Humankind today has enormous power that it will affect the future generations, be it better off as well as worse off. There are three main documents which outline our responsibility towards future generations. These are Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Convention of Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Two factors bring about modern ethical awareness for future generations. Firstly, it is obvious that technological power has altered the nature of human activity. It has influenced the lives of those that are living today, and will influence even more the generations to come. Secondly, interrelatedness has always existed, but it is only now that we are experiencing it with its complexities. This discovery of interrelation nudges and urges us to find a way to unite.
Not everyone agrees to sacrifice something for the comfort of generations to come. Instead they say ‘’What have future generations ever done for me?” and they have a point. Future generations can never give anything back to them and therefore it does not seem to be worth it.
Some also claim that since unborn generations are distant in time we might not be able to know exactly what their primary needs are. Example, saving a forest now might not be worth it in the future as jobs are needed to provide a better life. It is also uncertain whether there will be any future generations. Therefore, giving rise to serious doubts, they conclude that we ought to do nothing for them.
... level of knowledge, we cannot pass them to the next generation. The future generation will also go through what we have been through. ... knowledge and skills in order be prepared for the future. The view of future generation is more concerned of the human biological continuity. ... is not certain. In the view of future generation, the pitfalls involve closing off the future and the human dignity and the ...
Being ‘’downstream” to us unborn generations are disadvantaged. Their choices have to be taken by their past generations. Another disadvantage is that they have no voice since they do not exist. Therefore, whatever the present generation says goes, as there is no one to argue with, they have no representatives. Yet since society helps the handicapped or the weaker members, future generations are also classified as disadvantaged, therefore, they must be considered as an equal to us, in spite of their disability. Since all resources belong to all generations, these resources were handed down to us, and so we too have to hand them down to the next generation. We have the responsibility to share common heritage with the unborn generations.
Moral theories portray present generation’s responsibility towards future ones. The Deontological approach is supported by Hans Jonas who recommends that the Kantian Categorical Imperative should be broadened. He believes that ‘’In your present choices, include the future wholeness of man among the objects of your will.” By this he means that one must do all that is possible to enhance the human condition of not only the present generation but also of future generations. Therefore, according to Jonas, developing new technologies which might have risks and repercussions in the future is irresponsible and selfishness.
The Utilitarian approach always supports its main motto, which is ‘’the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. This reasoning leads to two extreme positions. On one hand, due to our uncertainty of the future, benefiting from resources now is a very reasonable approach, but on the other hand, future generations can outnumber present generations and so we must sacrifice in favour of prosperity. The fact that both extremes fit to the Utilitarian motto, the Utilitarian approach leave us with no definite answer.
John Rawls presents us with the Rawlsian approach. He believes that every generation has three fundamental rights, which are:
The right to appropriate rate of capital saving
The right to the conservation of natural resources and the natural environment
The right to reasonable genetic policy
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This ‘just saving principle’ shows how anything less would be unfair to them and anything more would be unfair to the present generation. But this theory does not include a sufficient ethical framework on which to base our moral concern on far distant generations. It only concerns the next couple generations.
The last, yet very important approach is that of the Whiteheadian approach. A. N. Whitehead takes up Aristotelian idea of Substance and reformulates it. Substance is usually taken to be something which does not need anything outside itself in order to exist. If reality is changing, processive and interconnected with past and future experiences, then it follows that the present is a result of the past, and the future will be a result of the present. All generations are interrelated and nothing exists in isolation. Process ethics argue that the effect of the present on the future is the business of morals. It defines human responsibility as twofold:
We are obliged to enhance cultural, educational, technological and environmental situations inherited from the past.
We are responsible for the consequence of our activity on others.
Due to technology and scientific revolutions, exploitations were being carried out to the underwater and sea beds. This lead the Government of Malta to put forward to the United Nations the principle of the ‘Common Heritage Of Mankind’. This principle implies as follows:
We can use resource but not own them
Management should be carried out on behalf of the interests of mankind as a whole (including future generations)
Benefit is to be shared between mankind as a whole
Exclusive peaceful purposes
Emanuel Agius concludes by introducing the idea of having a ‘guardian’. This ‘guardian would represent future generations in order to guard the interests of those generations yet to be born.