Panel 12: Intergenerational Ethics



Panel 12: Intergenerational Ethics

The Extinction Paradox

Martin Bunzl, Rutgers University

It is often argued that by harming the planet we are violating the rights of future people by making their lives worse off. What happens however, if we harm the planet so much that no future people can even live, how can we wrong them if they will never come into being? This presentation explores this seeming paradox and its implications towards our relationship with the environment (more).

Risk, Uncertainty, and Climate Change

Richard Cohen, University of California, San Diego

This talk explores the difference between risk and true uncertainty in light of climate change events, which the author argues follows more of true uncertainty. Through a humanities lens which embraces uncertainty in the form of mysteries, this talk advocates a similar embrace in the sciences, one that gives full credence to the unmeasurable facts of human subjectivity, emotionality, and spirituality (more).

Ontological Problems in Intergenerational Climate Ethics

Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University

Climate change debates over justice are inherently complex because not only are our actions affecting people today but will affect them generations to come. As a result, the ethics surrounding such actions are by no means clear cut. This presentation will analyze the debate of whether our current ethical system is sufficient to consider these options, and if not, what needs to be done to address these deficiencies (more).

Q & A

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19 replies
  1. Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University says:

    Hi all, this is Matthias. Thank you to Gwynne Fulton for helping me with the video, great job! For those of you interested in my talk, and other than my co-panelists’ talks, Peter Singer’s keynote is a good companion piece. He starts out by saying “our innate” ethics developed in small groups geographically and temporally close to each other, now we have the problem of extending this globally and to future people. I look forward to comments and exchange, thanks.

    • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

      Thank you for the (difficult, dense) talk. I’m not quite sure I understand, but if future people can be ‘specterally’ present, is the parallel claims true for past people? What is the meaning/conclusion of making them specterally present? So, for instance, if it allows for us to have duties/obligations to future people, wouldn’t this also imply something parallel for past people? Can you reiterate what grounds this specteral presen(t)(ce)?

      • Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University says:

        Hello Kian, thank you for engaging my talk, I don’t take that for granted. I know it’s dense and difficult, esp. if (assuming this is true for you) one comes at it without some background in the phenomenology of time (Heidegger and Levinas in particular). The notion of spectral presence is loosely based on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, which has a few interesting but unusual things to say about intergenerational justice (IGJ), taking off from these two phenomenological authors in particular. A full answer to your (very legitimate) question—what grounds the spectral presence of future (and past) generations?—should be aided, on my account, by some reading in this tradition, a tradition that has for a long time been concerned with the relations among time, agency, and sociality. We can find there rich ways of rethinking what presence and absence might mean for historical beings like us, “born mortals” as I put it in the talk. Now you might say—why commit yourself to such difficult material when there are crucial and urgent normative questions to be answered regarding IGJ? What I try to do in the video talk—and indeed only in a suggestive way, a longer version, I hoipe, will come out in a book in the near future—is first of all ontological (though I think it has implications for normative issues). The section on “ontological problems in IGJ” is supposed to motivate this. I think the intergenerational issues suggest that we rethink who we are in the midst of generations before us and after us. It may be important to highlight this point. As for your more specific question about the past, I answer in the affirmative: on my view, previous generations, incl. the dead, are ‘spectrally’ present as well. Perhaps it’s even more obvious in their case: we live amidst their work and constructions, many of our habits, traditions, languages, ways of life, etc., are unimaginable without them, we bear out the consequences of their choices, and so on. And these co-constitutive relations are both public (mediated by public goods such as language) and private (in remembering my parents, I relate to my grandparents and their social relations and times, etc.). If asked to elaborate—beyond the for me significant point regarding a re-thinking and re-situating of who we are—the normative import of the ‘spectral’ presence of the dead, I point to and (in the larger project) flesh out a model of indirect reciprocity: to put it bluntly, one of the reasons we owe to future people is that we received from past people, though obligations to the past (of memory and mourning, honouring some of their intentions and building on some of their projects, etc.) do not thereby disappear. A further model I seek to develop, particularly applicable to holistic objects of intergenerational sharing (such as collective institutions and the environment) is “taking turns” among generations: what is it, we should ask, to take a fair turn with democratic institutions and the earth in view of past and future turn-takers? Turn-taking is a way of doing justice, I believe, to the spectral presence of previous and future generations: we don’t own the habitable earth, for we received it and we are already in the process of passing it on. In its unownability it is already slipping away from us toward those who are already claiming their next turn. I hope this helps. I’d be happy to send you drafts of what I’ve written on this. Thank you for your interest—feel free to reply.

        • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

          Thanks for the very helpful reply (your surmise is correct–I am woefully unfamiliar with the phenomenologists). Am I right in thinking that your account of indirect reciprocity is like Joseph Heath’s (e.g. in It seems to me that this conclusion of indirect reciprocity is more robust if we can justify the same structure using different traditions.

          [I actually think we met in Kiel for environmental ethics and chatted on a bus on the way from a field trip; am I right?]

          • Matthias Fritsch, Concordia University says:

            I will have to look at Heath’s account to answer your question, thank you for the link. I develop what I think is my own model of indirect reciprocity (I call ‘asymmetrical reciprocity’). In addition to Levinas (for the sense of asymmetry), for indirect reciprocity I draw chiefly on Marcel Mauss as read by the French intergenerational economists Arrondel and Masson, and also by Derrida.

            (Yes, we met in Kiel, and it’s good talking to you again!)

  2. Martin Bunzl, Rutgers University says:

    For those of you with a philosophical bent, my piece relies on a pretty old fashioned distinction – namely that there is a difference between negative duties and positive duties. Thus killing someone is taken to be worse than failing to save someone. That seems plausible until you think of failing to save a toddler who is face down in a wading pool when you are the only person in the vicinity.

    • Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

      That was so fascinating. All the time I hear about climate change as a problem about our obligation to future generations, but you clearly show that this may be a bit muddled when we think it through systematically.

      As an alternative to thinking about future generations in the abstract, I have an imaginary conversation in my head with my own potential grand-children approximately 40 years from now (when I would be 90 and they might have a 25-year-old’s confidence in their own rightness). I imagine them holding me to account, fiercely, for what I did or did not do during these times, just as we might ask an older person in the U.S. southeast today about what they did or did not do during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I acted with conviction. Does this imagining of a particular conversation with a particular potential person resolve all, some, or none of the difficulties you present?

      • Martin Bunzl, Rutgers University says:

        Your though is a way of delving what you think you would owe your grandchildren IF you had them. But I am questioning what your obligations you would have were you to choose not to have them. Can the child denied existence have any complaint? I think it is a muddled intuition to think it does. Your thought experiment pumps our intuitions but I think those intuitions are only reliable contingent on their being some members of future generations even if we don’t know their identities or numbers. A more straightforward answer to my argument is, as I suggested, to argue that, unless none of us want to have children, causing our extinction interferes with those of us who do want children. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

    It is great to see this session. Richard Cohen has me totally motivated to avoid being an “oh-so-serious technocrat” imprisoned by “data driven scientism.” With a feeling of reverence, I think we can try to heed this call for emotional maturity, psychic complexity, and spiritual integrity. Peace.

    • Richard Cohen, University of California, San Diego says:

      Thank you, Parke. Even though I find the contemporary corporate university to be a significant “part of the problem” insofar as how narrowly it frames what it valorizes as “solutions,” I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with this stance. The university is my home (or at least one of my homes), and I wish I could live comfortably within it. So thank you for your kind words: if we are going to make a change, words like “reverence” and “peace” have to have a place in our professional lexicon.

  4. Rick Thomas says:

    Thanks for your talk Richard! As someone with a dual interest in the humanities and the hard sciences the distinction you drew between humanists and science practitioners certainly rang true, and I’ve thought for quite some time that both disciplines had much to teach the other. My question for you is this: to bring about this shift of embracing uncertainty, do the science practitioners already have everything they need available to them to learn from the humanists, or is there a current missing dialogue/infrastructure that is now needed to facilitate such a shift? I hope that makes sense, I guess I am just ultimately curious about how’d you answer: what next? What needs to happen to bring about the change you are advocating for. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    • Richard Cohen, University of California, San Diego says:

      Hi Rick, Thank you for your kind words. You have posed some thoughtful and difficult questions!

      My talk referred several times to Scientism, which I understand as the valorization of science, broadly construed, as the only legitimate source of knowledge; information that cannot be submitted to the scientific method cannot be treated as “knowledge.” I would say that, first and foremost, there has to be an institutional acknowledgement that scientism is a *dogma* — as close-minded and narrow as any religious dogma. I think, along with this, there is a need to acknowledge that, although application of the scientific method has resulted in amazing advances, it has also proven to be grossly maladaptive. We live in a time of sick irony: never before have human beings lived so long, and never before have we been so close to exterminating our own species. Coming back to the matter of unmeasurable uncertainty, there has to be an acknowledgement that whenever we turn to technology to fix problems created by technology, those fixes have, and will, create new problems, requiring new technological fixes.

      So, YES, as human beings, science practitioners already have everything they need available to them to learn from the humanists. And yet, NO they don’t, if due to their belief in Scientism, they are unwilling or unable to acknowledge the value, significance, and truth of insights and intuitions that are not properly “scientific.”

      Now, your question asked about institution and infrastructure. To get to it: I think it is important for scientists and all students to do some training in phenomenology. Phenomenology, not as a philosophy but as an embodied practice. We do so much training of the mind as if it was not embodied, as if the body didn’t matter. But as beings in bodies, our individual perceptions are limited, perspectival, incomplete, yet deeply meaningful (at least to the perceive). We have to give our students the tools, the perspective, and the permission to find genuine significance in this embeddedness, and from that to gain a more holistic, ecological, and regenerative understanding of who/what they are as human animals.

  5. Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

    Dear Martin Bunzl:

    Thanks for the talk. First, I wanted to nitpick–you have this example of a spaceship which is distributing goods intragenerationally and then intergenerationally. I don’t think the analogy holds because of the positive internal rate of return of goods (or more broadly consumption); we don’t distribute goods between generations, we distribute savings between generations and (at least under the usual assumption that there is a positive rate of return on savings), goods and consumption are worth different amounts in different time periods (obviously this also holds if you think there is a negative rate of return on savings as well; the analogy only holds in the unlikely case that there is precisely zero return on savings). I take it that your analogy was meant to be about distributing well-being or utility, not goods, in which case of course I think intergenerational equality in terms of utility is justifiable. But you can’t run the same argument on goods (nor, for that matter on capabilities or functionings, which also may be subject to positive rates of return in terms of technology), and it’s important to flag the distinction.

    More importantly, I think that your paradox arises because of inconsistent population axiological assumptions. I suspect that once those are sorted out, the paradox dissolves, although my epistemic status here is considerably lower than with the earlier point:

    (1) A total utilitarian has no trouble with the harm done by extinction (in particular, that being a worse outcome than any other), because of forgone total value. (You reject this because you accept a person-affecting intuition.)

    (2) An average utilitarian has no trouble with the harm done by extinction, because the resultant average utility is radically decreased. Both (1) and (2) will work regardless of the answer given about non-human animals, whether they are included (a la Singer) or not. Also, on both of these answers, any wronging is probably going to be impersonal, not personal.

    (3) Suppose we take harming to only apply to actual people. Assume we accept the person-affecting intuition (which it seems you do). The paradox can then be explained away as relating to the (contingent) psychological fact that we find it difficult to imagine a generation that is content for there to be no future generations. This is inconsistent with psychological views we have about leaving legacies, about engaging in intergenerational projects, etc. (Among others, of course, Scheffler has been expanding on such contingent psychological views.) If we could credibly imagine that (a generation of) individuals could be indifferent to the continuation of the species, then there would be no paradox. That there are harms we intuitively conflate the psychological harm that would come to the last generation to those visited on (merely possible) succeeding generations.

    (4) However, if you adopt the person-affecting intuition in conjunction with the intuition that one can harm merely possible people, you are right, a paradox will be generated. Furthermore, I am sympathetic to the claim that these intuitions may be held by many people. But you don’t need to talk about extinction to bring out their inconsistency; these are simply inconsistent intuitions.

    I would be interested in hearing what you think and/or whether you think this mapping out of the terrain is accurate!

  6. Martin Bunzl, Rutgers University says:

    Dear Kian Mintz-Woo: Thanks for your comments and my apologies for not replying earlier. I accept the rejoinder in the first para.. With regard to (1) and (2), yes, I am wedded to the person-affecting intuition. (I defend this in my book, Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change.) With regard to (3), of course you are correct. But mine is a thought experiment. With regard to (4), I am not making an argument about intuition about and beyond this one: all other things being equal damaging the planet less is better than damaging it more. I do need extinction for the counter to this to go through to avoid the interests of those in the future, whatever their identity and number, to count. Best wishes, Martin Bunzl

    • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

      Dear Martin Bunzl:

      Thanks for the reply. I agree that extinction is necessary to make (4) work. As for the person-affecting intuition, I took this as an opportunity to read your book to see what you say; I went ahead and read the first four chapters. It sounds like your objections to the person-affecting intuition come from two points. First, if we create a new person (who lives an average life worth living), this is like adding a new trivial desire to an individual and satisfying it (which is supposed to not make that person’s life better). Second, the decision about not having a new child you take to be not selfish.

      As for the first, I am not entirely sure I understand. Perhaps (?) on a preference utiliarian view, improving the amount of impersonal value in the world is like satisfying a person’s preference, but I’m not entirely sure. Let’s grant that it is. It is still difficult to distinguish between theories in this context because if the person-affecting intuition is false, then the putatively analogous trivial desire only makes their life somewhat better. So your claim that it makes their life not at all better is only going to be slightly different (now if the desire were very important to them and connected with their sense of self, etc, then the example might be able to distinguish between them more readily–and if the pill made her care about this tree in such a way that it deeply mattered to her and connected with her life-plans etc (supposing this could be made coherent)–then I think the intuition is going to fail).

      As for the second, I am also somewhat surprised. Perhaps by ‘selfish’ you mean motivated broadly by personal reasons? I think the idea here is that, if it is morally best to create a person who will have a life worth living, then it must be personal reasons that lead people to not create such people? Perhaps, although I am not sure personal reasons and moral reasons exhaust the space of reasons (I’m definitely sure that selfish reasons and moral reasons don’t exhaust the space).

      I realize this workshop is ending soon, so it probably isn’t the appropriate venue for going into this too much more. Regardless, I enjoyed your talk.

      Kian Mintz-Woo

  7. Ewan Kingston, Duke University says:

    Mathias – this conference is about to close but I just wanted to let you know I really appreciated your talk – I didn’t expect Levinas to be helpful to my work on climate ethics but you’ve convinced me to look into his work!

  8. Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

    @Matthias thanks so much for a really fascinating talk, I think the moves that you introduce go a long way to helping us think about how to bring future people into our contemporary moralities. I was wondering if you, or others, had thought about the problem from the other side. So for example, you start with the Obama quote that reminds us that we are living in the world produced through others’ moral choices, is there a space for thinking through some of the problems you identify in the beginning of the talk from the direction of the past to the present as well as the present to the future.

  9. Martin Bunzl, Rutgers University says:

    Kian, thanks for your interest. But I think there is a misunderstanding which is perhaps my fault. I take myself to be in support of person-affecting intuitions not objections to them in the material from my book you discuss. My intent was to marshal both of these considerations to support the view that if we were to reject the person-affecting view then we would have to also reject the view that creating a new want in someone and satisfying it does not add to their well being and the view that deciding not to have children is not a selfish act. Since I finished the book I am less certain about the first of these. But I hold to the second as firmly as I did when I wrote the book. A condition of adequacy on a moral argument is that it should NOT generate an obligation that we should have children. Martin

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