The Ethics of Human Rights (40): Human Rights of Future Generations, Ctd.

Do future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive? Can we who are currently alive violate the human rights of future generations? And if so, what should we do to avoid it?

Future generations – as opposed to past generations – can incur harm following our actions, and can therefore, prima facie, invoke rights claims against us (namely for those types of harm that are rights violations).

One thing to keep in mind when discussing the rights of future generations is the following assumption: future people have the same values and preferences, and the same impediments to these values and preferences. Human rights are in essence tools to realize values and preference, and often take away impediments to values and preferences. Following this assumption, future generations can be said to require human rights to the extent that those currently alive impede their values and preferences. However, that need not be the case. Maybe future generations will have other values or preferences, or maybe they will face different impediments that can’t be removed by human rights, or maybe they’ll have found other ways to remove certain impediments. Maybe in the future there won’t be religion, scarcity, states or animosity, but different values and impediments. Still, I’ll keep the assumption in place, both because I think it’s likely that future generations will be much like ourselves, and because the concept of “human rights of future generations” wouldn’t make any sense if that is not the case (and I really want to write this post).

Actions which affect the human rights of future generations

The easy thing to understand about the harm we, the present generations, can do to future generations is the consequentialist part: it’s fairly obvious that, given the stated assumption, some of our – potential and real – current actions can or will have negative consequences for future generations, and that some of these consequences can become worse as time goes on (see this post on the effect of time on rights violations).

Take resource depletion for example. If we now squander all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it’s likely that future generations, and particularly those generations somewhat further in the future, will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights (again, given the assumption that they need fossil energy because their preferences haven’t changed or because they haven’t found an alternative).

Present generations therefore exercise power over future generations, much like a state exercises power over its citizens. And much like a state, the present generation can be said to be bound by the human rights of those who are subjected to its power. With the exercise of power comes the duty to respect the rights of those who are subjected to power.

Risk

There may be a problem with all this, however. Contrary to the harm that is inflicted on currently living people, by their state or their powerful fellow citizens, the harm inflicted on future generations is rarely if ever a certainty, and never verifiable.

If we again take the example of resource depletion (but many other examples would do just as well), it may be the case that future generations will have invented the technology necessary to adapt to a world without oil. The chances of this happening may be small or may be large – we just don’t know and so we can’t take it into account in our considerations as to whether to adapt our behavior as a way to respect the rights of future generations.

We may assume that our actions (or inactions) can lead to rights violations in the future, but we’re never certain. So should we adapt our current behavior or not? We can verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the present, and – if they do – consequently adapt our behavior. (If lowering taxes increases poverty then we should avoid that policy). We can never verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the (distant) future. We can only guess that there’s a risk, perhaps based on similar past or present experiences. But the quality of those guesses remains uncertain.

Hence, it would seem that future rights violations can’t have the same moral standing as present and real rights violations. Or maybe they’re not even rights violations at all. Indeed, we normally don’t view the risk of a rights violation as equivalent to or as equally damaging as a real violation. Or maybe a very, very high risk of a future rights violation – assuming a good guess – equates an actually occurring rights violations?

I think all this is to some extent moot. When faced with a risk of a rights violation – or better the perception of a risk – the moral thing to do is to try to avoid the rights violation from occurring in the future, and adapt one’s behavior, in the same way as one would do when faced with a risk of causing a violation of the rights of people currently living. So the uncertainty of violations of the rights of future generations makes them no different, in some respects, from violations of the rights of current generations. Also the latter are – ex ante – uncertain, and the moral thing to do is always to adapt one’s behavior in order to minimize the risk of immoral behavior.

Some would claim that comparing future violations of the rights of living people to future violations of the rights of future generations is a mistake. Living people have rights which can – given a certain risk – be violated in the near or distant future (depending on the lifespan of those people) by our current behavior. Future generations on the other hand don’t exist, yet (and may never exist, see below), and hence can’t have anything, including rights. However, they will have rights in the future, when (and if) they live. To claim, as I do here, that we can violate future rights now doesn’t mean that we have to claim that these future rights have to exist now.

Tradeoffs between the present and the future

What to do when faced with a tradeoff between violating the rights of future generations and violating the rights of present generations? It depends on the best risk estimate of either, as well as the gravity and the number of people involved in either case, keeping in mind the fact that risk, gravity and number estimates of violations of the rights of present generations are probably better (because we can test them). Given this relative ease, we should give additional weight to the simple fact that we are dealing with really existing people as opposed to potential future people.

For example, we know that closing down an opposition newspaper is very likely to stifle free speech for a significant number of currently living people. We’re not absolutely sure of this consequence, but the risk is very, very high. We know this risk because we or others have tested it in the past. Now, suppose that we should choose between this policy and another one, for example allowing a substantial increase in green house gasses. Suppose also – I know, it’s weird but bear with me – that these two policies are, for some unspecified reason, mutually exclusive. The policy of increasing green house gasses risks putting future generations in danger of survival. When comparing the costs of both policies, we conclude that the level of risk is roughly similar (say 90% probability that the expected consequences – respectively stifling free speech and increased global warming – will indeed occur), but the gravity of the consequences is obviously much greater in the case of the second policy, as are the number of people concerned. Yet, we may still reasonably choose to implement the second policy and avoid the first because we’re more certain of our risk estimate for the first.

Actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations

Let’s take another example of current actions that have an impact on future generations: in this example, our actions do not deplete resources but have an influence on the very existence of future generations. We may destroy the earth for instance, making the very existence of future people impossible. Or we may intervene in procreation in such a way that future people will be completely different people than those who would have lived had we not intervened (that’s Derek Parfit’s so-called non-identity problem).

In both cases, our actions affect the very existence of future people, rather than their rights. And an effect on the very existence of people can’t, in itself, be considered a rights violation since there’s no right to exist. I’ve argued elsewhere why this is the case. (Of course, actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations can have, additionally, other consequence beside the existence or composition of future generations, and some of those other consequences can imply rights violations).

In other words, only the rights of actually existing persons – whether they exist now or in the future – are important. Potentially existing persons who will never exist because of our actions, do not count. Or, putting it in yet another way: the non-identity problem is not a problem in this context. The fact that the very existence or composition of future generations depends on our actions doesn’t have, in itself, any consequences for the human rights of future generations. The impact of our current actions can result in rights violations of future generations, but not if this impact is limited to the existence or composition of future generations. And the reason for this is the absence of a right to existence.

Duties instead of rights?

In order to avoid the problems created by talk of rights of future generations – namely the problems of uncertainty and of tradeoffs – it would perhaps be better to abandon all talk of rights of future generations, and focus on the duties of present generations towards future generations. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect the promises I make to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

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6 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (40): Human Rights of Future Generations, Ctd.

  1. Excellent post, would you not be getting into the grounds of responsibility? We have a responsibility to leave the earth in the same state we found it? or at the least to put in as much as we take out (not literally that would be mad).

    Ben Hart

    1. Yes, agreed, but framing the issue in terms of responsibility is just the mirror image of the same issue framed in terms of rights.

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