective, the appearance of conflict between our intuitions and our liberal democratic institutions recedes in significance. The peculiar advantage of the team approach is that in answering why we should care about something in the future we also see how to organise responsibility for achieving that goal.
I. The Fact That We Care
I asserted that we do care about what we pass on to future generations (we just have to work out what to do about that). But some people may question this starting point. Samuel Scheffler’s thought experiment in Death and the Afterlife is helpful in illustrating and clarifying that generally shared moral intuition. (Here he is explaining it on Philosophy Bites)
Suppose you knew that, although you yourself would live a normal life span, the earth would be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid.
How would this knowledge affect your attitudes during the remainder of your life?
The point of this exercise is to bring us to recognise something we rarely stop to notice: a great deal of the value of what we do in life comes from participating in joint enterprises at least some of the pay offs from which will be enjoyed by others perhaps not even born. We are not the self-serving hedonists we are so often told we are, and sometimes even believe ourselves to be. Take away other people's future and the value of the life options open to us change. The kind of lives we aspire to live change quite dramatically depending on what we expect to happen after those lives end. Even writing a philosophy paper becomes rather pointless if isolated from the continuing practice in which and for which it makes sense.
Scheffler argues that the bare fact that we do (mostly - this is not an argument or an opinion poll but an intuition pump) care about our after-life is already enough to ground an explicit re-evaluation of our responsibilities to those who come after us. The team approach gives that re-evaluation shape and direction. But first I must establish an additional point that enables the team approach to get up and running.
II. The Possibility of Reciprocity
It is usual to see generations as asymmetrically related in terms of power. Thus, our generation gets to choose a certain climate change mitigation/adaptation strategy and future generations just have to deal with whatever we decide. In this scenario each generation is a dictator to its successors and our only moral accountability is to our conscience about how generous to be.
But this isn't exactly true. Future generations can hold us morally accountable for our choices and can even punish us. This claim may seem outlandish at first. Bear with me.
The first point is that humans have the gift of imagination, of generating and working through counter-factual scenarios. That allows us to extend our concerns beyond our deaths, as in Scheffler's thought experiment. We write wills for example or set up foundations (if we are rich enough) to protect or advance those concerns after death.
Besides such direct scenario planning, there is another 'social' imagination that plays a central role in our moral psychology. We model the reactions of others - imagined spectators - to what we are thinking of doing and anticipate the criticism it would receive from them. (A faculty analysed with great perspicuity by the moral philosopher Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.) This means that we can imagine the moral reactions of the dead or not yet living to our choices. Whether the thought of their displeasure motivates us to behave less anti-socially depends on the strength of our moral character, but perhaps also on whether we recognise the power that future generations have over us.
Second, we have interests that outlive our lives (Scheffler's point). Contrary to standard approaches we needn't assume that those interests themselves are moral ones (such as concern for the welfare of future people) or that we are saints motivated entirely by moral principle (such as the duty not to do harm). This is an unnecessary resort to pure ungrounded moral theory. We can assume a much greater continuity in the circumstances of justice between people in the present and between generations.
In this world we have come to recognise others as morally real because we need the cooperation of others to secure and advance our own interests. Theory follows practice, even if it later comes to shape practice in its turn. Likewise, recognising future people as morally real doesn't require any philosophical heavy lifting. We need them to still be around and to lend their assistance in order for the things we care about to work out, whether that be preserving academic philosophy or curing cancer. That means that we have to care what future people think of us and our projects, and that means taking their moral expectations of us seriously. In particular, it means upholding some fair terms of cooperation by which our behaviour must be justifiable to future generations.
Third, we are already engaged in a gradually expanding system of intergenerational cooperation. The dead have interests that they wished to be attended to. Thanks to our social imagination, we know that they would despise us if we didn't respect their Wills. We also know that we will have interests similarly dependent on the good offices of our descendants and cannot afford to take the risk of undermining the tradition of inheritance as a responsibility. Each generation must demonstrate its commitment to this principle because each knows that it will soon be another generation's turn to make the decisions. It is rather like the case of a pay-as-you-go pension system, in which robbing the previous generation of what they had a right to expect would only succeed in destroying a scheme of intergenerational cooperation and impoverishing our own old age (on which, Joseph Heath).
Besides the Wills of individuals about family houses and heirlooms there are bigger projects and artifacts bequeathed to the care of future generations, some of which can exert a moral pressure upon us as stewards across thousands of years and huge cultural gaps. Under globalisation these responsibilities continue to expand. Consider for example our generally recognised responsibility to preserve such disparate items as First World War cemeteries, medieval cathedrals, Stonehenge, the Timbuktu Manuscripts, endangered species, and so on. Many of these are explicitly protected by international organisations (like UNESCO) and binding treaties going back to the 19th century, even - in fact especially - in times of war.
Being convinced that damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world..... (1954 Hague Convention)
Of course the dead could never know that we converted Stonehenge into a mall and enjoyed a short-lived craze for Panda burgers, but our descendants surely will. And we can already predict that they will despise us for it and be much less likely to honour our own projects.
To sum up, each generation in turn has decision power. Thus society is somewhat like a relay race. However, that doesn’t make our decisions independent. Future generations can harm us by repudiating our values and destroying our legacy, as happened for example in Germany after 1945, and across Eastern Europe after 1989. Common knowledge of this fact is a plausible basis for reciprocity, although, as those cases demonstrate, cooperation is not thereby guaranteed.
III. The Team View: What should we-over-time do?
This is a simple extrapolation of a team view of the individual across different time slices (as elaborated for example by Natalie Gold). Why should an individual at time t1 do anything for the individual at time t2 with whom he shares a history? For example, why should he stay home and study for tomorrow's exam rather than go out to a party? Because these individuals are obviously not independent at all. They are metaphyscially stuck with each other and ethically dependent on each other to achieve goods they cannot reach on their own, such as getting through med school and becoming a doctor and making something of their life. They have choices to make about how they should play their role on the team, but they do not have a choice about whether to join the team.
The same reasoning applies to the intergenerational case. In particular, taking up the team view is a device for systematically considering the implications of
The fact that we care
The possibility of reciprocity
In the team view we ask 'What should we-over-time do?' rather than 'What should I do for them?'. We recognise our generation (or smaller time slice - we needn't think in terms of literal generations) as a member of a team, engaging in a variety of projects of different scales and kinds whose outcomes depend on how effectively we cooperate and coordinate our actions. Costs or benefits imposed on future generations count for us, and vice versa, but the accounting is loose rather than transactional. The aim is to gain the benefits of cooperation while maintaining a reasonably fair distribution of its burdens.
As in the sports analogy, team-members who shirk their role deserve and receive moral blame, and may anticipate their vilification. It wasn't fair of the babyboomers to do nothing about climate change when it was still cheap to act on and leave a much bigger problem for us. But if we do the same that would be orders of magnitude worse. On the other hand, it wouldn't be reasonable to expect this generation to impoverish itself - and slow down economic development in the poor world - merely in order to benefit future generations. Our lives also count. If this is still too fuzzy, at least we can say that the terms of cooperation will be governed by our understanding of the reasonable expectations of other team members. For example, such reasonable expectations would surely include the minimalist utilitarian principle that "if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it" (Peter Singer). That avoids the sharp - and implausible - extremes generated by simply extending the standard theories of justice to include future people.
Intergenerational teams reason in a particular way to produce the combination of actions by different members of the team that best promotes the team’s objectives. First, while all team members are responsible for fulfilling their roles, some team members may also be in a position to play a more theoretical role as planners, setting out the broad outlines of a cooperative project and assigning roles. For example, a Mars colonisation plan might include a variety of intermediate tasks and goals to be accomplished over a 100 year timeline.
Second, an intergenerational team's reasoning is dynamic. Every member is responsible for seizing unanticipated opportunities, such as new technologies, and updating the plan accordingly. Sometimes new technologies - such as a radical breakthrough in preventing ageing - change not only the means but the goals of plans. That requires a fresh round of planning from scratch. Sometimes changes in ethics require new goals. Every generation has a responsibility to evaluate the projects and institutions passed on to them for ethical failures. In 1992, for example, white South Africans overwhelmingly voted to end Apartheid. Every generation is also responsible for considering their own values from the perspective of future generations (using that faculty of social imagination). If we fail to do so we may find everything we built swept away, our values systematically repudiated, and at the personal level even our lives despised by our own grandchildren.
So what do we owe future generations?
Insofar as we care about our after life, intergenerational cooperation is in our interest. We need there to be future people and we need them to go along with our projected interests. Once this logic is understood we have clear reason to support the indefinite sustainability of intergenerational cooperation. That includes:-
Keeping human civilisation going. This means reducing the risk of environmental catastrophe, global wars, pandemics, and so on. These might not cause human extinction but would certainly disrupt intergenerational projects - at a minimum they would distract our descendants from looking after our stuff.
Demonstrating our commitment to fair terms of cooperation between generations, which comes down to a general duty to act only in ways we could justify to those who come after us and upon whom our after life depends. This practice generates and relies on recognising the moral reality of other generations, which we display, for example, in the way we treat the requests and legacy of previous generations.
Playing our part in particular ongoing cooperative schemes, such as pension funds, UNESCO recognised sites, biodiversity preservation.
Originating or updating feasible and fair plans for addressing shared interests, such as environmental stability, and which are open and flexible enough to permit adaptations and revisions by future generations.
V. Addendum: Further Benefits of the Team Approach
The original stimulus to this essay was the self-defeating pessimism dominant in political philosophy about climate change. Where we used to discuss the appropriate rate of intergenerational saving required to bring about a fully just society (Rawls), now we scrabble for reasons not to destroy future generations. In fact there are plenty of those reasons to be found if we are prepared to look beyond our standard theories of justice. The team view is just one way to translate our intuitions into contractarian reasons. (Elsewhere I have discussed another route, translating our intuitions into contractarian institutions: Votes for Future People.) However, thinking like a team has at least two further benefits.
Firstly, it brings a class of 'Colossal Moral Problems' within conceptual reach of a democracy. Climate change is only one of these, which includes the mistreatment of animals, mass poverty, or the birthright lottery of citizenship (previously). These are problems whose wrongfulness is clear enough but which we seem unable to get a grip on because ending them would be an inter-generational (or at least multi-decade) project. When we have embarked on such projects - like Britain's abolition of slavery mission or Nixon's 'War on Cancer' - we have usually done so in a fit of hubris rather than clear-eyed view of what is required. More often, we behave like smokers who would like to give up but find it hard to connect that goal to the question of whether to smoke this next cigarette.
Taking a team view of such Colossal Moral Problems fills in the amorphous space between our ultimate goals and present responsibilities by attending to the logistics of teamwork. Asking ourselves, 'What should we-over-time do?' provides us with a clear roadmap of how to get to our destination with different team members responsible for driving different sections of the route. Our own moral obligation to start driving in the right direction become clearer and less avoidable.
Secondly, thinking like an inter-generational team can provide additional reasons to take intra-generational justice seriously. This is particularly helpful because thinking about justice towards future generations is often supposed to be in conflict with justice to those alive now. For example, climate change will accelerate much faster, making all future generations worse off, if other poor countries follow China's economic development path to prosperity.
When analysing our future interests I skipped from individuals to the human species without mentioning nation states. Yet nation states are the central fact of and limitation to thinking about justice between members of this generation. So let us take up the narrow national perspective: 'What should we-British-over-time do?' (substitute as required)
As already established, we care about how future generations see us: our actions should be justifiable towards them. Now, even if Britain's borders are the same in 100 years (i.e. including Scotland) it is very likely that our children and grandchildren will be living amongst and intermarrying with those of citizens of 'unlucky' countries like Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Eritrea. We will owe a justification to our grandchildren not only for the condition of the environment we left them, but also for the way we treated their other grandparents. Thus, just as our colonial history has come back to haunt us from within thanks to previous migration, Britain's current policies towards those countries and the problems they suffer will be part of our future history.
The upshot is that - on the assumption that globalisation continues - recognising the moral reality of future generations doesn’t conflict with justice for the present but actually provides us with new reasons to care about the lives of people alive now but far away, and to act where we can to remove oppression and hardship. We are all stuck together whether we like it or not and can no longer pretend that we are strangers between whom moral obligations are a matter of choice.