Should We Seek a Better Future?

Ethics and the Environment 3 (1):81 - 95 (1998)
The radical contingencies attending human reproduction indicate that attempts to improve the living conditions of future generations result in generations populated by different individuals than would otherwise have been born. This remarkable consequence challenges the widespread belief that the present generation has responsibilities to its remote successors. I contend, first, that while the radical genetic contingency and epistemological indeterminacy of future persons obsolves us of obligations to act "in behalf of" them as individuals, this moral absolution does not entail a permission to disregard entirely the remote consequences of our policies. Since relevant moral principles bind us to persons in general, not to particular individuals, we remain obligated to improve the life prospects of whatever individuals eventually come into being. Second, I suggest that by applying an analogous argument within the lives of persons rather than to the long history of civilization, we arrive at the morally repugnant result of negating long-term obligations to contemporary persons. Conversely, the condition of continuity which affords moral legitimacy of personal obligations among contemporaries likewise entails moral responsibility for the life conditions of distant generations.
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