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.
Thinking about intergenerational relationships in this way emphasizes different aspects of being human to those that are placed in the foreground when we focus on issues of justice. There are, however, difficulties with this kind of approach too. A care-based approach may also interpret the “unfamiliar” (intergenerational relationships) rather too hastily in terms of the familiar. The need for scepticism about our concepts, and to clear carefully the ground where we choose to stand, is no less pressing here than it is when considering the limitations of concepts of justice.
The use of particular metaphors to flesh out what is meant by a stance of care is one way where the ”overfamiliarity” of such an approach may become clear. Rupert Read has promoted a care-based approach to thinking about intergenerational ethics. He has also produced, for the Green House thinktank, thoughtful and cogentarguments for a “third house” of Parliament [PDF], tasked with representing the interests of future generations (a proposal about which I hope to write in due course). Whilst being sympathetic to Read’s arguments, I think some of his work shows how readily concrete and appealing metaphors may easily become overextended in attempting to deal with the unfamiliar.
In his paper Justice or Love?, Read argues that impartial justice is an inappropriate concept for us to use in working through problems of intergenerational ethics, because it is wrong to think that it captures the moral significance of the relationships between present and future people. Others have made similar arguments, such as Robert E Goodin and Hans Jonas (whom Read quotes). The relationship between present and future people is not like that between contemporaries, considered as, say, "mutually indifferent" citizens of more or less liberal-democratic polities. Rather, Read suggests, it is more like the relationship between parents and children - indeed, the comparison is closer than this: "The analogy is so direct, it is barely even worth calling an analogy: future generations are our children".
I think that the idea of care (carefully conceived) can have a useful and even powerful critical role in, as Read puts it, "loosen[ing] the grip of the picture that has a hold of us" in thinking about future people (this "picture" could be justice, or something else, like unending technological progress - whatever, the point is that our familiar habits of mind tempt us to misrecognize the nature of our relationship to posterity). The analogy between present-future relationships and parental ones underlines the vulnerability of future people to our actions - even the basic conditions under which they will live depend on what we do. But to state that future generations "are our children" is a rhetorical flourish that goes beyond the limits of what the concept will bear.
What is unique about care as a stance towards future generations - and this I shall return to in future posts, as it is a central theme of my book - is how it is mediated in ways which parental relationships are not. It is, of necessity, mediated by objects which are valued (in different ways - some as means to external purposes, some as constitutively meaningful and/or as embodying purposes in themselves). These objects might be cultural and/or social in nature, or they might be part of non-human nature itself. In fact, nature might be seen as the primary mediating "term" between present and future people. Whatever, I would suggest that it is these objects which give us the material through which care is expressed, and indeed, made meaningful at all. It is true that care for children may be made concrete and meaningful through these kinds of objects - we might wish our children to grow up in an unspoiled landscape, appreciate music, and so on - but the difference is that our relationships with future people are essentially and necessarily mediated by them.
And further, some of these objects - such as technological artefacts like nuclear power stations or particular social institutions, like hedge funds - might, in standing between us and posterity, even undermine our efforts to care. While I think Read is, therefore, entirely correct to place care in the foreground, I believe how we understand what it means to care for the future needs to take a different approach and to draw on a wider range of conceptual resources.