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Not content with temporal parochialism

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By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatal Ethics, Director of medical ethics

Why should we care about what happens to future generations? What reason do we have to sacrifice our own well-being and interests for the sake of people who will exist after we are dead?

Last night Professor Sam Scheffler from NYU gave the first of the 2015 Uehiro lectures on this controversial and challenging topic.

He started by observing a phenomenon he described as ‘temporal parochialism’. Our world has become increasingly globalized, and cosmopolitan. We recognize and care about the impact of our actions on people on the other side of the planet. However, Scheffler argued that we have at the same time become increasingly isolated in time – both from our ancestors and from our descendants. We do not appear to consider the moral concerns of the past to be relevant to our age, and we struggle to be motivated by the plight of people in the future. Should we be temporally as well as spatially broad-minded? Should we care about the far future?

Questions like the ones above are obviously highly important and relevant for policies on climate change. The Paris climate change deal was motivated in part by concern for future generations. However, Scheffler noted that policies on climate change affect people (both living and not yet born) with whom we might have relationships. Given that relationships form the basis for much moral concern, it is more straightforward to appreciate why we might be prepared to sacrifice some of our own wellbeing for the sake of theirs.

But if we look further ahead, to people who will not exist while any of us are alive, why should we care about them?

In his first Uehiro lecture, Scheffler identified problems with existing ways of thinking about future generations. Utilitarian answers to the question of future generations appear unpalatable. The future is, in the words of Julian Savulescu, a moral “black hole”. Since there are potentially trillions of future people who may be affected by our actions, our own interests appear completely insignificant. (They cannot escape the moral event horizon.)  Utilitarianism is often criticized (and Scheffler himself is a long-standing critic) for being demanding. Yet, when we contemplate the vast, overwhelming moral demands of those who come after us, it may seem that we are required to sacrifice literally everything we have for the sake of the future.

However, alternatives to utilitarianism do not seem to offer an attractive alternative. Non-utilitarian answers to the problem of future generations are largely absent. In the next two lectures Scheffler aims to address the latter gap in the philosophical literature, by providing non-beneficence based reasons to care about the far future. He cited reasons of love, interest, value, reciprocity (more to come about what he means by these in the next lectures). But he also alluded to the moral significance of humanity’s continued existence. This is a theme that Scheffler has explored before – most recently in his book ‘Death and the Afterlife’. There he argues that many of the things that are important to us now are dependent on humans continuing to exist.

If that insight is correct we may have entirely selfish reasons to care for the distant future.


Abstract:  Most of us who live in contemporary liberal societies lack a rich set of evaluative resources for thinking about the human beings who will come after us. We do not possess a highly developed set of ideas about the value of human continuity, or about the values we hope will be realized in the future, or about the values and norms that should inform our own activities insofar as they affect future generations or depend on the expectation that there will be future generations. Yet we are hardly indifferent to the fate of our successors, and it is not uncommon for issues like climate change that implicate our attitudes toward the future to generate passionate interest and intense controversy. Much of the philosophical literature dealing with future generations focuses on issues of moral responsibility and approaches these issues from a broadly utilitarian perspective, devoting special attention to the puzzles of “population ethics”. In this lecture, I explain why I take a different approach. Rather than focusing exclusively on issues of moral responsibility, I want to consider the broader question of how future generations feature in or are related to our practical and evaluative thought as a whole. My aim is to explore the evaluative commitments that may be latent in our existing attitudes and may help to enrich our thinking about the significance that future generations have for us.

Lecture 2: Reasons to Worry

In this lecture I argue that, quite apart from considerations of beneficence, we have reasons of at least four different kinds to try to ensure the survival and flourishing of our successors: reasons of love, reasons of interest, reasons of value, and reasons of reciprocity.


Lecture 3: Conservatism, Temporal Bias, and Future Generations

The reasons discussed in the previous lecture all depend in one way or another on our existing values and attachments and our conservative disposition to preserve and sustain the things that we value.  The idea that our reasons for caring about the fate of future generations depend on an essentially conservative disposition may seem surprising or even paradoxical.  In this lecture, I explore this conservative disposition further, explaining why it strongly supports a concern for the survival and flourishing of our successors, and comparing it to the form of conservatism defended by G.A. Cohen.  I consider the question whether this kind of conservatism involves a form of irrational temporal bias and how it fits within the context of the more general relations between our attitudes toward time and our attitudes toward value.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Utilitarianism is an inherently pragmatic theory. I think as soon as we accuse it of requiring actions that are patently unpragmatic (such as literally sacrificing everything for future generations), we are no longer talking about utilitarianism. A thoughtful utilitarianism will take into account our psychological and social limitations — which is not to say that it won’t be demanding. As a pragmatic theory, its degree of demandingness will be contingent on the gravity of what’s at stake. So it can certainly be very demanding. But that’s different form being “too” demanding (as in, unpragmatically so).

  2. @Hazem

    If we are ‘pragmatist’ utilitarians so to speak, why should we limit the values plugged into our consequentialism to only those associated with utilitarianism? If the value of a normative theory is that it works, or that it is somehow functional to our interests in the circumstances under which we exist, we begin to be quite some distance away from utilitarianism as it has ever been conceived.

  3. I don’t see how the ‘moral event horizon’ notion we should worry about the well being of trillions of potential descendants is compatible with the Doomsday Argument. As a randomly chosen observer, your birth order among all humans is not likely to be at the very start, but somewhere around the middle. It follows the far future of humanity probably will not exist as we will be either extinct or have a population collapse by then. It’s statistically defensible to consider your actions to affect an equivalent number of people who have lived to date already (about 11 times the current population). Utilitarians should be willing to sacrifice current wellbeing for a better future, but not overwhelmingly so.

    This also assumes humans have obligations only to other humans and not animals, artificial intelligence we create, aliens, etc. I can’t see why this should be so.

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