Prompt 4 (EPT: 2014)

What duties do we have to the unborn, and can these responsibilities be individualized?

Scholars like Caney, Passmore, Hiskes and Schader-Frechette, whose normative arguments you should be familiar with, join the call of such institutions as UNESCO, in emphasizing our obligations to future generations—namely, the obligation to ensure that future generations do not unfairly bear the harms entailed by the environmental policy decisions of current generations.  Based on what you have read what, if any, are our moral obligations to future generations?

Once you clearly explain and defend why we have these inter-generational obligations, discuss how—if at all—individuals can contribute to satisfying these responsibilities.  Drawing on Schrader-Frechette, O’Rourke, Maniates, and/or Sinnott-Armstrong, explain the extent to which complex global and inter-generational environmental problems can be solved through the efforts of particular individuals.  (Alternatively, if you believe that we have no such obligations to future generations, then after defending your explanation why this is so, discuss the extent to which particular individuals can contribute to solving the global environmental problems that current generations wrestle with.)


Filed under 3064_2014: EPT

9 responses to “Prompt 4 (EPT: 2014)

  1. Page L.

    From Generations to Generation: Can We Ensure a Hopeful Future?

    With the continued growth of our population and economy, our concern for the threats facing the future generations grow as well. While in many areas of the world, a larger population means more industry and expansion; it is also synonymous with more strenuous consumption of resources and an all-encompassing strain on our environment. In all developed and wealthy countries, the platform of sustainable development is supposed to be the focal consideration while progress ensues.

    This idea that “we owe to future generations a global environment in no worse off condition than the one we enjoy” (D’Amato 1990, 190) entails an obligation that our society grows and prospers in a way that doesn’t cripple any future generation’s environmental domain. There is simply no reason why our generation should take something that doesn’t belong to them or anyone for that matter. In the rapid way we are depleting the Earth’s natural assets, some kind of proposal must be examined in order to secure the next generation’s success.

    In my opinion, I think the individual has very limited ability to make a difference in global and intergenerational environmental problems in terms of independent action. Sinnott-Armstrong’s perspective is essentially that one person’s influence and undertaking is simply insignificant in the grand scheme of things; the answer and responsibility lies within the government because they have the means to make a difference.

    One counter argument addressed in the involvement of our moral commitment to the future population is that we know nothing of their needs, or wants and there is just a generally lack of certainty. How can we know if our sacrifices or potential remedies wouldn’t make them worse off in some way? There is no reason why some action shouldn’t be taken if its not overly taxing on the citizens and if there is any knowledge that the future generation will be our ethical counterparts. There is no denying that an underlying obligation to preserve an environmental future from one generation to another does exist. It is our duty as individuals, not to limit ourselves, but to vote for and promote the legislation that will make a collective action diverting everyone to a more sustainable lifestyle.

    D’Amato, Anthony. “What Obligation Does Our Generation Owe to the Next? An Approach to Global Environmental Responsibility: Do We Owe a Duty to Future Generations to Preserve the Global Environment?.” AjIL 84 (1990): 190-973.

    Golding, Martin P. “Obligations to future generations.” The Monist (1972): 85-99.

    Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. It’s not my fault: Global warming and individual moral obligations. na, 2005.

    Weiss, Edith Brown. “Our rights and obligations to future generations for the environment.” American Journal of International Law (1990): 198-207.

    • Carly F.

      Future Generations are Our Problem

      Response to Page

      Obligations to future generations are a concern that has been greatly emphasized in the last decade. As we continue to debate over the extent of the damage being done today as well as the variety of different causes for that damage, the consideration of Future generations plays a large role. As the current generation we have an obligation to ensure that our future generations have the means and ability to continue to live and prosper at a sustainable level. Whether this is done through the creation technological innovation, like Caney suggests, or through the existence of personal affections, like Passmore suggests. Regardless of the way in which we ensure the sustainability of future generations, it never the less gets done. If you look at the situation from a historical context, throughout history, current generations have spent thousands of years creating innovation and technology to not only better themselves, but also better generations to come. Currently, the environment is a major concern that threatens future generations and like generations before us, we must create solutions for these problems now so that future generations can survive to make its contribution to human history.On the other hand, it could be argued that our obligations to future generations is lacking, because we lack knowledge of the specific needs and wants that future generations may have and attempting to fulfill our obligations, we may indeed make things worse. As stated in a NY Times article, “Decisions on issues like environmental protection or the control of human reproduction are made in the name of future generations” (Sebastian 2013).

      I do however disagree that individuals cannot contribute to satisfying these responsibilities. Yes, it is true that it is hard for any single person to successfully contribute to something as large as “an obligation to future generations” but there are some considerations that can change this perspective. For example, everything starts with one person. One person’s thoughts and opinions are what blossoms into a movement. For example, a teen in Oregon named Julien Leitner, who founded the Archimedes Alliance, a non-profit that operates on the idea, “if everyone gives $2.” “It hit me that I might not be able to do something on my own, but there has to be a billion other people like me who want to make a difference but feel they can’t,” Leitner told the Oregonian. “I thought, ‘What if everyone just pooled their resources?'” This one idea resulted in the organization raising over $18,000. Even though this is unrelated to the future generations topic, it does emphasize that an individual can make a difference. Considering the concept of repetition becoming habit is another way in which an individual can make a difference. Introducing environmentally friendly behaviors into everyday life will eventually make it part of society. Obviously some tasks seem to great for any one individual, but anything is possible. Individuals can make a difference, it just takes some work.

    • Bryn Grunwald

      Collective vs Individual: How to Make a Better World for Future Generations

      Response to Page

      You argue (without substantive reasons) that those alive today have a moral responsibility to future generations; that individuals can take action through voting for governmental actions; and, that for wider change, governmental intervention and regulation is necessary.

      To cite Maniates and Sinott-Armstrong, we do have a moral responsibility to future generations to insure a decent quality of life. However, the argument that we cannot anticipate their needs and their wants – which you cite as a counterargument – is a faulty one. By looking at the past as a reference, even with advancing technology, human needs fall within a range. To claim no responsibility to future generations because they might not value resources we value, such as clean water or open spaces, is an exceedingly erroneous and dismissive one, meant to absolve one of responsibility.

      As for your argument that individuals cannot make a change and government intervention and regulation is what precipitates wide spread reforms, I find this to be faulty and easily disproved by reality. Both collectivist and individual actions can create changes. ‘Social cascades’ applies not only to fears. To cite O’Rourke, consumption habits and changes can have impacts on the larger scale. For example, consider the fact that 40% of US energy is directed to buildings. Much of the heat is lost through because walls and floors are not insulated. Individuals can take action by insulating their homes. Collective action can be taken through government and charity grants, loans or programs to help lower-income individuals insulate their homes, saving both energy and money over time. Thus, both individual and collectivist actions can be effective.

      Particular individuals can have wide-spread impact on generational challenges. When prominent, influential individuals promote a course of action, people respond more readily. For example, Lady Gaga’s outspoken promotion of LGTBQA rights and Bono’s concerts for AIDS victims have drawn attention to these issues, and that attention helps change societal norms. If Scarlett Johansson announced support for insulation and energy efficiency, many more people across the country would be making their homes more secure to prevent energy leaks. People other than celebrities can also make sizable impacts. One flight from Europe to New York can generate two to three tons of carbon emissions per person. Typical Americans generate 19 tons of carbon emissions per year. One airplane trip can cut 10-15% of an individual’s carbon emission. If one corporate manager decides to switch to teleconferences instead of international travel for meetings, the impact over time would be considerable.

      My points are that our obligation to the future cannot be denied on the basis of uncertainty, individuals can make a difference through their own actions instead of merely voting for others to make it for them, and both collective and individual actions can contribute to long lasting change.

      “Energy Loss in Homes and the Benefits of Insulation .” Green Home Gnome. N.p., 18 Aug. 2013. Web. 2 Aug. 2014.

      O’Rourke, Dara. “Citizen Consumer.” N.p., 2011. Web. 2 Aug. 2014.

      Rosenthal, Elizabeth. “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel.” The New York Times . The New York Times Company, 26 Jan. 2013. Web. 2 Aug. 2014.

    • Augustine H.

      Response to Page

      I tend to agree with Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument that one person’s influence is essentially ineffective. However, I disagree that Sinnott-Armstrong implies that we must kick back and allow the government tend to this issues. I believe that this is Sinnott-Armstrong’s calling for people to partake in the political process. Given that the US has relatively low levels of voter turnout, voter pro-activism can only help to better convey the perspectives and values of citizens, so that the policies created fall in line with these perspectives and values.

      Regarding future generations, I do agree that a responsibility must exist. However, Caney’s argument’s basis for responsibility is the fact that individuals are entitled to protection of our fundamental interests, and it unjust for others to act in ways that put these interests at risk. Essentially, protection of individual rights. I feel as though the protection of individual freedoms ignores the imperative for collective action, and emphasizes individualism. This is why Glendon’s basis for responsibility is more sound and more conducive to action. The basis of Glendon’s argument is that individual rights are overplayed and ignore the rights of others.Glendon implies a need for a greater sense of duty and responsibility to other citizens, even strangers, through correlative duties. This moral basis is key, because it implies that we are helping each other, working together, it makes our collective action more conducive and less fragmented.

      The uncertainty principle is a warranted retort to any notion of responsibility to future generations. It is true that it is incredibly difficult to estimate or determine what the values and needs of future generations may be. However, being innate human precludes certain necessities to life, such as oxygen, water, and food to name a few. Therefore, some needs can be estimated, and thus we must responsibly consume the resource to conserve it for future generations.

      Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. It’s not my fault: Global warming and individual moral obligations. na, 2005.

      Glendon, Mary Ann. Rights Talk. New York: Free Press. pp.7383.

      Caney, Simon. Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change. Leiden Journal of International Law. Col. 18, No. 4. pp.255-264.

    • Alexandra B.

      Response to Page

      As stated by Caney in his discussion regarding future generations, every person whether living or unborn is entitled to the fundamental interests of life, health and subsistence, thus justifying concern for our moral obligations to ensure that they do not suffer the ill effects of environmental issues and climate change caused by their ancestors. Page makes a good point in her response to this idea in that while these moral obligations should matter in terms of consumption and environmental degradation, population size (which has more than doubled since 1800 according to Notestein) and economic growth are increasing far too quickly for any individual action to make a significant difference.

      So while we may feel as individuals that we have a moral obligation to protect what is going to our future generations, reduction of consumption, says Caney, does not threaten future fundamental interests. The obligation lies within our government policymakers, as they are the ones who truly have the power to make a difference in the long term for our future generations. However, policymakers are still human and a common issue of human interest involves our shortsightedness – we cannot know what these future generations specific needs will be, and our love and desire to protect the environment for them can truly only extend to that which we know, which would be our grandchildren, and possibly great grandchildren. This severely limiting factor in determining future environmental policy, as mentioned by Page, is a large issue when trying to decide whether or not this “moral obligation” truly exists. In response to this counterargument, many would claim that any action is better than inaction, which is a lazy and unfair route to take in determining policy.

      When discussing obligations to the future, the idea of sustainability comes into play: Solow discusses the general vagueness of the definition of sustainability from an economists perspective and makes good points about how the less you know about an issue, the better it sounds. He goes on to redefine sustainability not as just “an obligation to the future” but “an obligation to conduct ourselves so that we leave to the future the option or capacity to be as well off as we are.” In limiting our consumption and trying to live a different lifestyle as individuals will not help this issue – it is truly up to policymakers to determine successful sustainability for development and policymaking in order to successfully preserve future fundamental rights.

      Notestein, Frank W. “Population: the long view.” (1945): 36-57.

      Solow, Robert Merton. “Sustainability: an economist’s perspective.” (1991).

  2. Jacob K.

    Obligations to Immediate Posterity and Individual Action Concerns

    Moral obligations to future generations—specifically in terms of environmental protection—are a hot topic in 21st century politics. Are we responsible for safeguarding environmental conditions for our descendants? If so, then what should be the extent of our efforts? What role should the individual play in achieving these goals? I will attempt to answer these questions in the following paragraphs.

    John Passmore argued that our obligation to future generations extends only so far as our own love (1974, 87-92 & 98-100). Ultimately entailing environmentally conscious practices to provide a better world for those whom we love (meaning children, grandchildren, and possibly great-grandchildren), Passmore’s argument is worthy of praise because it is not unreasonably burdensome to current generations. Practicing environmental stewardship with the distant future in mind seems illogical because it would undoubtedly require excessive sacrifices by contemporary peoples; possibly compromising quality of life for our immediate successors (Passmore 1974, 91). Compromising our children’s quality of life for a distant descendant would, to me, mean to neglect our love for them. Many would likely disagree with these assertions, contending that lack of love for those of the remote future does not take away from their humanity and deservedness of an ecologically healthy plant. I would rebut by agreeing, but pointing out that such an attitude would overwhelmingly obligate current peoples.

    Nevertheless, I would qualify Passmore’s approach to include an appropriate weighing of the costs and benefits of enhanced environmental regulation. Excessive interest in protecting the environment may have a deleterious effect on the economy and hurt our posterities in an unconsidered way. The tentative heightening of ozone standards by the Obama administration is a prime example, with NERA Economic Consulting estimating massive job cuts and a huge cost to the American people if the rule is established (Goad 2014). Such actions seem questionable because future generations will still be affected, but in a different way. Measuring the costs and benefits of environmental programs is definitely a must.

    So, how much individual action should be taken to achieve these eco-friendly goals? Dara O’Rourke, in her 2011 article-series “Citizen Consumer,” speaks on the capability of consumers to shape markets (4). Contrarily, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, in his 2005 piece “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming And Individual Moral Obligations,” argues that it is through collective action and government that environmental problems (he speaks specifically about climate change) can be solved (305). My views fall somewhere in between. Although O’Rourke’s claims are sound, I believe that some collective action is required if only because the poor in this country might not have the ability to choose. Take, for example, the fact that “rates of obesity go up as annual income goes down” (Satran 2011). Poorer people cannot afford healthier food alternatives and are forced into their consumptive habits. Such evidence suggests that individual action is severely inhibited by one’s financial situation, and that—in terms of environmental battles—collective action may in fact be required.

    Goad, Benjamin. “Manufacturers: Ozone Standard Could Be Most Costly Regulation Ever.” TheHill. The Hill Newspaper, 31 July 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.

    O’Rourke, Dara. “Citizen Consumer.” Forum. Boston Review, 1 Nov. 2011. Web. 31 July 2014.

    Passmore, John Arthur. “Man’s Responsibility for Nature.” London: Duckworth. 1974. Print.

    Satran, Joe. “Fast Food: Middle Class Indulges More Often Than Poor People Do.” The Huffington Post., 8 Nov. 2011. Web. 31 July 2014.

    Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming And Individual Moral Obligations.” Perspective on Climate Change: Science, Economics, Politics, Ethics. Vol. 5. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. 2005. Print.

    • Dennis C.

      Do We Really Have an Obligation?

      Response to Jacob

      The moral obligations that the current population has to keep the environment the same for future generations to enjoy are a highly controversial topic. We have to decide what we can do, if we can do it, and to what degree. The hardest part is that we are planning for the future, so we have no idea what the world will be like.

      Humans have been changing their surroundings since we first came onto this earth. We learned to manipulate the environment to best suit us. If we ran out of food, we found something else to eat. We made tools and worked together, passing on information to our children (Ellis; 2013). Basically, nothing we are doing today is new. Humans have always adapted. And if there is a problem, then we fix it. For all we know, in twenty years someone could develop a technology that gets rid of the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. Then all the money we have spent now would be a waste. We need to do what is best for us now, because as time goes on our technology will progress more and more.

      When oil companies were asked if the Obama administrations tighter environmental regulations would hurt some of their assets, they said not at all (Economist; 2014). People like to think that we are closer to disaster than we really are. We have the resources, the only problem is how we allocate and use these resources.

      One counter argument would be that what if we do something for the current generation that would be unusable for future generations? What if we use up all the oil, or cut down every tree? The human race will always bounce back. If we don’t have oil then we can find another form of energy. If there are no trees then we can make a synthetic replacement. Humans have always adapted and as we get bigger and smarter, those adaptions become much more obvious.

      “The Elephant in the Atmosphere.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 19 July 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014.

      Ellis, Erle C. “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 July 2014.

  3. Dallin V.

    Helping Future Generations Via Moderation

    If I were to make a judgement call, I would say that I accept the fact that we have an obligation to help future generations. The condition of such an argument is that the time frame of the obligation (as noted by Passmore) is not too long, rather is foreseeable. The reason being that the uncertainty of predicting a too vast future would diminish the incentive to accept certain obligations. An example of the time frame could be no more than 100 years, since beyond 100 years from now, we likely don’t know what will be in demand for future generations. Also, both solutions for solving environmental problems can work in tandem rather than antagonistically.

    First, I would accept the obligation since the pattern of population growth is predicted to consistently rise most likely (Hennig 1), thus that takes away some of the reasons from Passmore not to be obligated to help future generations. Within 50-100 years, we have a reasonable idea of how many people there are going to be (although we still don’t know their preferences). Also, I concur with Hiskes notion of reciprocity via helping future generations to help our own. The reasons behind it being that nobody loses, the interests of “our” generation are met and if we conserve the right resources so are their interests. If we conserve the wrong ones, we could say “at least we tried” with a clean conscience as Caney notes (granted once again that the time frame isn’t too long).

    As for the actual helping of the environment for future generations, I would propose a hybrid between individualistic consumer change and collective political change. Consumer change has its values mentioned by O’Rourke, but it is limited in its capacity to affect perhaps enough change to make a difference. The consumer approach we have seen can have a reasonable impact on small scale injustices such as the Apple/Foxconn fiasco. However, to enact serous change surrounding climate change and emissions, governmental jurisdiction is required and individual approaches are too limited to make a paramount difference.

    A counter claim to these arguments would be that of Caney in essence. The basis of such argument of course is that we have an obligation to help future generations no matter how positive or negative the outcome may play out. The problem is that it doesn’t take into account crucial factors such as the interests of future generations or what resources will be valuable in the future (Spector 1), as well as the fact that the time frame Caney suggests is infinite. Also, champions of the consumer approach argue that it can be very effective, but the problem is that the effect is too minimal.

    Overall moderation appears to be a solution for both scenarios. Obligations to help future generations are acceptable within certain stipulations, and a hybrid mixture of individual and collective action can be utilized to solve environmental problems.

    Hennig, Benjamin. “Global Population Changes: From 2.5 to 10 Billion in 150 Years.” Views of the World, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 31 July 2014.

    Spector, Dina. “10 Innovative Energy Sources To Help Break Our Fossil Fuel Addiction.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 02 Feb. 2012. Web. 31 July 2014.

  4. Michael S.

    Future Generations?

    When debating whether we have obligations to future generations to not unfairly burden them with environmental problems, I believe that it would be completely unethical to argue that we don’t absolutely have moral obligations to future generations specifically for the reason Caney says as “future generations are vulnerable and helpless to the effects of our decisions and actions.” I think that holding the same fundamental interests to protect clean water, soil, and air for future generations, is something that can’t be argued with. The main economic counter argument that harsher restrictions now will harm the economy so bad that we will be put back into a recession idea seems to be ridiculous to me (USA Today). I think that harsher sanctions will possibly hurt smaller companies but it will also force all companies to become more efficient. Onto the reasons discussed in class, we mentioned moral issues such as: “we may not know how many future people there will be,” or “we don’t know their preferences or values,” “well meant intentions and sacrifices could make them worse off.” I think these are all excuses for our current generation to continue with business as usual and avoid confronting the problem directly. Caney points out well intentioned mistakes are much better than negligence, and I believe this is the perfect response to these arguments and even more firmly grasped when coupled with Hiskes’s definition and theory of reflexive reciprocity. Hiskes defines reflexive reciprocity as the idea that protecting the environment for the future justifies our needs and obligation to protect the environment through strengthening the same rights now. This notion is one that I don’t think any intelligible person can argue with because if a specific protection is good for future generations, or for your kids, then it must be good for you and your current situation. In an article I stumbled across, written by Graham Readfearn from “The Guardian,” Research into ways to engineer the Earth’s climate as a last-ditch response to global warming will be rendered “unviable” if the associated ethical issues are not tackled first.” I think that Graham is spot on in pointing out that the ethical issues should be “tackled” first, but he is also pointing out a more important point. He is stating that global warming issues or environmental policy issues should be based on ethical, moral obligations to our future generations. To combat these ethical decisions in protecting future generations I think that we need to look to O’Rourke and the like minded authors we read for class because much like O’Rourke I believe that “individual purchasing power is less important than the power they can mobilize as an organized collective voice.” This collective action should be directed at appointing government officials that can carry out policies than can help change environmental problems for the better and also to pressure corporations to have more ecologically mindful approaches.

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