Thomas Schwartz and the Identifiable Fallacy

Thomas Schwartz, in his “Obligations to Posterity,” claims that there are no moral obligations to future persons based on the identifiable fallacy.[1]Any action that changes the future means that those persons born would be different than those who would have been born if nothing was done. A paradox is created in which the person being born would not have been born if something else was done.[2] Schwartz also has pointed out that if we do nothing for the future, those individuals being born into that future world cannot blame us, unless that world is so horrible that it would have been better not to have been born, for if we did anything else, they would not be the same individuals and therefore could not have been better off.[3] In this sense, we cannot harm nor benefit future generations[4].

This philosophical paradox leaves us with a very perplexing problem—to do anything is to change the individuals that we are trying to benefit and although future persons may be thankful that we did something, but we cannot be held morally accountable for our actions or inactions. The difference is between the idea actions of being morally obligated versus merely morally permissible.

For example, if a nation would adopt a policy to reduce population growth with the intent to ensure that future generations would be able to enjoy the persevered natural world that would not be needed to support a larger population, then different people would be born—especial for distant future generations.  This seems to hold true for any change in social patters such as population mobility, technology, and growth. Schwartz’s claim that we cannot be held morally responsible for what happens to future generations is still one of the major theoretical concerns to our responsibility to future persons.

[1] “Whatever we may owe ourselves or our near posterity, we’ve no obligation extending indefinitely or even terribly far into the future to provide any widespread, continuing benefits to our descendants. This contrary claim rests on the identifiable fallacy” from Thomas Schwartz “Obligations to Posterity,” in Obligations to Future Generation, ed. R. I. Sikora and Brian Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), 3. Also see “The standard approach in conventional economic analysis,” writes Davidson “is to discount future climate damage because future generations are empathically remote from us and are expected to be much wealthier.” Marc D. Davidson, “Wrongful Harm to Future Generations: The Case of Climate Change,” Environmental Values 17.5 (2008), 472. Parfit asks us to consider whether, “even if railways and motor cars had never been invented, I would still have been born” in Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 360.

[2] What Partridge calls the “Re-Population Paradox” in “On the Rights of Future Generations,” in Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, ed. D. Scherer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 19990) This is also referred to Derek Parfit’s non-identity problem.

[3] See Thomas H. Thompson, “Are we Obligated to Future Others?,” in Responsibilities to Future Generations, ed. Ernest Partridge (New York: Prometheus Books, 1981); David J. Velleman, “Persons in Prospect,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 36, no. 3 (2008); Derek Parfit, Reason and Persons (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1984): David Kavka, “The Paradox of Future Individuals,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 11, no. 3 (1982).

[4] A more cynical view is from Thomas H. Thompson’s “Are We Obligated to Future Others,” in Responsibilities to Future Generations, ed. Ernest Partridge (New York: Prometheus Books, 1981). For Thompson writes, “If man is just the latest dominant animal species in a scheme of evolutionary development, there is no good factual or moral reason to regard his demise as an occasion either for sorrow or joy” (“Are We Obligated to Future Others,” 202). 


About William Blumberg

I engage in religious philosophy within a Pagan context. I serve on the Board of Directors of Cherry Hill Seminary and the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.
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