Do we have the same duty to future generations, the people that have not yet been born? I'm confused because:

  1. Our duty toward them seems different, in that I can't e.g. steal from them in quite the same way.

  2. I think it may make sense to claim we have no duty at all toward the dead.

I suppose I'm more interested in Kantian answers, but would he happier reading about any school of ethics.

  • 2
    When you say "the same duty" what do you mean to compare it to? Do you mean the same duty that we have to our own, current generation? From the context of what you've written it seems like that is what you mean, but you might want to edit it into the question explicitly for clarity. – Not_Here Aug 6 '17 at 0:16
  • In ethics, your question is discussed under the topic of inter-generational ethics. the motivation for the topic arose initially from the environmental concern. For conceptual tools, you might want to read plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-intergenerational. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD Aug 7 '17 at 15:19
  • This is a paper which touches on duties we may have to the dead. iwm.at/wp-content/uploads/jc-15-08.pdf – Gordon Aug 9 '17 at 2:27
  • The title of the above paper (PDF) is: Sartre: Retrospective Illusions and the Losers of History, by Shawn Gorman. I didn't know if is ok to put PDFs here, so I wanted you to have the title of this paper also. – Gordon Aug 9 '17 at 2:33
  • Sorry the paper has so much untranslated French in it, but still it is mostly in English and the ideas come across. I found this paper to be very interesting but I had to read it several times before I began to make sense of it. – Gordon Aug 9 '17 at 2:40

There are many problems with applying ethical duties to future generations.

Firstly, as Hans Jonas argues Kantian ethics cannot impose on us a duty to continue the human race since the future human race do yet exist, duties to them must, therefore, be contingent on their existence. Yet this does not tally with our intuition, as is rightly examined in the other answer, to most realists, we are driven by our DNA to at least procure a future generation. Any ethic not including this fact relies instead on an act of faith (such as religion), and whilst a perfectly valid position, is not something that can be examined rationally, so I will limit the rest of the answer to broadly materialist approaches.

To escape this problem the simplest solution is to oblige us a duty to continue the human race, thus resulting from that duty, we can presume they will exist and so their existence is no longer contingent, some authors such a Annette Baier consider this to be an acceptable solution given that the will to procure a future to mankind is not under threat, but Jonas still considers it too weak to represent our moral imperative because it would exclude from responsibility those that have chosen not to have children. This is one of the central problems with Kant with regards to future generations. The choice to have children or not cannot be universalized (it is perfectly acceptable for some people to not have children, but it would not be acceptable for such a principle to become universal without removing Baier's duty and so eliminating any moral responsibility to the future generations).

Consequensialist ethics is clearer in that if we presume that at least some people are yet to exist then our actions now will have a consequence on their well-being. The problem here, however, as Parfit points out, is that so many factors have to come together to lead to a particular person being born that we cannot say that such a person's existence would have been worse/better as a consequence of our actions, they may well have simply never existed. The further into the future one looks the greater the effect of this uncertainty. This can be rescued, however, at least in intent, by presuming that if we are to maximise happiness, the existence of an infinitely continuing generation of relatively happy people will always outweigh the happiness any finite current generation. Whilst this could lead to the conclusion that we should make our lives a misery even for the slightest happiness of all future generations, this is only a problem if such a choice was ever likely to naturally arise.

This is where the principle of Natural Law becomes more attractive. We can examine such utilitarian decisions in relative safety because it is extremely unlikely that conditions would exist whereby preserving the well-being of future generation would ever come at the expense of our own well-being as this would be contrary to evolution. This, to me seems like the most appealing solution to the problem.

In summary, we can say that we do have a moral obligation to the future generation by any form of consequensialist ethics on the grounds that such a population will almost certainly exist. Our responsibility diminishes the further into the future we look as our ability to accurately judge the consequences of our action diminishes also. We need not concern ourselves with the false dilemmas of the infinite size of the potential future generations because the world in which such decisions take place is one in which our well-being is already tied to the well-being of a future generation and so there are unlikely to be any real conflicts.


This probably isn't the type of answer you're looking for, but maybe it will offer a few insights.

From a scientific point of view, it can be argued that we have a duty to our species. Thus, our primary instinct of self-preservation can be overridden by the urge to protect our young or mates. This could also manifest itself in the form of concern for progeny that don't exist yet. For example, you might want to stop drinking or drug abuse before having children.

Empathy allows us to project similar feelings beyond our immediate relations. All of a sudden, we care about people on the other side of the world. And if we can care about people we may never meet, why not care about the unborn?

The "selfish gene" and/or empathy comes into play when we see a fellow human attacked by a predator. Our immediate instinct is to help the human (without getting hurt ourselves).

You say we can't steal from the unborn "in quite the same way."

That might be true, but our actions obviously affect them in countless ways. Our ancestors hunted many species, including the fabled elephant bird, to extinction. Thanks to them, I'll never be able to see an elephant bird. Nor will I ever see a herd of bison stretching to the horizon.

I live on a planet that's increasingly polluted, thanks largely to the efforts of past generations - people who invented various pollutants before I was even born.

My personal philosophy is that we are only temporary custodians of Earth, and we should try to leave things as pristine as possible.

On a tangent, it's sad that we can't go back in time and hold past generations accountable. But what about some wealthy heir who's worth $10 billion because his father invented Agent Orange or DDT? Do we have the right to garnish his assets?

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