Collective Duties to Future Generations

AD729C7C-B99D-00B4-7B5CE1EDD36771D1Marcus Hedahl is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the United States Naval Academy.  At this year’s Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, his second, Professor Hedahl gave a talk called “Owing it to Us: How Directed Duties to Collectives Can Inform Collective Responsibility for Future Generations”.  What follows is a short piece based on that paper that Professor Hedahl wrote specifically for What’s Wrong?  It is a draft of a work in progress and should not be cited without his permission.

(image: Half Dome at Yosemite National Park)


The United States’ National Park Service Act specifies that one purpose of the law is to endow the Park Service with the responsibility to “leave [the parks] unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (Act 1916: 408, 8§1). For many, this justification is relatively straightforward: responsibility for future generations and collective responsibility both have a strong pre-reflexive, intuitive appeal, and there have been numerous important, and in many ways successful, theoretical frameworks that attempt to justify each of these pre-reflexive ideas.  One might nonetheless fear that when considering collective duties to future generations—duties that may prove to be enormously important given the climate crises in our current, corporate age—at best, a straightforward consolidation of these issues would have to overcome the aggregative difficulties of each, and at worst, it would be saddled with a tension with methodological individualism that increases exponentially when the issues are considered simultaneously.

A straightforward consolidation of collective responsibility and duties to future generations is not, however, the only—or even the most appropriate way—to analyze this issue. In the case of the National Park Service Act, the law rests in part on an assumption that the nation will continue, that these are and will continue to be our National Parks. The collective, in this case the United States, adopts the goal of preservation not because it takes itself to be under an obligation to not yet existing external entities or because it takes doing so to be its duty as a good global citizen. Instead, the collective actor adopts the goal of preservation because doing so is and will continue to be in its long-term collective interest.

I believe that recognizing this feature of the National Park Service Act points the way towards a novel way to consider the collective duties to future generations. The duties involved in these cases are not, I contend, duties irreducibly collective actors owe to not yet existing future entities, but rather duties each of us (i.e., currently existing individuals) owes to the rest of us (i.e., currently existing, enduring collectives).

Some may doubt that this type of framework can capture the intuitive significance of collective duties to future generations. One might worry, for instance, that the interests of future individuals are not given proper consideration. Yet acknowledging the existence of collective interest does not imply that the interests of future individuals are not given proper consideration. On the contrary, the collective reason to act derives directly from the interests of future generations. The interests of those currently living might well be furthered by small modifications to the parks to make them more accessible – the way, for example, the first generations of visitors to the American side of Niagara Falls were benefited.  It is only by looking past the short-term interests of currently existing citizens that the case for the National Parks becomes so obvious and compelling. The U.S. National Park Service Act is built on the idea that the National Parks should be available to all citizens – including those citizens not yet born.

Others might fear that the focus has been shifted from morality to mere prudence. Yet grounding issues of preservation on collective interests does not imply that these issues are merely prudential. When individuals participate in a collective endeavor to pursue integrated interests, they create a normative, other-regarding reason to do their part. Several authors have developed robust theoretical frameworks to capture this intuitive notion, arguing that collective activity – even in the pursuit of collectively prudential interests – creates participant obligations to one another. According to Margaret Gilbert, for example, joint commitments by their very nature create duties and claims, in part, because “the joint commitment is theirs together” [emphasis original] (Gilbert 2000:55). Neither participant could create the joint commitment on her own, so “neither is in a position unilaterally to rescind [it].” (Gilbert 2000:53). Although Raimo Tuomela provides a more individualistic theoretical analysis, he also argues that since the authors of a joint commitment create a collective endeavor that has the opportunity for individual benefit stemming from the actions of others, the joint commitment creates in its members a pro tanto obligation to fulfill the group’s purpose (Tuomela 2007:88). By committing to act together, group members garner defeasible normative requirements to one another. Collective prudential interests can, and often do, impose individual moral duties upon participants.

Since it merely relies on individuals owing duties to a collective, an alternative framework for collective responsibility for future generations can thereby avoid some of the difficulties that plague the more basic considerations of collective responsibility and duties to future generations. For example, the duties to preserve the national parks highlighted above do not require any robust notion of collective action or collective responsibility. Although this analysis is consistent with the possibility of collective intentional action, it does not require it. In a similar manner, an alternative approach to collective responsibility for future generations can avoid the so-called ‘Non-Identity Problem,’ a common source of skepticism regarding inter-generational justice. A framework that rests upon the duties currently existing individuals owe to currently existing, enduring collectives avoids this problem altogether. The relevant moral question about future interests is simply whether member interests qua member of the collective are enhanced − whomever the particular members turn out to be.

Consider a common case of collective duties to “future generations” common in the U.S. military: the continuity folder. Military positions are constantly rotating, usually without any overlap between the tours of two consecutive members serving in the same position. In this environment, there is often a requirement to maintain a log of the important social aspects required for a given job, i.e. the institutional memory necessary to perform a function well. Maintaining these continuity folders can become an important part of fulfilling one’s duties, for they help ensure that the mission can continue after the loss of any particular individual. Even in the unlikely event in which an officer was chosen for a job specifically because her predecessor failed to adequately maintain this type of a record (perhaps because she is more adept at quickly discerning this type of knowledge for herself), that fact would not erode the replacement’s distinct counterparty standing to complain about the failure of her predecessor. In a case like this one, any duties owed to one’s replacement are owed to her qua member of a collective, rather than qua individual. So, even if an individual qua individual is all things considered benefited by a particular action (like the failure to maintain a continuity folder), that does not undermine her status as a wronged party qua member of the collective (so long as the collective interest is set back) because the relevant interests that are set back are currently existing, collective interests rather than contingent, not yet existing individual interests.

At this point, however, many readers will likely be left with a concern: While such an alternative framework may provide a satisfactory analysis of some collective duties to future generations, it’s applicability is limited. In the case of U.S. National Park Service the collective interest is rather straightforward. Yet there are many cases in which a collective interest is not so readily apparent. Some fossil fuel companies, for example, may not have a collective interest in avoiding the harms of climate change. And it may seem to be a mistake to believe that the mere fact that a particular collective does not have an interest in avoiding the long-term harms of climate change absolves it of any possible responsibility for causing those harms.

A first response to this concern is straightforward but perhaps less satisfying: So long as a some collective duties to future generations can best be captured by an alternative framework like the one being proposed, that fact alone would seem to be a reason to favor adding it to our analytical tool kit. The duties we casually lump together as “collective duties to future generations” may well prove to be various. There may well be an important difference between respecting a future person’s interest qua member of such particular collective structure and respecting a future person qua future member of the moral community. We should let a million – or at the very least two – theoretical flowers bloom, as it were.

Given the ontological parsimony of the framework, however, it might prove worthwhile to move beyond this first response and consider whether initial intuitions about the scope of its application would prove to be unnecessarily constricting. Perhaps the concern highlighted above presents a limitation of our reasonable expectations about collective responsibility to future generations rather than a limitation of the framework itself. Considering the possibility that this objection highlights to a limitation of collective responsibility for future generations does not require a dismissal of the possibility of collective responsibility altogether, merely a recognition that collectives structured around the pursuit of collective self-interest may be particularly ill-suited bearers of responsibility for long-term, inter-generational harms that are contrary to their collective interests. Likewise, we need not dismiss the possibility of inter-generational justice altogether to recognize that inter-generational justice and inter-generational rights often lack correlates to any specific and specifically addressed duties. Perhaps these demands of justice require full-fledged agents responsible for moral virtue as well as particular actions, agents under duties of beneficence as well as duties of rescue. Perhaps some collectives will turn out to be less well suited for this type of responsibility than others.

If a particular corporate actor does not have any relevant long-term collective interest to do so, calling upon it to embrace a responsibility for the considerations of future generations directly may be as sure a sign of a misapprehension of the moral domain as asking the gods to be merciful or begging the wind to be kind. Although some may misconstrue this consequence as a boon for business apologists, it is quite the opposite. The collective interest to be part of a well-structured political order – an order that in turn has a collective interest in avoiding these types of long-term harms to its members – demonstrates the presence of a different kind of responsibility in these cases, a responsibility whose indirect nature provides a novel and powerful reason to favor more stringent regulation and restriction for these types of collective actors when their actions conflict with the long term, inter-generational collective interests of the political communities in which they operate. If that were the case, we might see the folly of creating large, structured collective actors with the expectation that they will in all circumstances obtain the status of full-fledged moral agents. We may, in our most extreme moments of introspection, even wonder if therein lies one of the great mistakes of the modern world: designing social structures suitable for full-fledged moral agents and letting collective actors that often lack the full-fledged moral agency of their members operate within them.

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