Saturday, February 2, 2008

What Would It Mean to Say that Future Generations (As Abstract Entities) Have a Right to Inherit an Unspoiled Earth?

In an earlier post I started discussing the idea that a generation, as an abstract entity, might have the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth. I wanted to explore this idea a little more, because I do think that when people object to climate change, this is basically what they have in mind.

As I already discussed, different courses of history will produce different Groups of people who will represent a given Generation, L. And it seems like there are an infinite number of different ways for history to advance where we don't spoil the Earth. In light of this fact, it seems like we would be justified in causing one particular group of people not to exist, even if we did think that L had a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth.

To illustrate this, let's say Group A is the set of all people who would populate the Earth if history advanced in a certain way, where we didn't spoil the Earth. But let's say that before Group A came into existence, completely legitimate, innocent choices were made in a different way, and Group A never came into existence. Instead, Group B came to populate the Earth. We still didn't spoil the Earth, and therefore we didn't infringe Generation L's right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, but we did bring it about that Group A didn't inherit an unspoiled Earth. It seems that we would also want to say that Group B's rights would not have been violated if we hadn't made the choices that brought about its existence, and brought about Group A's existence instead.

So even if we uphold Generation L's right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, we don't violate any Group's rights if we prevent it from existing. Accordingly, we can say that no Group of people has the right to inherit the Earth. By extension, even if we say that L has the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, we would also want to say that no particular group of people has the right to inherit it, because no group has the right to exist.

Therefore, when we say that Generation L has the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, we say so in spite of the fact that no particular Group has the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth. Perhaps, though, we might want to say something along the lines of "Individuals have a right that if they are brought into existence, then they have the right to inherit an unspoiled Earth." But as I discussed in another post, it's hard to see how we would want to say that a person could have this right if they wouldn't have existed had we not spoiled the Earth. And for the people who could only exist if we didn't spoil the Earth, it doesn't seem very important to say that they had a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, since they couldn't have possibly inherited a spoiled Earth. So that doesn't work.

Perhaps instead we'd want to say something like this: "A Generation, L, has a right such that the Group that ends up representing it must be one of the Groups that could only exist if the Earth were not spoiled, and if some individual or group of individuals brought it about that none of these groups ended up existing, then L's right would be infringed." At first glance, the following objection might come to mind: This seems like it disrespects all the groups of people whose existence is being considered "objectionable" (let's call the set of Groups of potential people who could only come into existence if the world were spoiled Super-Group X). We would basically be saying that every member of X shouldn't exist, and that if they did, then it would be bad. But I think there's a good counterexample which shows that this sort of thing isn't disrespectful in any objectionable sense.

Suppose we say that it's always objectionable for a certain set of girls to have children before they reach the age of 12, because they aren't ready for it (for all the relativists out there, I'm not ruling out that there are some girls for which this rule doesn't apply, but only that there are some for whom it does). In claiming this, it does seem like we're saying that it would be objectionable for an entire set of potential people to ever come into existence. But I don't think that this is a problem. We're only saying that if one of these potential people ever actually came into existence, it would mean that something objectionable had happened in order to cause them to be born. So in the same way, it doesn't seem disrespectful to say that we wouldn't want any member of Super-Group X to exist, as long as we agreed that the events which would bring it into existence were objectionable.

So we don't disrespect Super-Group X if we say that it shouldn't ever inherit the Earth, and that Generation L's rights would be infringed if any member of X did inherit the Earth. Let's call the set of Groups which could only exist if the Earth were not spoiled Super-Group Y. Do we want to say that we infringe Super-Group Y's rights if we bring it about that none of its members ever exist? I suppose I don't see any reason why not.

Generation L is made up of only two parts: Super-Group X and Super-Group Y. It would be nonsensical to say that we infringe X's rights if we prevent all of its members from inheriting an unspoiled Earth. But it might be useful to say that we infringe Y's rights if we do the same thing. So that's the infringement I'll focus on. But not now. I need a break; my head hurts.

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