So I’m in the middle of my comps and reading lots about intergenerational ethics and political theory. Much of what I am reading is the standard analytic philosophical approach which attempts to determine principles of justice that are universal, with the razor sharp specificity one would expect from NASA technicians. This overall approach, in my mind, has several issues that I find deeply problematic. First, I am a firm believer that context matters, for ethics especially. As a result, different historical contexts raise different ethical issues especially with regards to intergenerational justice issues. For example, climate change presents particular intergenerational ethical issues that weren’t present 200 years ago. In times of prosperity, intergenerational justice demands are different than in times of lack. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a possibility of generalizing such ethical demands, but the pursuit of universality as the main focus I find problematic.
The second issue is one that struck me today heading to the Blood Clinic. Many of theoretical approaches that I have come across seek to find theories or principles that are universal and internally consistent with regard to that universality. But what is worse is that many potential theories are often dismissed for their failure to achieve this supposedly required universality and internal consistency. For example, one theoretical proposal suggests that we have obligations for future generations because previous generations have provided for us. This ethical framework, based on reciprocity, suggests that because we have received we should leave for others. But questions arise about the nature of this reciprocal relationship with no-longer and not-yet existing generations. Do we automatically owe someone because of a gift we have received from past generations? Are we obligated to leave just as much as we received? Or are we required to leave more than we have received (either to account for inflation or because ethics demands we leave more)? What is curious is the author in question of this article suggests that this approach can be dismissed on account of the very first generation. The very first generation assumedly didn’t inherit anything from a previous generation and thus this theoretical approach is no longer deemed universal and consequently internal inconsistent. Obviously the example assumes some kind of literal reading of Biblical creation stories such that at some point there did not exist human beings and then there did as opposed to an evolutionary approach that might assume a slow evolution towards Homo sapiens and the increasing level of consciousness of the human race which would suggest the notion of a ‘first generation’ to be deeply fallacious.
What I find especially curious, however, is the fact that there must be a definitive answer to intergenerational justice or none at all. This especially came to light when I went to give blood this afternoon and tried to answer why I was doing so. I know friends and relatives who have needed blood transfusions so in a way my donation is helping them out by proxy. I could assume that it serves a reciprocal function for my own self-interests, namely that I may be in need of a transfusion at some point and so it is logical that I donate in anticipation of that possibility. Or I could approach it from a Utilitarian perspective and say that blood saves lives and thus increases the overall utility of society at large. Yet many of these theories are equally lacking in the overall specificity that theorists of intergenerational justice seem to pursue. So why do I donate blood – because of a general intuition that it is the right thing to do, nothing more. Is that intuition strong enough to help future generations?