Our Duties to Future Generations

Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2013)
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In this dissertation, I explicate some of the moral duties we have to future humans. I defend the view that (DV1) we have pro tanto duties of nonmaleficence and beneficence to and regarding at least some future humans; (DV2) in the present circumstances, this duty of nonmaleficence grounds reasons for us to refrain from damaging certain features of the natural environment; and (DV3) in the present circumstances, this duty of beneficence grounds reasons for at least some of us to bring future humans into existence. I refer to the view consisting of (DV1) - (DV3) as the Duties to Future Humans View (DV). In defense of DV1, I argue that future humans have moral standing, and that their having moral standing is sufficient for our having pro tanto duties of nonmaleficence and beneficence to and regarding them. I take a duty of nonmaleficence to be a duty to refrain from harming and a duty of beneficence to be a duty to benefit. In defense of DV2, I argue that increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and numerous species extinctions are harms for future humans. In defense of DV3, I argue that having a life worth living is a benefit to the person who lives that life. One objection to DV is the non-identity problem. In response, I defend substantive accounts of harming and benefiting. The account of harming holds that for any individual having moral standing, S, and any state of affairs, A, (1) A is a harm for S just in case if it were true that both S existed and A did not obtain, then S would have a higher level of lifetime well-being; (2) an action or event harms S just in case it causes a harm for S to obtain; (3) other things being equal, the reason against harming S is stronger, the more similar the world would be if A did not obtain. I argue for a similar account of benefiting. I also argue for a metaphysical distinction between causes and mere conditions.

Author's Profile

Molly Gardner
University of Florida


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