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I am happy that Obama has begun to talk about climate change again and has expressed interest in using the authority he has through the EPA to stimulate the transition to a low-carbon economy. However, as is always the case, we must wait until we see concrete actions, rather than just words, before reaching conclusions. The president’s emphasis on fracking and the dancing unicorn of “clean coal,” for instance, gives reason to worry, and we’ll have to wait and see how strong the standards for existing and new power plants will be after the inevitable lobbying that will ensure.

In the language both Obama and the environmental community use when speaking about climate change, one concept is always salient: intergenerational morality, or a duty to the future.  I want to devote this diary to the corresponding question: Why do we have a duty to the future?  

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. The person with whom I was discussing this noted that she found the issue of international or universal morality—the equal worth of a person born in London and one born in Nairobi, for instance—easy to justify; however, the question of intergenerational morality did not come as immediately.  

It is a question about which we rarely think.  When someone says that we have a duty to the future, we often nod our heads in agreement without really engaging with the question of why we do (and should) hold such a belief.

Built into the question of intergenerational morality, as I see it, are two sub-questions that are distinct yet tightly related. (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?  Because of their close relationship, I will discuss them jointly, but I acknowledge that they are separate questions.

As these questions imply, I believe that the concept of moral obligation stems from the concept of human worth.  The concept of human worth does not negate the obligations we have to the rest of the animal kingdom; however, it affirms that such obligations are qualitatively different. Out of the belief in the intrinsic worth of others—all others—comes a demand that we respect the personhood of others.  Such respect takes the form both of non-violation (negative freedom) and of elicitation (positive freedom). Such a concept of human worth undergirds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The first article of the Declaration proclaims, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This key principle is then applied to various facets of human interaction—personal, cultural, economic, social, etc.—to develop the subsequent articles.

One of my main gripes about Jonathan Haidt’s five-part categorization of morality is that it ignores this concept of worth or dignity ("I will not be used"/"I will not be treated like a thing").  Haidt identifies five moral values: care, fairness, loyalty, deference to authority, and sanctity/purity. Dignity, as I see it, lies at the foundation of fairness ("I will not be cheated"), purity but not sanctity ("I will not be sullied"), and protection from harm ("I will not be abused").   Each of those moral attitudes stems from an individual sentiment that becomes socialized by recognizing the dignity of other persons.  Dignity, socialized into respect for persons, lies at the foundation of other moral values; however, it also exists in its own right and cannot be reduced to any of the five categories Haidt presents.

I noted earlier that my discussion of intergenerational morality arose in the context of a discussion of international morality, and I want to proceed with a quick discussion of international, or universal, morality first.  Intergenerational morality posits a longitudinal dimension to morality whereas the question of universalism posits a latitudinal dimension to morality. Let's start with the question of the worth of individuals in one's home country.  If we are to believe in democracy (If you don't, you can stop reading), then we must accept as a premise that all individuals within the nation are of equal worth in the public sphere, even though their value to the private sphere may differ.  The CEO and the minimum wage worker must be equal in worth in the eyes of the government and the public that constitutes it. Democracy asserts that you and all of the other individuals in your nation are of equal worth.  

Now, let us presume that someone leaves your home nation and relocates to another.  Does his or her fundamental worth as a human being change?  His or her private value to you in your home nation may and likely will change.  However, there is no magical process through which human worth is destroyed or created by customs or immigration officials. Worth must be transferable across borders.  Individuals, regardless of where they reside, are of equal worth.  This principle of equal worth of persons, then, must have a latitudinal dimension.  When people use the idiom "accident of birth" to speak of their good fortune for being born into a comparatively well-off family in a well-off country, this principle of equal worth across boundaries is lurking in the subtext.  (I've always found that idiom to have a strange metaphysic, but I digress.)

Such worth, as I see it, offers the foundation for moral obligation. You may differ in your justification for the existence of moral obligation.  For instance, if you ascribe to a utilitarian philosophy, you would place greater emphasis on utility, rather than worth, and speak of the need to work toward the greatest good for the greatest number.  You may then ascribe value to future generations because the total population will increase over time, and the happiness of the world living in 2050 thus demands greater consideration. However, as I see it, to assume that such an end (i.e. utility or happiness of whatever number) is even valuable, there must be an initial respect for the individuals in that number. The utilitarianism of Mill is, thus, more attractive than the utilitarianism of Bentham.

If we derive moral obligation from equal worth, then we can posit that 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, days, months, or years from now. New individuals are born and enter into this universal web of moral obligation, and  you have a moral obligation to them as well. Eventually, you will die and physically leave this web of moral obligation. Do you care about what happens after you die? Considering the randomness of mortality, the answer must be a yes.  We do not know when we will die and cannot thus set our sense of moral obligation to expire upon such an unknown end to our physical existence.

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. But you've already established a moral obligation to them--a concern for their well-being and their dignity as person. Additionally, the moment after you die, new people will have entered the world.  It is pure accident that you and they do not coexist in time. Those individuals will be of equal worth to all of the other individuals in the world, and they all co-exist in a universal web of moral obligation. Were you to live one moment longer, the web of individuals would have differed, but those new individuals would be of no lesser worth.

The exact duration in which we physically inhabit the web of moral obligation is arbitrary. However, by acknowledging an implicit 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 to us in the present.

That's my take.  I'd be curious to hear how other people ground the concept of a duty to future generations.

Originally posted to Liberty Equality Fraternity and Trees on Sat Jul 13, 2013 at 08:20 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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