In this post, Charlotte Unruh discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the basis of our duties to future generations.

Do you sometimes picture future generations as strangers in a faraway galaxy? Strangers who we know little about, aside from the fact that our actions can affect their lives?  In a recent paper, I argue that there is a crucial difference between (very) remotely living strangers and future generations. There is a special relationship that obtains between present and future people. We bring future generations into existence. I suggest that this gives rise to special responsibilities to embed long-term thinking in politics, business, and society.

Future generations are not like faraway strangers

One important reason not to think about future generations as strangers from other galaxies concerns our responsibilities towards them. Unlike faraway space travellers, we bring future generations into existence. Bringing future generations into existence puts us in a special relationship with them.

To illustrate, we can look at the paradigm case of a special relationship, the relationship towards our children. Children are vulnerable and helpless without protection. Causal accounts of parenthood say that the primary responsibility for providing this protection lies with those who have caused the child to exist.

Future people are vulnerable too. If we destroy the environment, then future people will not be able to enjoy it. I think that the primary responsibility for future generations plausibly lies with those who bring them into existence. We will put future people into this world. This requires us to ensure that future people have a decent standard of living. This requirement arises from our special relationship with future people, and does not arise for space travellers from faraway galaxies.

It is our responsibility to set the right path for the future

Thinking about our relationship to future generations in this way has interesting implications. It means that our ancestors had special duties towards us, and all generations have special duties towards those who come next. Ideally, then, generations share the responsibility for far future people, such that the burden on each individual generation to ensure a decent future is small.

Problems arise when there is urgent need to act. For example, I worry that digital technologies such as surveillance technologies have the potential to undermine elements of our democracy. We need to steer the development and regulation of digital technologies in the right direction, to ensure that these technologies increase the well-being of citizens and strengthen, rather than compromise, democracy and human rights. Failure to set us on the right path might risk a lock-in into an undesirable future, such as a dystopia fuelled by technology-enabled surveillance. Here, we cannot wait for future generations to do their part. The burden is largely on us.

We need to embed long-term thinking in politics, business, and society

My argument supports reforms that aim to incorporate long-term thinking in politics, business, and society. Some recent proposals in this direction have been to create political institutions for the future and (re-)examine the purpose of business. I think it is important that such reforms are inclusive, comprehensive, and balanced.

An inclusive dialogue is important, since we share the responsibility for the future of our society. We should debate different visions of the future and potential reforms. Moreover, our outlook on the future must be comprehensive. It cannot focus only on environmental issues, for example. Our financial debts, our political institutions, and our cultural and social norms will influence the generations yet to come. If we look at only one policy area, there is a risk that side effects and trade-offs become invisible. For example, tracking technology was introduced to help contain COVID-19, but it also poses a threat to privacy. Finally, we also need to respect the interests of present people and the next generations. We need to be especially aware of the effects of future-directed reforms on the poor and disadvantaged, as well as consider carefully how to distribute the burden of reforms.

In sum, future generations are not like strangers. We cannot escape the responsibility that comes with bringing future generations into existence and shaping the lives of future people. Acknowledging the special relationship to our descendants requires us to debate different views on the long-term future, and to ensure that our current practices and policies do not run counter to these views.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.