Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On Super-Groups and Generational Rights

So earlier, I was working on the idea that a future generation could have the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, and I wanted to continue that a little bit here. I had drawn a distinction between the set of all the Groups of potential people that could have existed in the case where we spoil the Earth (I called the set Super-Group X) and the set of all of the Groups that could have existed in the case where we don't spoil the earth (Super-Group Y).

I left off with the idea that perhaps we might want to say that we infringe Super-Group Y's rights if we bring it about that none of its members inherit the Earth (because that would mean that we spoiled it). On further reflection, I don't think I like this way of looking at it for two reasons. The first is that if we bring it about that Super-Group Y's rights are infringed, then we also bring it about that Super-Group Y is nothing but an abstract notion. None of its members would exist. Accordingly, it seems odd to say that we infringe the rights of a set of Groups of people, where none of the people in the set ever actually exist.

The second reason that I resist this notion is that nothing could be said about our relationship with Super-Group X (or the particular Group, C, that would end up inheriting the Earth) if we only thought of ourselves as infringing Y's rights. Accordingly, we would automatically rule out the easiest avenues for talking about compensation or prohibition: that C is at least somehow tied to the rights infringement. If we draw the line so that C is on the outside, despite the fact that it's the only Group of the lot that actually exists, it seems like we create more trouble for ourselves than we need to. To be clear, I see this as more of a practical point, rather than a genuine philosophical issue, but I do think that the first objection should give me enough justification to abandon the view that we infringe Super-Group Y's rights when we cause a member of Super-Group X (Group C) to come into existence.

So instead, I'll stick to the idea that we infringe on the Generation's rights (where the Generation, L, is conceived of as an abstract entity which is the set of all Groups of potential people that could have existed at a particular time) if we spoil the Earth. I've already said that we wouldn't be violating any right that Group C could meaningfully be said to possess. But perhaps we'd want to say that Generation L had the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, and therefore to bring about C's existence would constitute an infringement on that right (as I wrote previously, all of this discussion is in the context of suspending Nozick's rejection of the concept of emergent rights).

If we assent to this (and that's an enormous "if"), then at least it seems somewhat clear what we might think should be done about it. Generally, when we say someone has a right to something, and that right is infringed, we demand that some kind of restitution be made. Perhaps on this basis we might be able to say that even though Group C's rights weren't violated by their inheritance, we should "compensate" Generation L for infringing its rights by ensuring an outcome that would somehow be "as good" as leaving an unspoiled Earth. But I need to think about all this a little more before moving on, and I want to actually address the question of whether it's acceptable to talk about emergent rights in the way that I have been in these posts.

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