A (New) Second Attempt at an Environmental Ethic
If we are to accept our present mode of ethics (in the form of Human Rights) as a good system of morality but we acknowledge that the way in which they operate leaves room for abuse of nature and if we assume the abuse of nature to be a bad thing, then we need to extend the word “everyone” (and its synonyms as they appear in the Universal Bill of Rights) to be inclusive of future generations as well. This ethic is based on a small number of things. Here they are listed in the order in which I shall address them. The proposed view is possible in the sense that it does not demand a great deal from us and only requires a small expansion.
- We hold dominion over the earth. and with that great power comes a great responsibility towards its other inhabitants. If we agree that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does something right then we need to extend “everyone” to “those who are and those who may be” humans our actions do not only affect those presently alive.
- From a self-interested perspective, we should preserve parts of the natural world or come to terms with being looked down upon by those that come after us.
- Parfit’s Paradox (Parfit, 1982) plays no detrimental role here as we do not owe any obligation to a specific set of people, it is rather to the generation of individuals than the individuals themselves.
- The Proximity Proposal. A somewhat inconsistent theory that states that our obligation to others is greater if we are in close proximity to them. Here, to be in close proximity means to be an easily foreseeable distance (temporally or geographically) away from our present state (ie. within your country or within the next few generations).
- The issues with and implications of this view. What it says about overpopulation and how we harvest recourses?
So why is this an environmental ethic and why should it be taken seriously? Well, if we do have an obligation to future generations and we accept our present ethical model (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights), then whenever “everyone” or one of its synonyms is mentioned, there is a temporal implication as well. Meaning that, among other things, the future generation has a right to a safe, uncompromising, environment. We owe the future generation an adequate lifestyle as we are the only ones able to give or deny the future generations of not just their well-fare but their very existence. It cannot be denied that we, the present generation, have complete power over whether the next generation comes into existence or not. Within one generation, we could end our species if we wanted to. That is an immense amount of power to hold. With it, if we want the next generation to exist, we should acknowledge our mutual human-ness and preserve enough of the environment so that they can live, at the very least, a satisfactory life.
To approach the same problem from a self-interested perspective if one places no significance in; if one cares not for others and only for themself then one should place some importance in their memory, what they will be known for. It is clear for all to see that if one’s name is known and they do things considered to be bad then they will be remembered for those “bad” things. Likewise, if they do a large amount of good. A self-interested person seeks to make the best of their own life, it follows then that they would seek to have their name looked back upon in a positive light. In order to do so, a part of what they do with their life would be to not contribute to the destruction of that which future generations may find of value, like clean breathing air and a natural sanctuary, in which they can reap the same benefits as we do.
It is all well and good to speak of an obligation to future human’s but any view which does so in regards to ethical obligations must find some way that they can resolve the Parfit Paradox (Parfit, 1982). Parfit’s paradox claims that it is to the future humans that will be born that we owe an obligation if we owe them anything at all. He claims that the obligation has to be to a specific group of people. I disagree if we are using the word “everyone” then it’s all inclusive, it doesn’t exclude anyone, it is non-specific in the sense that it is holistic, not individualistic. The paradox states that by acting out a way of living that considers future humans, there will be marked environmental differences in their world. If there are environmental differences then (consistent with biological theories) it will be a different sperm cell that permeates the egg cell, effectively changing those that we would have an obligation to and voiding our obligation. I think it is plain to see where this goes wrong. Firstly, in this proposed ethic, our obligation is to everyone and so despite the fact that different people would be born, it doesn’t invalidate our obligation to them. More importantly, those decisions have not yet been made. If my wife and I were undecided on having children then one cannot say that they will get my to-be-born boy in three years time this tricycle because they know he will love it. No. The Parfit Paradox requires us to live in a deterministic or predetermined world, even if that is the case, we humans are no Laplacian Demon and cannot make those predictions on who will be born, only that it is extremely likely that so and so will be born. We can make and act upon general, non-specific predictions that we acknowledge may very well be wrong. At present, there is not even a guarantee that there will be a future generation. So there is no way that one can rightly claim that by acting out our obligations to future generations, we lay the cause for the prevention of their birth.
Our obligation to future generations is less of an obligation to ensure they live a good life but more of an obligation to not ruin their chances of having a life that we assume they may call a satisfactory life. Intuitively, I want to say that this obligation cover those in our local geographical sphere greater than those on the other side of the world. It is the same in regards to a local temporal sphere, the very next generation you owe slightly less than those alive today, but slightly more than those that come after them, and much less is owed to those far down the generational line. Yet, there is an inconsistency here as what kind of a measurement do we have for matching the distance and the time? Why does this view state that we owe more to the generation after us than we do to the people presently alive on the other side of the world? This is an inconsistency that I simply cannot reconcile for there is no objective way to measure it. Not even a practical perspective can offer any light a solution because it is far easier to help those on the other side of the world than it is to help those who do not yet exist. This is a flaw that may prove fatal to the proposal if there is no way to reconcile it.
A note further on the extent to which we owe: Those in close proximity to us we owe more than those further away from us, but it will never be the case that we never owe anybody anything. This may be illustrated via a graphed exponential function (apologies about the maths). The most we owe anyone is full concern and recognition of all Human Rights as we do to the present generation. The least we will ever owe anyone is our consideration in decisions that can be reasonably predicted to affect them. That will be the point at which our graph of obligations levels out. How it decreases and how rapidly it does so would need to be discussed in further detail at a later stage and is not fit to be discussed in this essay.
If we are to accept this view then it will demand relatively minor changes to out daily lives the likes of which need not even be discussed. First off, we would need to cut down the rate at which we harvest the recourses of the world. This will be the hardest aspect of the entire view to accept because of its harsh implications to the economic sector. But if we value our fellow man more than we value money then this is not a bad thing to happen. The rate at which we cut down trees is far greater than the rate which we replenish them if there are too few trees then our population will cave in on itself due to oxygen deficiency. The rate at which we clean the ocean and the rate at which we pollute it are also harshly out of proportion. Same for water, land and air pollution. Acceptance of this view demands an equalisation between the rate at which we use things and the rate at which they replenish so that the next generation is not put off in a harshly worse place in the world than the condition in which we inherited it.
As the view is anthropocentric per definition, it cannot take a perspective that advocates a reduction in population but it can demand that we slow down the overall human birth rate. It calls for stability in all things in which stability is a good thing to have, deforestation must match closely to reforestation, pollution and cleaning must be equalised, the human population stabilised. It does not say that we cannot pollute, or over fish. It allows for any mistakes that we may make, so long as we acknowledge and rectify them. By doing so, we fulfill our obligations to our fellow humans. This view requires us to adopt a spirit of brotherhood and familiarity to those close to us and mutual recognition to all those who either are, or will, call themselves human.
The nature of this view allows for us to take two routes here. Seeing as all it calls for is stability in our acts, it is not saying that we cannot commit environmental harms – provided we clean them up if we do. We can pollute and harvest in ever increasing amounts provided we clean and replenish the damage we do. If we cannot clean up our messes, then we should not make them.
The main flaws of this view: it is based on a few core assumptions that cannot be proven and may or may not hold out to be true. The first assumption is that Human Rights is a good thing. Second, that our protecting nature (in places of sanctuary) is beneficial for nature. Third, we really do have an obligation towards other people. And fourth, is that our obligation to others is greater if we are in a ‘closer’ relative proximity to them. If we are not willing to accept these flaws then we need to find a way to reconcile the view if it is worth saving. The final flaw that my eyes can pick out of this theory is that it says that the least we will owe a generation is our consideration, but it may not add up that future generations and future humans are equatable as there may be a point at which our species is no longer recognisably human. And this view would say that despite that, if they are our descendants, if they are a generation of the present humans that are birthed from our bodies, we still owe them even if they are not recognisably human.
But with all these flaws, why is this view any better than any other? Firstly, these flaws are not unique to the theory, any view that says we must protect nature assumes that our protecting nature is good for nature. Any view that promotes human interest assumes humans to be important. The same goes for the assumption of Human Rights and obligations. Parfit’s paradox applies to all views that say that we have an obligation to future humans. This view is possible because it is based on what we already use as a moral code. It is a small step forward with only one large implication. And even that can be made beneficial we create ‘wardens’ of nature who repair and replenish the damage we do, thereby allowing for us to keep a similar rate of growth and reduce unemployment.
In conclusion then: The core of this view states that we owe an obligation to future humans because we have the power to completely deny them of their existence, in recognition of our mutual human-ness we should not deny them of a life that is (at the very least) what we would call satisfactory if we were living then. As it is an assumption that we owe anyone anything, if we don’t want to be remembered in history as “the generation that screwed us over” then we should allow for an adequate life of the following generations. In doing so, we must stabilise our use and abuse of nature with our replenishment and repair of nature. Allowing for the protection of a nature due to human interest.
Parfit, D., 1982. Future generations: Further problems. Philosophy & Public Affairs, pp.113-172.