Distant Peoples and Future Generations

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Only recently have philosophers begun to discuss the question of whether we can meaningfully speak of distant peoples and future generations as having rights against us or of our having corresponding obligations to them. Answering this question with respect to distant peoples is much easier than answering it with respect to future generations. Few philosophers have thought that the mere fact that people are at a distance from us precludes our having any obligations to them or their having any rights against us. Some philosophers, however, have argued that our ignorance of the specific membership of the class of distant peoples does rule out these moral relationships. Yet this cannot be right, given that in other contexts we recognize obligations to indeterminate classes of people, such as a police officer's obligation to help people in distress or the obligation of food producers not to harm those who consume their products.

Of course, before distant peoples can be said to have rights against us, we must be capable of acting across the distance that separates us. Yet as long as this condition is metas it typically is for people living in most technologically advanced societiesit would certainly seem possible for distant peoples to have rights against us and us corresponding obligations to them.

By contrast, answering the above question with respect to future generations raises more difficult issues. One concerns whether it is logically coherent to speak of future generations as having rights now. Of course, no one who finds talk about rights to be generally meaningful should question whether we can coherently claim that future generations will have rights at some point in the future (specifically, when they come into existence and are no longer future generations). But what is questioned, since it is of considerable practical significance, is whether we can coherently claim that future generations have rights now when they do not yet exist.

Let us suppose, for example, that we continue to use up Earth's resources at present or even greater rates, and as a result, it turns out that future generations will face widespread famine, depleted resources, insufficient new technology to handle the crisis, and a drastic decline in the quality of life for nearly everyone. If this were to happen, could persons living in the twenty-second century legitimately claim that we in the twenty-first century violated their rights by not restraining our consumption of the world's resources? Surely it would be odd to say that we violated their rights more than one hundred years before they existed. But what exactly is the oddness?

Is it that future generations generally have no way of claiming their rights against existing generations? While this does make the recognition and enforcement of rights much more difficult (future generations would need strong advocates in the existing generations), it does not make it impossible for such rights to exist. After all, the recognition and enforcement of the rights of distant peoples is also a difficult task, but obviously such rights can exist.

Perhaps what troubles us is that future generations do not exist when their rights are said to demand action. But how else could persons have a right to benefit from the effects our actions will have in the distant future if they did not exist just when those effects would be felt? Our contemporaries cannot legitimately make the same demand, for they will not be around to experience those effects. Only future generations could have a right that the effects our actions will have in the distant future contribute to their well-being. Nor need we assume that, for persons to have rights, they must exist when their rights demand action. Thus, to say that future generations have rights against existing generations, we can simply mean that there are enforceable requirements upon existing generations that would benefit future generations or prevent harm to them.

Most likely what really bothers us is that we cannot know for sure what effects our actions will have on future generations. For example, we may, at some cost to ourselves, conserve resources that will be valueless to future generations who may develop different technologies. Or, because we regard them as useless, we may destroy or deplete resources that future generations will find to be essential to their well-being. Nevertheless, we should not allow such possibilities to blind us to the necessity of a social policy in this regard. After all, whatever we do will have its effect on future generations. The best approach, therefore, is to use the knowledge we have and assume that future generations will also require those basic resources we now find to be valuable. If it turns out that future generations require different resources to meet their basic needs, at least we will not be to blame for acting on the basis of the knowledge we have.

Assuming then that we can meaningfully speak of distant peoples and future generations as having rights against us and us corresponding obligations to them, the crucial question that remains is exactly what rights they have against us and what obligations we have to them. While the answer to this question obviously depends on a substantial social and political theory, the expectation is that the rights and obligations that morally bind us to distant peoples and future generations will be quite similar to those that morally bind us to near people and existing generations.

See also Bioethics; Environmental Aesthetics; Environmental Ethics; Genetics and Reproductive Technologies; Philosophy of Technology; Responsibility, Moral and Legal; Rights.


Elfstrom, G. Ethics for a Shrinking World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Hardin, G. Promethean Ethics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980.

Partridge, E. Responsibilities to Future Generations. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981.

James P. Sterba (1996)