Environmental Ethics and Our Moral Relationship to Future Generations: Future Rights and Present Virtue
40 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2010
Date Written: April 9, 1999
A central issue in environmental ethics is characterization of our “moral relationship” to future generations. What, if any, obligations do we owe to the future? How should our present actions be influenced by their impact on the future?
The purpose of this article is to characterize and hopefully clarify certain aspects of this “moral relationship.” First, the article identifies those distinctive qualities that distinguish a moral analysis of our relationship to future generations from the moral analysis that will apply to an assessment of our actions on our own generation. It suggests that the issue of our moral relationship to future generations has a distinct component only for those actions that have irreversible consequences that will be experienced more than two generations in the future. Actions with shorter term consequences may be properly seen as raising the same concerns that apply to disputes among existing humans.
Second, the article evaluates our moral relationship to future generations in terms that are familiar in Western ethical thought. For many, this moral relationship should be analyzed in terms of “rights” and “obligations” - moral claims that the future somehow makes on us. There are substantial conceptual and technical problems in evaluating our moral relationship to the future in rights-based terms. Furthermore, the outcome of a rights-based approach can be a set of proposed rights and obligations that are not meaningful guides for present decisions.
Finally, and most importantly, the article suggests that our moral relationship to future generations may best be viewed, not in terms of rights and obligations, but through reliance on “virtue ethics.” Our concern for the future can be seen as an expression of the principle of benevolence and a recognition of the dignity and worth of all life. Through virtue theory, the morality of our actions are to be evaluated, not from the perspective of demands or claims that the future might be said to make on us, but rather from the recognition that our concern for the future is an expression of our best virtue.
This shift in perspective has direct consequences. A focus on present virtue leads to the recognition that we must evaluate the morality of our actions in terms of our own vision of the well-being and the quality of life that we wish to see experienced in the future. It anchors the analysis of actions in the moral framework that we hold today without presuming to predict the moral and non-moral preferences of an infinite stream of future generations.
Keywords: environmental ethics, virtue ethics, future generations, environmental law, cost benefit analysis
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