Future Generations

For the last thirty years or so, there has been a search underway for a theory that can accommodate our intuitions in regard to moral duties to future generations. The object of this search has proved surprisingly elusive. The classical moral theories in the literature all have perplexing implications in this area. Classical Utilitarianism, for instance, implies that it could be better to expand a population even if everyone in the resulting population would be much worse off than in the original. The main problem has been to find an adequate population theory, that is, a theory about the moral value of states of affairs where the number of people, the quality of their lives, and their identities may vary. Since, arguably, any reasonable moral theory has to take these aspects of possible states of affairs into account when determining the normative status of actions, the study of population theory is of general import for moral theory. A number of theories have been proposed in the literature that purport to avoid counterintuitive implications such as the one mentioned above. The suggestions are diverse: introducing novel ways of aggregating welfare into a measure of value, revising the notion of a life worth living, questioning the way we can compare and measure welfare, counting people’s welfare differently depending on the temporal location or the modal features of their lives, and challenging the logic of axiological and normative concepts. We investigate the concepts and assumptions involved in these theories as well as their implications for population theory. In our discussion, we propose a number of intuitively appealing and logically weak adequacy conditions for an acceptable population theory. Finally, we consider whether it is possible to find a theory that satisfies all of these conditions. We prove that no such theory exists.
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