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.


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.

Discrimination (5): Statistical Discrimination


Here’s the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics definition of statistical discrimination:

Statistical discrimination is a theory of inequality between demographic groups based on stereotypes that do not arise from prejudice or racial and gender bias. When rational, information-seeking decision makers use aggregate group characteristics, such as group averages, to evaluate individual personal characteristics, individuals belonging to different groups may be treated differently even if they share identical observable characteristics in every other aspect. … group-level statistics, such as group averages, are used as a proxy for the individual variables. (source)

Statistical discrimination, also called rational prejudice (or rational racism), occurs when some stereotypes are considered to be statistically “accurate”. Accurate here in the sense of statistical generalization or average behavior (or characteristics).

Some examples

Young drivers are on average more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. Hence, auto insurers impose higher auto insurance premiums on young people. This insurance discrimination is called statistical discrimination because it’s based on some level of accuracy regarding the stereotype, and not on plain prejudice of or disgust for young people.

Regarding life insurance premiums, the customer’s likelihood of dying is one of the most relevant variables affecting the insurers profitability. Since gender is highly correlated with life expectancy, it is therefore optimal for the company to adopt a policy setting higher premiums for men, even for those men who may be healthier and less risk prone than the average woman. (source)

Employers often use the average performance of an applicant’s group to determine whether to hire him or her.

You don’t hire a guy with a Mohawk as a receptionist at a law firm – even if he promises to get a hair cut. Why not? Because on average, … guys with Mohawks have trouble with authority. (source)

Similarly, people with facial tattoos are unlikely to be hired as CEO’s, perhaps because they signal an anarchic, counter-cultural, contrarian, nonconformist, bohemian and “wandering” attitude.


The reason people engage in statistical discrimination is the high cost of making case-by-case judgments and the relative accuracy of group averages. Given that it’s not a product of bigotry, irrational prejudice, hatred and dislike, is it correct to call it discrimination? It is in the sense that people judge other people simply on the basis of group membership, not individual merit, as in “regular”, “irrational” discrimination or prejudice. Yet it’s not discrimination because people engaging in statistical discrimination often don’t do so because of their dislike or hatred of the discriminated group but because of economic self-interest and risk avoidance, as is shown by the examples above. The stereotypes are not baseless as most stereotypes are (“Blacks are lazy”, “Jews are money hungry”, “women are only productive at home” etc.).

This discrimination is “statistical” because contrary to normal prejudice it acknowledges that a relatively large number of members of a group do not conform to the stereotype. Just as it isn’t irrational to claim that it’s statistically accurate that republicans in general are pro-life while at the same time knowing that many aren’t. “Irrational” prejudice doesn’t have so much tolerance for exceptions. “People see others as average members of their groups until proven otherwise”. (source)

Is it acceptable?

So we know what it is and why people do it, but is it morally and legally acceptable? I think it depends on the type.

While such discrimination is legal in some cases (e.g., insurance markets), it is illegal and/or controversial in others (e.g., racial profiling). (source)

The difference between acceptable and unacceptable statistical discrimination hinges on several facts, I think:

1. How accurate are the group generalizations? You can forgive profit-seeking insurers for imposing higher auto insurance premiums on young people. However, wage gaps between genders resulting from theories about lower productivity of women (said to result from higher female investment in child rearing and a focus on “caring jobs” as opposed to jobs that tend to pay well) are less acceptable because the generalization is more dubious and the category of “women” too broad. Generalizations may be more accurate when they are not about behavior but about more “technical” and less controversial things such as life expectancy.

2. What is the “weight of history”? Statistical discrimination of blacks or women is by definition less acceptable than statistical discrimination of young people, given the history (maybe that’s a stereotype about discrimination…). Differentiated treatment, even if it isn’t really discrimination, can still cause harm given a certain history. The harm can be feelings of insecurity regarding a possible repetition of the past, feelings of continued attacks on self-esteem etc.

3. What are the consequences of statistical discrimination? Paying a slightly higher insurance premium is a lesser harm than being pulled over by the police a few times a week because of your skin color, even if your skin color is a statistically “accurate” prediction of the probability that you engage in crime in your neighborhood.

4. To what extent is statistical discrimination self-fulfilling? To some extent it clearly is.

People think teen-age males are criminally inclined (and they are), this angers the teen-age males, leading them to commit more crimes. (source).

If everyone assumes that boys are not good at domestic work, the benefit of learning domestic work is zero because no one will hire you as a domestic worker. In some areas, this self-fulfilling process is obviously harmful, and hence statistical discrimination is harmful as well.

It is possible that, because employers are less likely to hire women in jobs that require labour market attachment, then women are more likely to be involved in child-rearing than men, and are less prone to acquire the skills that are necessary to seek and perform well in those jobs, confirming the asymmetric belief that employers hold regarding labour market attachment. (source)

This phenomenon is called the stereotype threat. On the other hand, there can be self-reversing prophesies at work as well. A-typical members of a group, who of course suffer from the prejudice in the same way as typical members, may incite the latter to change their behavior. E.g. responsible young drivers who pay too much insurance because of the typical behavior of their fellow group members, may pressure the latter to change their ways. In this way, statistical discrimination may work to undermine itself. The same result will occur because a non-typical member of a group may get relatively more exposure. A woman who’s relatively good at soccer – compared to other women – but just as good as an average male soccer player, may get more attention than the latter. This excess of attention may undermine the stereotype on female soccer players.