Partha Dasgupta's book Economics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007) contains a chapter on sustainable economic development. Dasgupta here writes that,

Philosophers have argued that social impatience is ethically indefensible, because it favours policies that discriminate against future generations merely on the grounds that they are not present today.

To provide some background: earlier, Dasgupta had explained that "people prefer to consume now rather than wait, all things being equal" (page 109); this is the above mentioned "impatience". At the level of the individual household, the relationship between the return on savings and "the rate at which people are impatient to consume now" (page 110) influences current consumption. "Social impatience" refers to the same concept at the level of society (states or even internationally).

Dasgupta does not cite any sources or examples for the quote above philosophers. I am not questioning the truth of the claim but I would like to know which philosopher(s) first came up with this argument.

1 Answer 1


The idea of obligations to future generations probably has no first originator in philosophy; it is likely to have emerged into focus from other ideas. But there is a clear sense of an obligation to future generations in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) :

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. (https://archive.org/stream/reflectionsonthe005907mbp/reflectionsonthe005907mbp_djvu.txt.0

Burke's first sentence is ironical. It is directed against individualistic notions of a social contract. But he does see society as a contract in what he regarded as a deeper sense. The sentence in bold suggests by the strongest implication that society has obligations to 'those who are to be born' - i.e., future generations.

If society is 'a partnership in every virtue' and one moreover that includes future and well as present generations, then to 'discriminate against future generations merely on the grounds that they are not present today' would be ethically indefensible from Burke's standpoint.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .