On Moral Obligations to

Future Generations

– By Mia Stone|June 02, 2017


Image by Salvatore Vastano, flickr.

What obligations, if any, do we owe future generations? This question lies at heart of some of the most important debates in contemporary society. What are we to do about climate change? Should we protect natural resources or prioritise present economic development? The apparent moral significance of ‘future’ is far from abstract, and has deeply personal dimensions. Parents must consider if and when to bear children, how many to have, and what sacrifices to make on their behalf. While few would dare suggest that an action’s future consequences lack moral significance, deeper thought unveils a real and startling philosophical conundrum. Given that present choices affect not only the standard of living that future persons will enjoy, but also who those future persons will be, it might seem that we of today can do no wrong. This essay surveys some of the approaches taken in Western Philosophy to what is surely a fallacious conclusion. In particular, it scrutinises the notion of ‘harm’, arguing that we are capable of harming our successors even if no specific individual is made any ‘worse off’. While considering these issues might seem a distraction to the ultimate purpose of pushing for action on our moral intuitions, it does help to clarify (and thereby strengthen) our inter-temporal obligations at a time when acceptance of their legitimacy seems increasingly under threat.

The Problem

The simple and obvious fact that future persons’ existence is contingent on the actions of present generations throws up some unexpectedly complex moral issues. Claims that we should moderate consumption, or act in other ways deemed favourable to the interests of those who will follow, are often made by appealing to the moral imperative against harm. Intuitively, position in time is as irrelevant as position in space when it comes to rights and obligations.[1] Just as we surely have obligations to those who are physically separated from us, we have obligations to those who are temporally distant. As the late philosopher Derek Parfit points out, however, future people are distinguished from distant people in that we are able to affect both their identity and their number.[2] On the conventional view that to harm someone is to make that person worse off than they otherwise would have been, there can be no moral objection to policies which adversely affect human interests such as quality of life, so long as future persons have lives worth living. Although different people may have enjoyed a higher standard of living had a different policy been chosen, those affected can be no worse off. Had we acted differently, they would never have existed.[3] Paradoxically, it would seem that the beneficiaries of our concern for future generations are not those in respect of whom the concern is held.

Harm as Rights-Violation

One response to this so-called ‘non-identity problem’ is to claim that policies which appear to have negative future consequences are wrong because they violate the right to a certain standard of living.[4] On a ‘threshold’ conception of harm, no individual need be made worse off for a policy to be morally condemnable.  Actions that allow a person to come into existence in a suboptimal state are harmful if that person would not otherwise have been in the suboptimal state and it was possible to avoid the realisation of such a state.[5] While Parfit counters that rational individuals would simply waive their right to a certain standard of living,[6] this argument lacks persuasion. Subjective attitudes towards rights cannot alter their force. As James Woodward exemplifies, an impoverished person brought into slavery has her right to freedom impermissibly violated, even if she is made better off overall and harbours no regrets.[7] It seems clear that any ‘waiver’ should in any case be treated as given under duress.[8]

One may nevertheless have concerns that, without an existence, future persons lack rights altogether. It has been suggested that civil rights and duties arise out of a ‘social contract’[9] and capacity for mutual influence.[10] This is clearly lacking among non-contemporaries. Jessica Godovsky argues that ‘[b]ecause future people cannot consent to a social contract or engage in a reciprocal relationship with present people … present people have no obligation to invest in these future people civically.’[11]

While the scope of rights is not exhausted by those which are civil in nature, future people do seem to lack rights in an individual capacity. Godovsky suggests that natural rights such as the right to survival (dependent upon access to clean air, food and water) are temporally independent.[12] While Godovsky rather ambiguously refers to these rights as the rights of ‘future people’ on occasion, the imperative to protect such rights is not undermined by considering them as impersonal ‘group’ rights possessed by humanity as a species. Edith Brown characterises natural rights as ‘planetary rights … held by each generation’ as a class,[13] and thus independent of the specific make-up of that class. While no future person may be harmed by the actions of present generations, it is coherent to claim that acts which threaten the security of those resources needed to sustain human functioning may nevertheless violate the rights of future generations.

The bearing that the distinction between personal and impersonal rights has on the nature of present peoples’ obligations towards future generations is further explored by Jeffrey Reiman through a Rawlsian lens.  A key figure in Western philosophy, John Rawls approached issues of justice by considering the choices decision makers would pursue if ignorant of their personal, social and cultural contexts, under a ‘veil of ignorance’. Though Reiman likewise appears to confuse group rights with individual rights, his extension of Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ demonstrates the irrelevancy of personal identity to questions of harm in non-identity situations. It is clear that decision-makers unaware of the generation they will be born into will have incentives to form inter-generational contracts for the protection of liveable conditions.[14] While it may not be that any individual is wronged by the negligent conduct of present generations (as Reiman claims), there is a breach of general duty to the human species as an inter-temporal community. There is no reason why this should be considered any less reprehensible than a failure to honour obligations owed to an individual.

Harm as Non-Comparative

Another potential dissolution of the problem lies in a critical review of what it means to be ‘harmed’ or made ‘worse off’. The non-identity paradox rests on the assumption that an act harms (and is wrong) only if it makes a person worse off than they otherwise would have been.[15] Conversely, an act may presumably benefit only if it makes a person better off than they otherwise would have been. Implicit in this consequential framework is the suggestion that an act may be either harmful or beneficial, but cannot be both.[16] Parfit defends this proposition by appealing to the example of a surgeon who amputates an injured person’s limb. Since the amputation confers an overall benefit on the patient, it would seem incongruous to claim that the surgeon somehow ‘harms’ the patient.[17]

But is harm really ‘all-or-nothing’? Firstly, it is possible to harm someone without making that person any worse off than they otherwise would have been. Consider the following thought experiment raised by Thomas Bontly. A thirsty traveller (T) has two enemies, A and B, who each attempt to kill him. While A poisons T’s water, B drills a hole in his drinking can causing the water to completely drain by the time it is needed. Stranded in the desert without water, T dies. Since A’s act ultimately has no effect on T, B is arguably the one who harms him.[18] However, this harmful act leaves T no worse off than he otherwise would have been. Had B not acted as he did, T would have been killed by A’s poison. It is clear that what is ‘harmful’ or ‘beneficial’ is not so simply in virtue of its overall effect. In an inter-temporal context, leaving behind an objectively suboptimal world for future generations may not render these future people any ‘worse off’. Nevertheless, this does not mean we have not ‘harmed’ them in a morally relevant sense.

Elizabeth Harman, Seana Shiffrin and Woodward contend that some harms are so serious they cannot be offset.[19] Consequently, an act may be morally wrong even if it in fact increases a person’s overall wellbeing. Woodward illustrates the point by appealing to intuitions in the, albeit unlikely, case of a Nazi concentration camp prisoner whose life is benefited overall by his experience owing to the resilience and insights his gains. His torture is clearly immoral, despite the fact that the extent to which it benefits him outweighs the extent to which it harms him.[20] This would be true even if the consequences of the act were foreseeable, or (pervertedly) that owing to such foreseeability the Nazis acted in the prisoner’s interests.[21] Hence, ‘we thus cannot appeal to the worthwhile character of [a future person’s] life as somehow cancelling the wrongfulness of the … choice.’[22]

Shiffrin lends further weight to the claim that certain harms cannot be counterbalanced by accompanying benefits. It is commonly believed that duties not to harm are much more serious than duties to benefit.[23] This provides a reason for refraining from an act which harms, even if it benefits overall. Such considerations are particularly relevant where the benefits conferred by an act are unconnected in kind from the harms that act concurrently confers.[24] Though endorsing the conclusion that Parfit’s surgeon acts permissibly, Shiffrin distinguishes the situation by emphasising the fact that the non-consensual harm ‘benefits’ by preventing worse harm of the same kind.[25] This is intuitively permissible where non-consensually harming to confer a greater benefit isn’t. In accordance with principles of autonomy and self-determination, such decisions may arguably be undertaken only by the agent herself.[26] This is, of course, impossible in inter-temporal situations which give rise to the non-identity problem. The benefits of existence are entirely divorced in kind from the harms that beneficiaries are simultaneously burdened with, and as such offer no excuse.

Towards an Impersonal Solution

While it may be possible to coherently maintain that present actions have the potential to harm specific future individuals and generations, it is nonetheless overly narrow to restrict one’s understanding of inter-temporal obligations to such a framework. While the paradox presupposes a moral theory centred on harm, harm, whether defined comparatively or non-comparatively, personally or impersonally, is rarely the only thing that matters.[27] Harms to a person arguably can be justified by greater benefits, even benefits to other people, if the number of beneficiaries is sufficiently large or the benefits comparatively great enough.[28]  Parfit himself suggests that ‘if, in either of the two outcomes, there would be the same number of people, it would be worse if those who live are worse off, or have a lower quality of life, than those who would have lived.’[29] Of course, choices involving equally sized future populations are most unlikely to arise in reality, and this raises complications of its own. Trade-offs must inevitably be made between quantity and quality of life. Although utilitarianism dictates some unpalatable conclusions in such situations, other moral frameworks are more persuasive. Temkin, for example, highlights the possibility of making a more holistic consideration of all aspects of a society. Central to this is the idea that diversity in the factors which contribute to human flourishing may itself be intrinsically valuable.[30]

The non-identity problem raises genuine problems for a society concerned about its inter-temporal obligations. If, as is commonly believed, moral duty revolves around the responsibility not to harm, it would seem that present generations are incapable of harming their successors. The absurdity of such a conclusion, however, is reflected by Roberts who remarks that ‘[it] seems implausible that our future-directed conduct should get a free moral pass whenever it affects the timing and manner of conception.’[31] Considering the rights of future generations and the ways in which harm may come about confirms that there is indeed no ‘free moral pass’. While attempts to resolve the dilemma have, for the most part, remained committed to understandings of harm firmly rooted in person-affecting terms, deeper, more abstract understandings are also possible. Thinking about precisely why we care about the legacy and the world we leave behind is not fundamental to the task of seeking to improve that legacy or world. Our intuitions in this regard are strong enough to drive us to demand change and accountability on the part of those in positions of influence. Nevertheless, there is a wide range of complex values and emotions that reflections on the future invoke. Considering these may serve to heighten an appreciation of just what is at stake.

Mia is a third-year Law and PPE student at the ANU. After living in over fourteen towns and cities across Australia and abroad whilst growing up, she now calls Canberra home. She is driven by a desire to help change Australia’s shameful treatment of refugees and its natural heritage.


[1] Thomas Bontly, “Causes, contrasts, and the non-identity problem,” Philosophical Studies 173 (2016): 1233, doi: 10.1007/s11098-015-0543-9.

[2] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 357.

[3] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “The Nonidentity Problem,” accessed May 4, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nonidentity-problem/.

[4] Jeff McMahan, “Wrongful Life: Paradoxes in the Morality of Causing People to Exist,” in Rational Commitment and Social Justice: Essays for Gregory Kavka, ed. Jules Coleman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 223–229.

[5] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Intergenerational Justice,” accessed May 2, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-intergenerational/.

[6] Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 375.

[7] James Woodward, “The Non-Identity Problem,” Ethics 96, 4 (1986): 823.

[8] Jeffrey Reiman, “Being Fair to Future People: The Non-Identity Problem in the Original Position,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 35, 1 (2007): 88.

[9]Jessica Godovsky, “Future Generations and the Right to Survival: A Deontological Analysis of the Moral Obligations of Present to Future People,” The College of New Jersey Journal of Student Scholarship 12 (2010): 2.

[10] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Intergenerational Justice,” accessed May 2, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-intergenerational/.

[11] Godovsky, “Future Generations and the Right to Survival,” 2.

[12] Ibid., 4-5.

[13] Edith Weiss, “In Fairness to Future Generations and Sustainable Development,” The American University Journal of International Law and Policy 8, 1 (1992): 23.

[14] Reiman, “Being Fair to Future People,” 79–81.

[15] James Woodward, “The Non-Identity Problem,” Ethics 96, 4 (1986): 808. 

[16] Seana Shiffrin, “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm,” Legal Theory 5, 2 (1999): 121.

[17] Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 374.

[18] Bontly, “Causes, contrasts, and the non-identity problem,” 1237.

[19] Elizabeth Harman, “Can we Harm and Benefit in Creating?,” Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2004): 93; Woodward, “The Non-Identity Problem,” 809; Shiffrin, “Wrongful Life,” 121.

[20] Woodward, “The Non-Identity Problem,” 809–810.

[21] Ibid., 810.

[22] Ibid., 812.

[23] Harman, “Can we Harm and Benefit in Creating?,” 104–105.

[24] Shiffrin, “Wrongful Life,” 121.

[25] Ibid., 126.

[26] Ibid., 130.

[27] Larry Temkin, Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 333.

[28] Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 431.

[29] Ibid., 360.

[30] Temkin, Rethinking the Good, 333.

[31] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “The Nonidentity Problem,” accessed May 4, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nonidentity-problem/.

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