Five Ethical Issues with Future Generations

Ernest Partridge, in his “On the Rights of Future Generations,” examines five particular problems when dealing with future generations: the re-population paradox (which is based upon Schwartz’s ideas),[1] temporal remoteness, ‘No-claims’ argument, non-actuality, and indeterminacy.[2]

As seen with Schwartz’s challenge to obligations to future generations, by making changes in our actions we may alter future generations and thus they would be different individuals than the ones for which we were attempting to make the changes for. Partridge is willing to accept that changes, especially long-term policies, do create different individual but rejects Schwartz’s inference that we then have no obligation to future persons.[3] Schwartz only takes into account our obligations to individuals and not to persons in general.[4] And, as puzzling as this derived paradox is, Partridge argues that humans are able to “display a concern for future other” and are morally correct to do so.[5] He bases this upon moral psychology and our ability to transcend the self[6]. Through this ability our responsibilities include people in general, not just particular individuals.[7] In part, this generalization stems from our connection to others as well as to our environment including those in the distant future.

The time-span argument holds that we cannot be held responsible by those with non-concurrent lives who are unable to reciprocate in action or communication.[8] Partridge rejects this argument by suggesting that such factors as probability, efficacy, and choice are morally relevant and that the time span should not be seen as the pertinent factor.[9] There are uncertainties about the effects of our actions today; however, this does not mean that we cannot be held morally responsible for choices that have known high probabilities to negatively impact the future.

The No-Claims argument is that if there are no legal rights to be had by future generations then there are no moral rights. While legal and moral rights sometimes go hand in hand, they are not necessarily linked as such. Besides, there are examples of legal rights for yet-to-be-born persons such as inherent rights based upon a will. In addition, there are legal rights for future persons in current law. For example, the National Parks Service Organic Act states that the National Park Service shall promote, protect and regulate Federal areas in its charge “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”[10] Further, just because a person may not have a legal right, does not preclude the person from having moral rights. Today, there are many who would claim that there is a moral right for same-sex marriage based upon universal human rights, equality before the law, and even mental and physical health concerns. Even if there is no protect under the law, our moral obligations still stand.

Yet, how can a person that is non-actuality, and in some sense even imaginary, have rights now? This question has similar problems as the re-population paradox, ‘no-claim’ and indeterminacy argument. Future generations have no identifiable members, and thus no rights—either moral or legal—can be ascribed to a class of persons with no identifiable members.[11] Once again this is looking for particular individual not people in general. Even if we are unable to determine individuals—either because of non-actual (they have yet to be born) or indeterminacy (we do not know who will be born)—who should be afforded moral consideration, there are still legal and moral consideration.

These are only two of many voices that are engage in discussions about our obligations to future generations. Most of these voices speak from a secular viewpoint; yet, there are more and more religious writers engaging in this dialog; and while academic philosophy tends to be critical of those who speak from a religious place and may not place as much value on such conclusions, our voices can and should be heard.


[1] This is the same as Parfit’s “non-identity problem” ” in Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) and Schwartz “the case of the disappearing beneficiaries” Thomas Schwartz, “Obligations to Posterity,” in Obligations to Future Generations, ed. by R. I. Sikora and Brain Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978)

[2] Ernest Partridge, “On the Rights of Future Generations,” in Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, ed. D. Scherer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

[3] Ernest Partridge, “On the Rights of Future Generations,” in Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, ed. D. Scherer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). and Partridge, “Should We Seek a Better Future.”

[4] Ernest Partridge in personal conversations.

[5] Ernest Partridge, “Why Care About the Future?” in Responsibilities to Future Generations, ed. Ernest Partridge (New York: Prometheus Books, 1981), 204.

[6] Ibid,

[7] Ernest Partridge, “On the Rights of Future Generations,” in Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, ed. D. Scherer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

[8] However, causation in this case is temporal directed with only a one-way exchange between intergeneration persons from Axel Gosseries, “On Future Generations’ Future Rights,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 16.4 (2008).

[9] Ernest Partridge, “On the Rights of Future Generations,” in Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, ed. D. Scherer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

[10] National Parks Service Organic Act. U.S. Code. 1916. Vol. 16, sec 1.

[11] Ruth Macklin, “Can Future Generations Correctly Be Said to Have Rights?” in Responsibilities to Future Generations, ed. Ernest Partridge (New York: Prometheus Books, 1981), 151-152.

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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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