Monday, May 5, 2008

Generational Rights

The conclusion that we cannot infringe upon future people’s right by causing climate change may not appeal to individuals who see injustice in the fact that by causing climate change, the world we leave behind for future people could be substantially less hospitable than it would have been if presently existing people had not caused climate change. One might argue that perhaps we do not infringe the rights of individual people by creating dangerous or otherwise undesirable circumstances which are necessary conditions for their existence, but we infringe the rights of their generation by leaving behind a “spoiled” Earth.

The appeal of this notion is in the fact that a generation is simply the group of people who come into existence during a particular period of time, and there is no requirement for who exactly those people are. So, for example, we may say that a woman, Charlene, is a member of some generation A. If Charlene’s mother had conceived a child with a different man than Charlene’s father, Charlene would never have existed. But so long as the child was conceived around the same time as Charlene was, that child would have also been a member of generation A. Because the identity of the generation does not depend on the identities of its members, one might see an opportunity for getting around the Non-Identity Problem by focusing on what happens to generations instead of individuals under different policy choices.

So do future generations have a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth? For that matter, do future generations have rights at all? We may once again recall that rights represent the respect to which we are due as individuals and as ends-in-ourselves. Because of the inclusion of individuality as a part of our conception of rights, it might be said that generations cannot possibly have rights, because they are not individuals. But it seems reasonable to say that to talk about respecting the individuality of a generation is only so suggest that it should not be sacrificed for the interests of others—namely, other generations.

One might point out that other groups, like corporations or organized communities, can be seen as “individuals” and “ends-in-themselves” in the sense that they are entities which utilize means in the pursuit of their own distinct ends. These entities can be “benefited” and “harmed” in a meaningful sense by impairing their ability to pursue their own goods, and so it would not be inconceivable to suppose that these entities had rights of their own which were not simply the sums of the rights of their members (whether they can truly be disrespected is a separate and controversial issue, which we will not address here).

It may be noted, however, that generations do not seem to have an analogous “good of their own,” and do not pursue their own distinct ends in any recognizable sense. Any discussion of “the good of a generation” seems like it could be nothing more than a vague statistical statement about the good of its members. Indeed, the aforementioned groups can be seen as ends-in-themselves only through an understanding of the way that they are organized. In the way that a body is composed of organs which have functions in terms of the good of the body, a corporation’s constituent parts are organized to promote the ends of the corporation. The members of a generation, on the other hand, have no identifiable function in terms of the good of the generation itself. Temporal coexistence does not seem to illustrate the sort of structure which could make it meaningful to talk about a generation as an abstract entity with a good of its own. And if a generation does not have a good of its own, then it is difficult to imagine how we could disrespect it. Accordingly, we may conclude that generations cannot have rights, and so cannot have a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth.

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