Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Problem of Future Generations: Part 2

You probably recall that my previous blog entry ended with the seemingly bizzare suggestion that future generations are the "ultimate strangers." The common thread is that altruism between strangers is difficult to establish and that large-group cooperation based on a social contract must figure out how to convince strangers to cooperate. That claim is based on the two basic forms of altruism: kin altruism and reciprocal altruism. In order to make my "ultimate stranger" argument, I'll employ a simple case study. Suppose you are a morally competent person living in 2011 and you learn that scientists have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the earth will be uninhabitable in the year 3000 if our generation and all subsequent generations do not cut back on carbon pollution by 50%. Does that fact (is) imply an individual and collective moral obligation (ought) on our part to cut back our carbon-based energy pollution by 50%? Can future generations be included within a social contract framework? Does that future generation have a right to an inhabitable environment? Do we have a duty to sacrifice our individual interest and our generation's interest on their behalf? Do those intermediary future generations between us and 3000 also have that same duty?

Well, back to my initial claim. In what sense is that distant future generation populated by strangers? From the standpoint of kin-altruism, I may have absolutely no genetic stake in that 3000 generation. Why? Well, first of all my two sons are not even married yet, may never get married, and may never have children. None of my nieces have children yet either. So if my specific genetic lineage will end after their generation, why should I turn down my thermostat, buy a high mileage vehicle, and take other actions that benefit that 3000 generation? There goes my personal self-interested incentive. So much for kin-altruism. The only alternative would be to postulate a "general will" that includes future generations. But that would not be kin altruism.

What about reciprocal altruism? That 3000 generation can clearly benefit from John Rawls called our "just savings," but how can they reciprocate? We can scratch the back of future generations but they can't scratch ours. Barring the invention of a time machine (which would facilitate retribution between generations), about the only thing that the 3000 generation can do in retribution is praise or blame us. "Boy, that generation that lived in 2011 neglected to save us 50% of their pollution. What a self-centered, discriminatory generation! They preferred to serve the interest of their own generation at the expense of our generation. That's UNFAIR!" They violated the intergenerational social contract." If we had that time machine, we might leap forward and respond to that indictment as follows: "Heck, we didn't even know that your generation would ever exist? The human species might have been wiped out by a lethal epidemic of swine flu in the year 2999. Moreover, if we had chosen to "save" some clean air for your generation, how could we know if my sons' generation or their kids generation (and all subsequent generations) wouldn't default on that obligation and undo any good that our "savings" might have accomplished? In other words, what happens if those intermediary generations act as free riders and merely spend the "just savings" that my generation withheld on behalf of your 3000 generation?"

First of all, lets admit that there's no easy solution to the problem of future generations. Throughout human history present generations have routinely over-consumed and over-polluted at the expense of future generations. Rawls argued that distant future generations are indeed vulnerable and that we ought to save something for them. However, he also recognized that, in the real world, our incentive to feel a sense of moral obligation toward distant future generations is weak. Therefore, he suggested that we think of intergeneration justice within the bounds of kin altruism. If every generation "saves" enough back for their children and grandchildren, the interests of the 3000 generation would be taken care of over the long run. Unfortunately, that wouldn't work for the case study I proposed, unless near generations also require that 50% just savings. 

Now admittedly distant future generations are not the only candidates for the title of "ultimate strangers."  Historically, many groups of humans have also been excluded (racial and ethnic minorities, women, children, fetuses, serial killers, lepers, and AIDS patients). So any large-group social contract theory will have to contend with the question of whose interests (small groups or individuals) shall be included or excluded from the contract. We might argue that ugly and/or scary animals (snakes, spiders, bees, and snails) and plants are "strangers" in so far as we are not likely to include them within our anthropocentric social contract framework. Based on evolutionary theory, it is clear that the contract cannot grant priviliged status to humans over plants and animals. Thus, if evolution enlightens social contract theory at all, it is clear that the interests of distant future generations of humans are no more salient than the interests of future generations of plants and animals. In sum, the challenge for any social contract theory is how to overcome not only the "problem of future generations" but also its anthropocentric moorings, which have been empirically discredited by evolution.         

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