Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why We Should Negatively Discount the Well-Being of Future Generations

This essay was the winner in the undergraduate category of the 8th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Matthew Price, University of Oxford Student

Practical ethicists and policymakers alike must grapple with the problem of how to weigh the interests of future people against those of contemporary people. This question is most often raised in discussions about our responsibility to abate climate change,1 but it is also pertinent to the mitigation of other existential risks, disposal of nuclear waste, and investment in long-term scientific enterprise. To date, most of the debate has been between those who defend the practice of discounting future generations’ well-being at some positive rate and those who argue that the only morally defensible discount rate is zero.2 This essay presents an argument for a negative discount rate:

  • There is reason to believe that the well-being of those who are more morally deserving counts for more.
  • There is reason to expect that future people will be more morally deserving than we are now.

  1. Under moral uncertainty, it is appropriate to weigh the well-being of future people as more valuable than our own.

The plausibility of desert-adjusted axiology

Everything else being equal, it is better that good things accrue to those who deserve them more rather than those who deserve them less. The credibility of P1 turns on whether there is any philosophical weight behind the intuitive appeal of this claim. A simple thought experiment suggests that there is. Imagine you are in possession of a single dose of a potent analgesic and must decide whether to administer it to an exceptionally brutal physical abuser or a conscientious children’s rights activist, both of whom are suffering from a bout of the same painful illness. In this scenario, it seems morally preferable to relive the activist’s pain rather than the abuser’s, even though the only differences between them that you are aware of are those which bear on their respective moral desert. The implication of this case is that when scarce resources are distributed, the moral desert of the recipients is relevant to the desirability of different allocations. Endorsing this conclusion entails accepting an axiology according to which the well-being of those who are more morally deserving is worth more.

An objection levied against some ethical theories based on desert-adjusted axiology is that they are inconsistent with the welfarist principle that the goodness of a state of affairs is increasing in the wellbeing of all individuals.3 This principle can be accommodated within a desert-adjusted axiology, however. The upshot of the above thought experiment is not that pain relief for the abuser would be of neutral or even negative value, but merely that it is less valuable than pain relief for the activist. Some desert-adjusted axiologies may imply that suffering is valuable when it is deserved, but others can simply maintain that the badness of suffering – although it is always bad – is proportional to the moral deservingness of the agent who suffers. This objection is therefore problematic for at most some individual ethical theories, but not for every theory which adjusts wellbeing to account for desert, so it does not threaten P1.

A more generic worry for desert-adjusted axiology is that it may be difficult to provide a philosophically compelling account of moral desert. Moral desert may be defined with reference to character, motivations, intents, or actions. This essay is not concerned with comparing different analyses of the concept, and for the remainder it is assumed that an agent’s moral desert is at least correlated with – if not constituted by – the moral value of the effects of their actions on the world. P1 may appear suspect, however, if there is reason to doubt that any meaningful concept is denoted by ‘moral desert’. One basis for doubt is the possibility that human agents lack the free will, and therefore the potential to be morally responsible, which is necessary to ground desert claims. I will not argue against this possibility, except by pointing out that we have strong intuitions to the contrary, including that the activist and the abuser in the above case deserve different things. Below, I suggest that the general argument of this essay is not undermined by a moderate degree of free will scepticism as long as we continue to have an appreciable level of credence in at least one desert-adjusted axiology.

Evidence for moral progress

The first argument for P2 is by induction. The long-term trend of human development is towards morally superior conduct; should this trend continue, the conduct of future generations will be morally superior to our own. The sphere of moral concern of the average contemporary human is more inclusive than ever before, having expanded from the tribe to embrace more of humanity and now other sentient creatures. This development has been punctuated by the abolition of slavery, the invention of human rights institutions, and the establishment of the modern animal rights movement. An obvious objection to this line of argument is that recent history has also involved some of the most grievous moral catastrophes ever witnessed: war on an unprecedented scale, genocide, and deplorable inequality. This objection takes too narrow a view of human history, however. We inhabit a period of rapid and uncontrolled economic, social, and technological development and humans are slowly adjusting to their moral responsibilities under this emerging paradigm. We have every reason to hope that the same modern forces which have been weaponised by some will soon make possible unparalleled beneficence by many. The soundness of this argument does not turn on whether we are more morally deserving than our grandparents, just as its implication is not that our grandchildren are certain to be more morally deserving than us. Rather, the point is that when we take actions with consequences that will potentially reverberate through many thousands of generations, it is appropriate to recognise that the long-term trend of human development is characterised by moral progress.

Of course, the fact that our moral conduct has improved relative to presently accepted moral standards does not show that it is improving tout court. This requires the additional claim that accepted moral standards are converging on objective moral truths.4 It is impossible to non-circularly prove that contemporary moral standards are superior to past standards – just as the validity of modern scientific inferences cannot be proved without appeal to modern scientific theories – but some considerations weigh in their favour. For one, our moral beliefs are now subjected to more intense scrutiny than ever before by committed and thoughtful critics. Unless we have no faith in the process of ethical inquiry, we should have confidence that moral philosophers have refined our moral theories. As a result, popular contemporary theories are more internally consistent than popular theories of the past. For instance, compare the utilitarianism of J. S. Mill, who believed morality had little to say about wealth inequality,5 with that defended by Peter Singer. Internal consistency is one pseudo-objective measure by which contemporary moral theories outperform past theories. This means that development in moral philosophy can appropriately be described as progress. Insofar as moral philosophy guides popular moral beliefs and people are generally disposed to act in accordance with their moral beliefs, this progress should continue to translate into improved moral practice.

A final source of support for P2 is the possibility of moral enhancement. Although the prospect of genetically bioengineering morally desirable traits may seem distant to us, it is likely to be a live option for the majority of future generations. This raises the chance that future people will have systematically superior moral dispositions to us. One might object that even if moral enhancement allows future people to take actions which reliably have better consequences, any relevance for their moral deservingness is ablated by the fact that their dispositions to take such actions are, in some sense, artificially curated.6 This objection does not withstand scrutiny, however. If moral enhancement is carried out without express consent, then its effects are analogous to those of the familiar genetic lottery from which we have always inherited many of our virtuous dispositions. This objection then reduces to the kind of free will scepticism discussed above. Moreover, if future people choose moral enhancement, then they deserve credit for any beneficial consequences which follow from their decision.

 

Intergenerational discounting under moral uncertainty

The above discussion has demonstrated that there are strong reasons to accept P1 and P2 but we may remain unsure about the soundness of the overall argument. Perhaps, for instance, we have lingering doubts regarding the reliance of moral desert on free will that are unlikely to be resolved soon. Nevertheless, we must choose how to weigh the interests of future people against our own. This is a morally significant decision which cannot be postponed, making it a prime example of a choice which must be made under the condition of moral uncertainty. Given this context, it is not necessary that we have absolute confidence in P1 and P2 for it to be appropriate to apply a negative discount rate. Rather, it is sufficient that we have an appreciable degree of credence in at least one desert-adjusted axiology and we believe it is likelier that future generations will be more morally deserving than us as opposed to less so. The magnitude of the negative discount rate will depend on the specifics of the desert-adjusted axiology, the extent of anticipated moral progress, and our levels of confidence in P1 and P2.

When making decisions under moral uncertainty, it is also necessary to account for ‘interaction effects’ between competing moral theories.7 To take an illustrative example, imagine that a policymaker is reasonably confident both that the well-being of more morally deserving people counts for more and that well-being has diminishing moral importance. Suppose also that they believe people in the future will be both more morally deserving and better-off than we are now. The policymaker would then have reasons for weighing the marginal well-being of future people as more and less important than our own. Whether it is appropriate for them to apply a positive, negative, or zero discount rate depends on the details of their moral and nonmoral beliefs, and the complex nexus of their interaction. Of course, an actual policymaker may have credence in many interacting ethical theories.

The significance of the argument presented in this essay is not that it settles the question of how to weigh the well-being of future generations against our own, but that it provides a pro tanto reason to weigh it as more important while the question remains unsettled. This reason must be balanced against those which speak in favour of weighing future generations’ well-being as less important or equal to our own. If this novel reason were ignored, a treatment of intergenerational discounting under moral uncertainty would likely recommend a low positive discount rate, based on a trade-off between plausible reasons for a high positive rate and countervailing reasons for a rate of zero. In light of this essay’s argument, however, such an analysis need not recommend a positive discount rate: the optimal discount rate may be zero, or even negative. In any case, considerations of moral desert should not be neglected as they can make a significant difference, even amid other factors. To illustrate, if taking moral desert into account prompts a policymaker to revise their positive discount rate down from 0.2% to 0.1%, the result is that a unit of well-being today will be estimated to be equivalent to approximately 2.7 units rather than 7.3 units in 1000 years.8

In sum, I have argued that we have an unacknowledged reason to go beyond regarding future generations as our equals and instead make sacrifices for their benefit: because this is what they deserve.

 

Endnotes:

1 See, for example, Greaves (2017).

2 This essay focusses on pure time preference, ignoring the implications of factors such as exogenous extinction risk for discount rates.

3 Crisp (2021)

4 Moral realism is assumed here and throughout

5 Mill (1863): 34

6 A prominent objection in this spirit is raised by Harris (2011)

7 MacAskill (2019): 238

8 1.0021000 ≈ 7.3743; 1.0011000 ≈ 2.7169

 

Bibliography

Brink, D. O. (1989) Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge: CUP). Crisp, R. (2021) ‘Wellbeing’ in Zalta, E. N. (ed) Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Greaves, H. (2017) ‘Discounting for Public Policy: A Survey’, Economics and Philosophy 33: pp. 391­439.

Harris, J. (2011) ‘Moral Enhancement and Freedom’, Bioethics 25(2): pp. 102-11.

Kagan, S. (2005) The Geometry of Desert (Oxford: OUP).

MacAskill, W. (2019) ‘Practical Ethics Given Moral Uncertainty’, Utilitas 31(3): pp. 231-45.

MacAskill, W., Bykvist, K. and Ord, T. (2020) Moral Uncertainty (Oxford: OUP).

Mill, J. S. (1863) Utilitarianism (1879, Auckland: Floating Press).

Persson, I. and Savulescu, J. (2012) Unfit for the Future? The Need for Moral Enhancement (Oxford: OUP).

Scheffler, S. (2018) Why Worry About Future Generations? (Oxford: OUP). Singer, P. (2016) Ethics in the Real World (PUP: Princeton).

Skow, B. (2012) ‘How to Adjust Utility for Desert’, Australian Journal of Philosophy 90(2): pp. 235­57.

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One Response to Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why We Should Negatively Discount the Well-Being of Future Generations

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Wait, what? This is a discourse, presented by the best we have? The bullet points, alone, are mutually exclusive. Let me offer this question for any who missed my point: what exactly, are the reasons to believe and expect anything? Or, what is it that leads to the conclusions? I am doubtful of the conclusions, largely because of their being ‘same old wine’ in some repackaged box. Let me see here. We ought to negatively discount the well-being of future generations? Insofar as what we are doing now endangers future generations, why is it we should discount that? What gives us the right?

    “You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen, and all the time I’ve known you I still don’t know what you mean. The weekend at t the college didn’t work out like you planned, the things that pass for knowledge, I can’t understand.”

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