Sunday, March 10, 2013

Intergenerational Morality and the Foundations of our Duty to the Future

I’ve been meaning to post about the issue of intergenerational morality, a topic especially relevant amidst the debate about the Keystone XL pipeline as intergenerational morality looms large in environmental discourse.

My thoughts on intergenerational morality stem from a conversation I had last year about the ethical roots of the belief in a duty to future generations, or of the worth of future generations. The person with whom I was discussing this noted that she found the issue of international morality—the equal worth of a person born in London and one born in Nairobi—easy to justify; however, the question of intergenerational morality did not come as immediate.

We have two questions at play here; they are quite similar and can be discussed jointly although they remain distinct. (1) On what grounds do we affirm a moral obligation to future generations? (2) How does the worth of future generations compare to the worth of those living today?

If we accept international morality as a given (for this discussion), then you have a moral obligation to all of the other individuals currently in existence (and are of equal worth to all of them). However, this moral interplay between you and all of the individuals in existence is not fixed; the world of individuals at this moment is not the same as that several minutes from now, several days from now, months, years. New individuals enter this web of moral obligation, and presumably you have a moral obligation to them as well. Eventually, you will die and physically leave this web of moral obligation. However, do you believe that your death dismantles all of the moral obligations that you had? Do you not care about what happens to other human beings after your own death? Think of the duties you feel at a personal level to parents, children, siblings, friends. No one (at least, I hope, no one) views those as temporally-limited phenomena alone. Our affirmation that we have a moral obligation toward someone tomorrow, as opposed to just today, forges a temporal continuity to moral obligation; we do not frame that moral obligation within the bounds of our own mortality.

In other words, you have a moral obligation to all of the individuals that inhabit the world at each moment of your life. Then, one day, you die. But all of those individuals (or, more likely, almost all) in your web of moral obligation continue to exist. However, you have already established a moral obligation to them as persons across time who have different personal timelines from your own.

Additionally, the moment after you die, new people will have entered the world. And we’ve already taken as a given the principle of international morality; those new individuals are worth no less than those currently in existence and cannot easily be taken out of the web of moral obligation. I would argue, then, that there is a certain transitivity that takes effect in morality. If A has a moral obligation to B, and B has a moral obligation to C, then A has a moral obligation to C because all are of equal worth. Because we have asserted the principle of universal morality (taken as a given), this statement should prove logically sound. However, by inducing this transitivity to the web of moral obligation, we extend it boundlessly into the future because of all of the people whose lives temporally transcend our own and who will thus have thousands upon thousands of new individuals enter their web of moral obligation, all of whom are of equal worth.

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