How are future generations different from potential persons?

A debate piece in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter by the philosophers Nicholas Espinoza and Martin Peterson (autotranslated version) on abortion rights has led to strong reactions in the Swedish blogosphere. The authors make two claims: First, that even people with liberal values can take issue with current abortion rights because it involves a goal conflict between the interests of present and future individuals in having their legitimate desires fulfilled. Second, that the binary view that things must be either allowed or banned is wrong, and that there exists a third domain where laws should take moral ambiguity or internal conflict into account. Their suggestion is that women who end up in situations in this third domain should neither be helped nor hindered by society, and should be allowed to end their pregnancies at clinics where the fee is proportional to their ability to pay. The short article seems tailored to anger holders of practically every view, although I suspect the authors mainly felt it was more of an interesting argument than a deliberate golden apple. Here is a small bite on the green half of the apple: is climate and abortion ethics comparable?

Here I will deal with the first claim, where they make an analogy with the climate debate. They say that there is a broad agreement that the interests of future generations have some weight. Just because our great grandchildren are not born yet does not mean that we have a right to entirely ignore their interests in climate issues: the currently existing generation has responsibility for future generations and must sometimes make sacrifices to help future individuals. They hence conclude that if future, potentially existing individuals have moral weight in discussions about the climate then they should also have moral weight in discussions about abortion. If we balance between current and future generations for climate’s sake we ought to do it between the pregnant woman and the fetus.

This is a problematic claim because there are different kinds of future people. People affected by current climate decisions will certainly exist (even the most pessimistic climate scenarios will have surviving humans) and will be persons with desires, interests that can be infringed upon etc. People affected by a current abortion decision will only exist if the decision is not to have an abortion. There will not be an interest to infringe if they do not come into being. When we give weight to future generations we do not do it because they will potentially exist, but because they will exist – we don’t know exactly who or how many they will be, but they will be people.

Accepting Espinoza’s and Peterson’s claim means that we ought to weigh the interests of the potential future population of Mars against our current interests. Not embarking on a costly colonisation mission would preclude this population from coming into existence, essentially aborting every single member. The same goes for every single inhabitable planet we potentially could reach – there is an enormous number of potential people that could come into being. If we accept the claim, then it looks like we have a moral reason to rush into space even if it would be against most of our own interests. This is not necessarily a reductio ad absurdum (Nick’s paper linked above shows that utilitarians ought to embrace colonization too), but it shows that intergenerational arguments require specifying how to weigh the interests of potential and future individuals – just assuming them to be somewhat equal to the interests of existing individuals makes the arguments vulnerable to flooding from future generations.

Traditional anti-abortion views often base themselves on the idea that the embryo or foetus has become a person at the time of abortion and hence is an existing individual with interests just as anybody else. In this case the claim would indeed be correct. However, then they open themselves to a similar flooding problem. Embryos can and do split into twins (who are individual persons right from the start by this view). This means that every non-split embryo is a choice between allowing one or several persons to come into being. Since these twins/triplets/quadruplets/… all have a shared interest of coming into being, it seems that they would have a decent case against the single embryo that their joint interest outweighs its interest. (It might be that the health risks, cost of intervention and the interest of the mother would be enough countervailing interests to overrule the interests of the twins, but this is likely not always true). A simple response is of course to argue that as potential embryos they do not count against the existing embryo, but then one has to drop the claim.

Of course, the deepest irony in bringing up climate concerns in a discussion about abortion is that reducing the number of children is a pretty effective way of improving our environmental impact. While I personally think human life and the value creation done across a lifetime is worth much more than the climate impact, it is not too uncommon to hear people argue that it is in the interest of future generations that we have fewer children right now. If one accepts the claim, then the interest of the potential person is not just weighed against the interest of the mother but also against the interests of future generations.

Sounds like there is an all-out-battle among the potential embryos and potential people… I am glad that I’m not there.

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4 Responses to How are future generations different from potential persons?

  • Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo says:

    I think your objections against Spinoza and Peterson’s claims are mainly right. They say that “[j]ust because our great grandchildren are not born yet does not mean that we have a right to entirely ignore their interests in climate issues: the currently existing generation has responsibility for future generations and must sometimes make sacrifices to help future individuals.” You are right that the analogy is not good. You said that: “People affected by current climate decisions will certainly exist (even the most pessimistic climate scenarios will have surviving humans) and will be persons with desires, interests that can be infringed upon etc. People affected by a current abortion decision will only exist if the decision is not to have an abortion.” Ok.
    There is, nevertheless, something odd about this. Following your view we must conclude that “future generations” are “more real” than some possible future human individual; or, better, that only the first is real – for we almost certainly will have future generations, but we cannot say that an individual person almost certainly will exist, for it depends on a contingent decision made by some identified pregnant woman. Again, I think you are right here (even if it is true that some will say that you are begging the question concerning the legal status of the unborn). But my complaint concerns the further claim that: “There will not be an interest to infringe if [the individual still in the womb] do not come into being. When we give weight to future generations we do not do it because they will potentially exist, but because they will exist – we don’t know exactly who or how many they will be, but they will be people.” I accept the first assertion. The problem is with the second; for the fact that someone almost certainly will exist does not imply his actual existence.
    Well, the problem is that future beings are not actual persons; actually, they are not even actual collectives. Could future generations be considered actual collectives? No, they are not actual collectives; they are future!
    But the thing is very different with the individual in the womb. Being it an embryo or a fetus, it is nevertheless an ACTUAL individual. And as an actual individual, it is at least conceivable that it can have actual interests (for example, if it can fell pain, it is very reasonable to believe that do not fell pain is one of its interests). So, here we have the situation that the embryo or the fetus can have interests for their own sake – a necessary condition for having claim-rights (following Joel Feinberg). Anyway, I think that Judith Jarvis Thomson was right in saying that even if the individual in the womb would be a person (in my words, an individual whose interests can be legally claimable by surrogates, that is, legally represented – that is what persona means), it does not follow that those individuals can have nondisposable claims against a woman of not being discarded by her.
    Nevertheless, an individual can only claim against other individual the actualization of an interest of his or of her by virtue of what he or she actually is. A child has an actual interest in being educated; on the other hand, an embryo does not have any actual interest in being educated, for it obviously cannot be educated. A child can be represented in his or her claims in being educated; but it does not make sense to speak about the actual interests of an embryo in being educated in the future (for in the future it will not be an embryo anymore). Of course, we can say that we educate our children because it makes them to flourish. But plausibly it is the child that has an interest to flourish; it is not his or her future self that has this self-interest. Hence, if someone has plausible interests concerning his future, those interests are necessarily connected with his or her actual state (or substance, in a very ancient parlance). Nonetheless, not all interests are claimable. A law student can have the interest in having the privileges of a lawyer – but he cannot claim this interest as a lawyer’s interest, but as a student’s interest (and actually, as a student, he cannot claim the privileges of a lawyer, for he is not a lawyer yet). To have interests in only a necessary condition for having claims; but it is not sufficient.
    My conclusion is that future generations – being they future individuals or future collectives – cannot be possibly right-holders in any sense of the word. They cannot have actual interests. But even if we could talk about the actual interests of future generations, it is not sufficient for taking present generations as their correlative duty-bearers (anyway, I don’t think that makes sense to say that future selves can have actual interests).
    It does not mean that we cannot have reasons for accounting their *future* interests in our political or collective decisions. It would be insane not to be worry about climate change even if the change will not affect us today, but only future generations. But I think you will agree that it is true because WE have actual interests in the future of the next generations (who could say that we are being stupid by caring about that?).
    It is here that I can see a chain with your point about our certainty about the existence of future generations. We can obviously care about the future, even if it is not our own future. The future can be viewed not only as a possible, but as a likely state of affairs, and as such as an object of our worries. Those future states (like the well-being of future generations) or even bad outcomes can obviously be objects of OUR actual interests (for certainly we can psychologically affected by sympathy to what can happen in the future to others beyond what can happen presently to ourselves). We still can turn those interests in the well-being of future generations into contents of present (legal) rights; but in this case those rights would be OURS (and the duty-bearers mainly the governments, officials, and in some cases all citizens). Nevertheless, it is not necessary to turn all those interests in questions of rights. Respecting rights are important (and I agree with Dworkin that rights normally trumps – other things being equal –other, even sensible, interests). But to respect rights are not our only worries in our present life. As Annette Baier said once, rights are only the tip of an iceberg.

  • Matt Sharp says:

    Agreed with your response. I have nothing constructive to add, but will say I find it hard to believe that Espinoza and Peterson, as professional philosophers, weren't aware of arguments along the lines that you have made. So I'm led to believe that either (a) they have some incredibly clever justification for their argument that they weren't able to explain in the newspaper due to word limits, or (b) they're simply being deliberately provocative and trying to get some media recognition. I suspect the latter, which I find rather infuriating.

  • Writing some provocative philosophy on DN Debatt seems to be a popular pastime among Swedish philosophers. Torbjörn Tännsjö used to create a stir every 6 months or so back in the 90s by arguing typical radical utilitarian solutions to medical ethics dilemmas. Got enough people riled up to have a fun debate.

    I suspect that the real complexity of their argument (and what they care about) is all about the second claim, the third domain of permissibility, but the first claim seem to be so obviously problematic that it is indeed odd they included it.

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