Should we care about people of the future?

“Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?” Groucho Marx

If we follow Groucho Marx‘s line of reasoning then future generations do not matter because while we are able to grant benefits to them, they are unable to return the favour. A key requirement of Groucho’s ethic is that there must be some mutual benefit if someone is to do the right thing. One of the problems with this idea is that it excludes those who cannot reciprocate including severely intellectually disabled humans, infants, very young children and all non-human animals. People who hold this view believe the interests of distant people, future generations and animals are inconsequential.

The question of whether the interests of future generations matter is important in the climate change debate because while the burning of fossil fuels benefits the present generation, the consequences fall to future generations. Carbon Dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and some of it for more than 100,000 years. A 2005 paper, Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time says,

“…we expect that 17-33% of the fossil fuel carbon will still reside in the atmosphere lkyr from now, decreasing to 10-15% at lOkyr, and 7% at 100 kyr. The mean lifetime of fossil fuel CO, is about 30-35 kyr.”

(1kyr = 1000 years.)  In his paper, A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption, Stephen Gardiner argues, “climate change is a substantially deferred phenomenon”. Because of this, it requires cooperation not just between nations but between generations. He illustrates this intergenerational problem with a comparison to the fabled Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, two thieves have been apprehended and locked in separate cells. The prosecutor puts the following offer on the table: if prisoner A confesses, but prisoner B does not, A walks free while B does three years in jail. If both A and B confess, they each do two years. If neither confesses, they both do one year. What do they do? If the prisoners act on self-interest alone, they will betray each other as betrayal rewards more often than does cooperation.

A similar problem exists with whether to act to mitigate global warming. Individual nations understand that it is better for everyone if they all cooperate together, but on the other hand, it is beneficial for each individual nation to do nothing and free ride on the actions of other nations.  The same problem occurs between generations. Gardiner calls it the Pure Intergenerational Problem (PIP). There are two options facing each generation:

(PIP 1 ) It is collectively rational for most generations to cooperate: (almost) every generation prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting pollution over the outcome produced by everyone overpolluting.

(PIP2) It is individually rational for all generations not to cooperate: when each generation has the power to decide whether or not it will overpollute, each generation (rationally) prefers to overpollute, whatever the others do.

In this situation, it becomes harder to argue in favour of cooperation because we do not have mutually-beneficial interaction. The generation that acts to reduce emissions absorbs all the costs but transfers the benefit to future generations who cannot reciprocate. If the current generation acts in self-interest alone, then they accrue all the benefits while transferring the costs to future generations. The problem gets amplified for each subsequent generation because we not only pass this cost on, we also add to it with our accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. Gardiner also suggests that future generations are less likely to comply with PIP1 if previous generations have not done so and so non-compliance by the first generation has a domino effect.

But do future generations matter? Should we be concerned about their interests?

In Moral Obligations Toward the Future, Burnor and Raley argue that future generations do matter. Suppose a terrorist group launches a missile at country x killing 100,000 people. By all ethical standards this is wrong. Now let’s change the story slightly and say that instead the terrorist group sends the missile into space where it orbits the Earth for 200 years. At this point in the future, the missile changes direction and heads back to Earth where it kills 100,000 people in country x. The fact that this event occurs in the future and is inflicted upon future people is not morally relevant. They argue that the “moral rights of people of any generation must be on a par”.

Economists recognise the interests of future generations. In a 1974 paper, What Is Permanent Endowment Income?, James Tobin argues,

“The trustees of an endowed institution are the guardians of the future against the claims of the present. Their task is to preserve equity among generations…This rule says that current consumption should not benefit from the prospects of future gifts to endowment.”

This argument makes sense. If a University receives an endowment it might be in the interests of people living in the present to consume the endowment in its entirety. But this would be at the expense of future generations. Universities and other institutions understand this and so a trustee is appointed to ensure that the activity for which the endowment provides will continue to be supported by the endowment in the future.

A similar argument can be made when a country gets a large proportion of its income from the act of mining and selling natural resources. In depleting the natural resource, they take away the future wealth of the country. Each generation acts independently in their own self-interest even though they know that depletion of this common resource is not in the long-term interests of the population. Some countries, like Norway, recognise this and have established sovereign wealth funds as a sort of compensation to future generations.

Burnor and Raley argue that if we are unable to prevent the depletion of natural resources – fossil fuels – or the trend in global warming from the burning of fossil fuels, then we have an obligation to compensate future generations who will be harmed as a result. They write,

After all, it is a fundamental principle of justice that if I harm another person by my behavior, I have an obligation to compensate that person by providing him or her with something of roughly equal value. At the very least, then, our present activities place us under an obligation to invest significantly in research and technological development that could help future generations counter the effects of our present activities. Specifically, if we cannot stop burning fossil fuels, then we have an obligation to research alternate energy sources that could replace what we are presently using up. Likewise, if we cannot keep from contributing to global warming, then we have an obligation to take steps that could help shield future people from coastal flooding, that could begin eradicating tropical diseases while they are still relatively contained, and that could develop productive, drought-resistant crops to avoid future food shortages.