Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Do Future People Have the Right to Inherit an Unspoiled Earth?

So the other day I starting talking about how difficult it is to see how future people can have rights that we could possibly violate in the present. I wanted to elaborate a little more on one idea that came up when I was talking to Dan Hausman about all of this today. The issue is this: do future people have the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, such that if they inherited an Earth spoiled by climate change, we would want to say that their rights had been violated?

Before asking whether future people do have such a right, it seems important to know whether it would make sense to talk about such a right being held in light of the non-identity problem. Let me try to flesh out why this is an issue at all.

To say that someone has a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth is to suppose that if we bequeathed her a spoiled Earth, we would be infringing her rights. But if we take note of the Non-Identity Problem, it becomes clear that a person inheriting a spoiled Earth could not have possibly inherited an unspoiled Earth; if the Earth hadn't been spoiled, then she wouldn't exist. So can someone have the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth if it would have been impossible for her to inherit an unspoiled Earth? It seems that if she had that right, then under any scenario in which she existed, her rights would be infringed. Can such a right exist?

It seems like when we say that someone's right has been infringed, we mean that they have been deprived of a certain kind of outcome, in which her right was not infringed. But if we're talking about a scenario in which it would have been literally impossible to avoid "depriving" someone in a certain way, then it doesn't seem like they've been deprived of anything.

So if we wanted to uphold that the people who would inherit a spoiled Earth in the even of climate change would have the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, and that we'd be infringing that right, we'd need to talk about rights in a way that wouldn't rely on any sort of counterfactual-dependent notion of deprivation. The right would have to be purely a right to a baseline, regardless of whether the baseline could have ever been obtained.

To say that another way, when we talk about an infringement of rights, we compare a certain outcome to a baseline. In a paradigm case, we might say that if I infringe your right not to be robbed by robbing you, I "move you away" from the baseline of you not being robbed, in the "direction" of you being robbed. And if I infringe your right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, I must be bringing it about that you do not inherit an unspoiled Earth. And indeed I do. But I can't coherently say that I "move you away" from a baseline of inheriting an unspoiled Earth. So instead I have to say that I simply place you in a situation in which you are not on the baseline.

Is this morally the same sort of thing? If the critical element of a rights infringement is that I bring it about that you aren't on the baseline, then my action might qualify as one. But we have to acknowledge that your rights are not to "remaining on the baseline" or "not being moved away from the baseline." They're purely to "being on the baseline," even though you couldn't possibly have been there. We would have to say that the "movement away" from the baseline is not an essential part of the equation. But honestly, I think it is. So unless someone can give me a reason to feel differently, I'm concluding that there isn't a good way to say that future people could have a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth.

No comments:

Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Libertarian Blogs Add to Technorati Favorites Back to the Drawing Board - Blogged
"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."