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April 30, 2012 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Philosoraptor Cares Not For The Grandchildren

One way of thinking about justice is in terms of what we owe to other people. But what about people who haven’t even been born yet, and so don’t exist? One obvious answer is to say that we owe it to future generations to avoid acting in ways that would make them worse off. Sounds easy. Unless you ask a philosopher. Oxford superstar Derek Parfit would say that this solution runs afoul of the ‘non-identity problem’.

Imagine that we are deciding on whether to deplete or preserve natural resources. We could try and compare the fate of individual members of a future generation under one policy with their fate under the other and avoid the one that leaves them worse off. But Parfit says this is not possible. Why? Because the genetic identity of individual members of the future generation will change depending upon which policy we choose. Almost every one is the result of sexual intercourse between their parents. I hope that this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. If that sexual intercourse had not taken place pretty much exactly when it did, some other sperm and egg would have been joined in glorious union. Environmental and economic policies shape our opportunities for work and moving around.

They affect who we meet and when we have sex, if we are so blessed.

So what does this mean for intergenerational justice? Well, if certain future citizens wouldn’t have existed except for the policy we choose, then how can they be harmed by our choice? So it makes no sense to say that we harm future generations by burning all our resources now. Therefore it is wrong to think we can act unjustly towards future people. This would probably come as scant consolation to anyone reading this by candlelight in some post-apocalyptic cave.


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