Chapter 77

Future Generations


Development of new technology, and political decisions about implementing it, may have an impact on the lives of many people and other living creatures. In fact, those whose lives may be affected are not limited to people presently existing. New technology may affect the lives of many generations to come. Using technology to counter depletion of the ozone layer or to reduce the increase in global warming may have long-term effects. But even technologies introduced for more immediate purposes may have consequences reaching far into the future. An ethical assessment of technology, therefore, gives rise to several related questions concerning the moral status of future generations.

1. Do we have an obligation to future generations? Some theorists have defended the view that the answer should be in the negative. Arguments to this effect have been based on the premise that parties to whom we have obligations must be able to claim their rights or that moral obligations presuppose certain personal relations which cannot be obtained with presently non-existing persons (De George 1981, Macklin 1981). Another argument to the same effect, sometimes presented under the rhetorical heading “What has posterity ever done for us?,” is to hold that moral obligations should be regarded as some sort of mutual exchange presupposing reciprocity of actions (Heilbroner 1981). Despite these arguments, it is fair to say that most theorists today defend the view ...

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