The Ethics of Human Rights (41): Human Rights of Past Generations?

In a previous post I discussed the claim that future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive. I argued that they probably have. The “sister-claim” is, of course, whether the same is true for past generations. Obviously past generations had human rights, just like you and me and everyone who comes after us. The question however is whether current generations can violate the rights of past generations.

For starters, it’s obvious that past and future generations should be viewed differently. Future 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). Past generations, on the contrary, can’t be harmed by current actions, since they are dead (assuming, theologically, that deceased people are gone; if you believe that your ancestors are in heaven watching you, your actions may still harm them in some sense, although I doubt they need human rights in heaven).

If past generations can’t be harmed by current actions because they are dead, then current generations shouldn’t and even can’t adapt their actions so as to respect the rights of past generations. However, perhaps we should carve out an exception here. Maybe there are cases in which we can convincingly speak about harm done to people in the past.

Take the following example. It’s reasonable to assume that past generations – like all generations – valued the future and posthumous state of their society or the world. For example, if freedom was important to them when they were alive, they may have felt distressed about the possible prospect of a posthumous totalitarian world government. They may have been distressed because they valued freedom and/or because they were concerned about the fate of their descendants. The harm to one’s descendants is typically viewed as something of concern to oneself. We all care about the fate of our children’s children’s children, even if we may never see them. So, past generations can be harmed by current (or future) generations if the latter are seen as a threat by the former.

However, I object to calling this harm a rights violation. The harm we’re discussing here may be immoral and even unjust, but the infliction of distress still isn’t a human rights violation. The actual totalitarian government and the harm it does – as opposed to the threat – are imposed on living generations, not past generations. So unless someone comes up with a better example, I guess it’s indeed useless to speak about present generations violating the rights of past generations.

More posts in this series are here.

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