Have older generations ransacked the future? Here, schoolchildren in New York march against climate inaction. Robert K Chin / Alamy Stock Photo

Can philosophy help us through the generation wars?

To determine our obligations to future people, look to real-world conditions—not just abstract principles
October 4, 2023

What do we owe to future generations? This is not an academic question. Ageing western societies face tough choices over how they will afford to care for their elders. These choices come at a bad time. Confronting both the soaring cost of living and a violently destabilised natural world, the young sense that they have been given a raw deal. They argue that the boomer cohort has failed to uphold its end of the moral bargain, ransacking the future for the sake of gains it is increasingly unable to pay forward. And so, questions of intergenerational justice, of equity between the young and old, between currently living and future people, have become painfully bound up in the multiple social crises roiling western democracies today.

Of course, the debate over intergenerational justice is not new. On the contrary, it is an ancient one, its roots tracing back to varied thinkers across the western philosophical tradition and beyond.

Contemporary thought on the topic continues to be dominated by the late great American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls was a “sufficientarian”. He argued that, as a matter of justice, future generations should have access to a basic threshold of resources and opportunities, and that our intergenerational obligations extend only to the point of helping them reach it. For him, the decisive thing was that those living in the future should have sufficient resources to maintain just social institutions over time.

Enter the “prioritarians”. Philosophers like the late Derek Parfit contend that merely securing a minimal level of resources for future generations is too low a bar to constitute intergenerational justice. Rather, we should prioritise the wellbeing of future people who are worse off over those who are better off, without any sufficiency limit. Justice is served only when the future tilts in favour of greater equality.

Uniting these approaches is a recognition that actions today create burdens and benefits for generations who follow. The task of intergenerational justice, then, is to distribute these in a fair way.

Utilitarians see the matter differently. Most famously associated with John Stuart Mill, classical utilitarianism seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, offering a blueprint for assessing intergenerational policies based on the overall happiness—or utility—they bring about.

A more recent school of thought, drawing on utilitarianism, is the much-hyped “longtermism” movement. Proponents of this idea argue that reducing the risk of human extinction and prioritising the long-term future of humanity are of utmost moral importance, because future people matter morally just as much as those alive today. Their big, brash idea is that the potential size of humanity over the next hundred million years, say, is almost infinitely larger than the world’s current population, and so we ought to prioritise the staggering amount of human value these potential trillions can realise. This drive to maximise value over the very long term wreaks havoc with our ordinary moral intuitions about what matters most—the here and now. In its ambition for the future of the species, longtermism readily spills over into utopian ideas and projects, for example the push to colonise space. Elon Musk is a fan of the view.

The world we inherit is shaped by the folly and foresight of our ancestors

Taking our cues from German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, we might argue that longtermism makes the dangerous mistake of treating people not as valuable ends-in-themselves but as means of maximising some other value—be it happiness, welfare or something else. As the critic of longtermism Émile Torres has argued, happiness should matter for the sake of actually existing people, rather than possible, future people mattering for the sake of some yet-to-be-realised happiness, no matter how much.

Whatever the relative merits of these varying approaches, they all suggest, in one way or another, that the proper course is to get our intergenerational algorithm right and then apply it.

It is fair to have doubts about this. What if there is no single set of principles that will help us reach an ideal conception of intergenerational justice? What if just relations to past and future people are not a one-size-fits-all affair that can be settled in the abstract? What if, instead, we must look to the real-world conditions that allow particular communities to advance, however slowly and imperfectly, towards justice?

The world we inherit is shaped by the folly and foresight of past generations. But above all it is shaped by their care—and its absence. There is little point in splitting hairs about the precise duties of justice we owe to future people if we do not feel moved to honour them. Relative indifference and passionate moral concern are both possible emotional responses to the future. The urgent philosophical question is how we can cultivate the latter.

Write to Sasha

Each month Sasha Mudd, Prospect’s new philosopher-at-large, will offer a philosophical view on current events. Email editorial@prospectmagazine.co.uk with your suggested topics