Friday, March 23, 2012

Technology, uncertainty and the human condition

In the previous post, I noted that, when we reflect on the nature of our relationship to future generations, it becomes apparent that we need to be careful not to view the unfamiliar too readily through the lens of the familiar. Employing familiar concepts analogically or metaphorically to map an unfamiliar territory may, of course, be helpful in some circumstances. But sometimes tension between the content of the metaphor and important features of the target domain is simply too obvious. This, I’ve suggested, is evident when we employ concepts of justice and parental care to get a handle on what is ethically significant about future generations.
What is missing, in both instances, is an appropriate understanding of how our actions, here and now, produce the future our successors will inhabit, and the limitations on how far we can understand the connection between what we do and how the future turns out. In other words, this is the problem of uncertainty. As I mentioned in the previous post, the link between present and future people is not direct. Between us stand the products of our efforts to transform the social and extra-social worlds. However we imagine our relationship to our successors, it requires us to also imagine the means by which this will be actualised: technologies to provide renewable energy, a sustainable welfare state, new medical techniques, more democratic forms of governance, more inclusive educational systems, and so on. Nonetheless, our grasp of what the consequences of our efforts are likely to be is clouded by uncertainty.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thinking about Care

In the last post, I introduced some issues arising from the unfamiliarity of intergenerational ethics.  We are used to thinking about the ethical and political significance of relationships between contemporaries. But when we try to apply these concepts to the relationships between present and (as yet) non-existent future people, we run into difficulties. Rawls points out that Hume’s circumstances of justice, for example, do not hold, and that therefore the idea of justice itself is somewhat problematic. Rawls tries to rescue the idea of intergenerational obligations, however – and unsuccessfully – but that’s a topic for another post. Here, I want to introduce an alternative way of thinking about intergenerational relationships, one which does not foreground justice, but privileges care instead