One Person, One Vote: Fair Voting in an Unfair System

In a decision by The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), states will not be required to redesign their voting districts. The legal challenge put forward in Evenwel v. Abbott argued that the state government should be required to draw districts so that they contain a roughly equal number of eligible voters, a change from the current practice where districts a drawn to contain an equal number of people, regardless of their eligibility to vote.

The people behind this challenge are from a rural area in Texas, which owing to demographics, contains relatively more eligible voters per district than more urban districts. In an article by The Atlantic, factors such as illegal immigration, disenfranchised ex-convicts, and a higher proportion of children, are listed as causes for the disparity in the proportion of eligible voters compared to population.

A simple example will illustrate how this works. If District A is largely populated by small families and retired people, we could see a situation where 70% of people in this district are eligible to vote. If this district contains 100 000 people, then we would expect that this district would have 70 000 eligible voters.

District B contains large families, few retired people, and immigrants who are ineligible to vote. It also contains 100 000 people, but since only 50% of the residents are eligible to vote, there are only 50 000 eligible voters in this district.

The argument of Evenwel is that when we live in a system where everyone’s vote is supposed to count for the same as everyone else’s vote, it is unfair to select representatives based on total population when this means that the amount of voters needed to elect a single representative can vary substantially.

This argument has prima facie plausibility, and it accords with other plausible positions regarding voting equality. For instance, with few exceptions, most people believe that it would be wrong to give parents extra votes for each child they have. Nor would we accept a policy which gave the caregivers of the mentally disabled an extra vote for each person under their care.

What is more, the reasons presented against Evenwel’s argument aren’t exactly convincing. In both The Atlantic and The New York Times the writers cite the motivations behind Evenwel’s legal challenge as the (or a major) reason why we should reject eligible voter districting. The groups behind Evenwel are typically right-wing conservative groups who, according to The New York Times recognize that voter suppression is ‘good’ for conservatives, that is, conservatives are more likely to be elected as voter turnout drops.

However, even if Evenwel’s challenge is just another attempt to advantage conservatives, the mere fact that this change would be to the advantage of conservatives and to the disadvantage of liberals is not, by itself, a reason against redrawing voting districts around eligible voters. If changing how districts are drawn is the right thing to do, then whether it is to my advantage simply doesn’t matter.

Now, the SCOTUS decision is itself a limited decision. All it decided is that the states cannot be forced to redraw voting districts, but it left open the possibility that the states could change their laws without being in violation of the Constitution as well.

And although there is prima facie plausibility to Evenwel’s proposal, it is questionable whether a change as minimal as the one proposed would have any substantial benefit to the cause of democracy in the United States. Put bluntly, the American electoral system is so flawed that it is unlikely for the the proposal to have any positive benefits.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives as an example. In 2014, just over 75 million people voted for one of the two major parties. Of these 75 million, about 40 million voted for the Republicans and 35 million voted for the Democrats, or 53% for the Republicans and 47% for the Democrats. However, when converted into a seat count, the Republicans received 57% of the seats and the Democrats 43%.

If Evenwel’s primary concern was to ensure that the popular vote more closely aligned with the representative count on either side of the aisle, then they would need to sue for many other changes to ensure that one vote counts for one vote. They should be calling for an end to gerrymandered congressional districts, or for the overhaul of the first-past-the-post voting system altogether (which unrealistically favours a two-party system).

They should be against an electoral college system which makes it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote yet not become president. They should be concerned that voter turnout is abysmally low, just 36.4% in the 2014 congressional election. And most of all, they should be against Republican attempts to disenfranchise African Americans, young people, and the poor through restrictive voting policies which are designed to prevent nearly non-existent voter fraud.

We are right to be relieved with the SCOTUS decision, but we also need to recognize that there are much greater issues for American democracy than changing how we define ‘one person, one vote’.

Works Cited:



Ghomeshi Trial Verdict

Feminist Philosophers

The verdict has been read in the high-profile sexual assault trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The Ontario Court judge acquitted Ghomeshi on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking. The judge’s verdict was based on his finding the women who accused Ghomeshi not to be credible witnesses. A heartbreaking excerpt from his full verdict:

The success of this prosecution depended entirely on the Court being able to accept each complainant as a sincere, honest and accurate witness. Each complainant was revealed at trial to be lacking in these important attributes. The evidence of each complainant suffered not just from inconsistencies and questionable behaviour, but was tainted by outright deception.

I think that for many of us who were following the proceedings, it was not Ghomeshi on trial, but the women. Ghomeshi himself did not testify in the trial, so his behaviour was not similarly…

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‘Winning’ in Politics

Tomorrow night will be one of the most memorable in recent Canadian history. The Toronto Blue Jays will face the Kansas City Royals in game three of the playoff series – we will have the first realistic chance in a decade to replace the governing Conservatives with one of the other parties. But rather than endorse one of the leaders, I want to draw your attention to something more important, even more important than choosing a governing party for the next ~4 years.

The way we talk about politics is antiquated. The idea that a party can ‘win’ an election simply doesn’t make sense in a system where no party ever gets more than 42-44% of the vote (speaking of elections in the past four or so decades). I ask you, what does it mean for a party to ‘win’ an election? Under conventional uses of the term, I think that few would recognize 40% of the vote as enough to warrant a ‘clear majority’ in all but the most silly of games. Yet, somehow this has become the accepted threshold for ‘winning’ in Canadian politics. The governing Conservatives have been governing with the support of 39% of the electorate for the last four years without the media or the electorate questioning their legitimacy in any relevant way.

But as bad as this sounds, it isn’t nearly as bad as reality. In Canadian politics a party can ‘win’ simply by getting the most seats in parliament. The Harper Government ‘won’ the election of 2008 even though they only received ~37% of the vote. What I want you to do is to ask yourself what it means to actually ‘win’ in politics. The fact is that most parties think that if they come in first place, no matter how narrow their lead, they receive an authority to govern which transcends the actual results. A party which receives slightly more than a third of the popular vote governs as though they have a majority of the support (although this did not work out too well with Joe Clark, Harper has successfully governed as though he had a majority through two successive minority parliaments). Why is this acceptable?

The simple answer is that we have been conditioned to find it acceptable. We should be outraged that a minority, and by minority I mean either a minority in name or a minority in practice (a government with a majority of the seats with a minority of the popular vote), feels that it has the authority to govern without taking opposing views into account.

The only cases where it seems acceptable to run by a winner-take-all system is in sports. It makes sense to us that the sports team which scores the most goals ‘wins’ the game. But unlike politics, sports are trivial (sorry Blue Jays fans). Whether a sports team wins a game or not won’t impact a refugee’s access to healthcare, it won’t impact next month’s climate summit in Paris, and it doesn’t determine the direction of Canadian politics for the next four year.

We treat politics like another game which can be won or lost by narrow margins, and this is simply unacceptable in a democracy where legislation is supposed to come from the people, all the people. We need to stop treating elections as something that can be won, but rather as something which simply determines the composition of the legislature which must work together.

No matter what happens tomorrow, we can know one thing for certain, either the Blue Jays or the Royals will win. But we cannot know which party will ‘win’ the election. Not because we are in a tight campaign, but because no one can ‘win’ an election. If the Liberals receive a plurality of the seats tomorrow, then they have done just that. They must work with the other parties to pass legislation which will hopefully reflect the will of Canadians. But this will only be successful if we stop referring to one party as the winner, and the rest as the losers. Labeling some as winners and others as losers doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion, and only gives undeserved power to a minority. We would do well to abolish such a term from our political vocabulary.

Against Narrativity: A Reply

The purpose of this paper is to argue against the widely held position among narrative theorists that not only do people view their lives as a kind of narrative (the descriptive thesis), but that it is desirable that we do so (the ethical thesis). Strawson believes that philosophers are wrong to believe that both of theses theses are correct, so he attempts to outline an alternative account.

Key Terminology

Psychological narrativity thesis: people actually experience their lives as a narrative as a part of human nature.

Ethical narrativity thesis: people ought to experience their lives as a narrative.

Diachronic thesis [D]: a person is diachronic if they see their self as existing in the past and as existing (or having the potential to exist) in the future. Not all people who are diachronic will conceive of themselves using a narrative, however.

Episodic thesis [-D]: a person is episodic if they do not identify their present self with their self in the distant past or distant future. They recognize that they are the same body, but they reject that they are the same self. As with the diachronic self, there is no direct correlation between the episodic self and the absence of a narrative (even if they are less likely to conceive of their life as a narrative).

Form-finding thesis [F]: this is roughly what Strawson refers to when he says that a person conceives of her life as having a narrative. This is the tendency to seek coherence-creating unity to the events in our lives.

Story-telling thesis [S]: Strawson calls the story telling tendency a ‘species of form-finding’. From-finding is entailed by story-telling, and Strawson describes it as being equivalent to the way a journalist or an historian write about events.

Revision thesis [R]: the revision thesis states that people have a tendency to modify or reorganize the way in which we think about our lives according to the requirements of coherence. Much of the revision that takes place is not out of a conscious effort to make sense of the world, but comes about through honest misremembering.

Strawson’s Position

Strawson describes his position as [-D -F -S -R] meaning that he rejects four of the theses above, only accepting the episodic thesis (which is the polar opposite of the diachronic thesis). In contrast, he believes that Dennett takes the exact opposite view [+D +F +S +R]. From what I can tell, Strawson believes that philosophers have adopted positions like Dennett’s because the people most likely to be drawn to narrative theory tend to be strongly diachronic and to conceive their lives as following a narrative (whether [+F +S] or merely [+F -S]). But, to put it simply, people like Strawson do not see their lives as following a coherent narrative structure of any kind, and yet they seem to get along just fine. He rejects both the psychological and ethic thesis by claiming that neither does he live his life as a narrative, nor is this way of life bad for him.


While I do not claim to fully understand what Strawson actually means by what it means to live a life as an episodic life, and I want to leave open the possibility that such a way of life is actually possible, I want to highlight two points. The first relates to Strawson’s position that someone living an episodic life is not necessarily unable to live a narrative life. He concedes that it is possible for an episodic person to construct a coherent narrative about a disjointed person, whether or not they in fact do so.

The second point is that what Strawson means by ‘narrative’ seems to be a kind of red-herring. Let us look back at the exact wording used by Strawson to describe a narrative view of the self (focusing here on the psychological thesis), “[t]he psychological Narrativity thesis is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives.” (428, emphasis added). The key point here is that he presents the thesis as the way in which we experience our lives as opposed to some other way of describing narrativity. At one point he says, by way of criticizing Taylor’s position, that some think that we need a coherent narrative to make a pot of coffee. To the extent that philosophers generally hold positions like Taylor’s, and I’m sure that some do, we need to examine whether proving implausibility of such a view is sufficient to get Strawson his (somewhat) stronger point that it is possible to live a life without a narrative whatsoever.

Without having read Taylor’s argument, I would have to agree with Strawson that his position looks implausible. And if we thought that to have a narrative we must also view our lives as a narrative, Strawson would have his argument. People do not tend to view making a pot of coffee as part of a narrative (except, perhaps, for graduate students). But just because we do not view our actions as part of a narrative, does not mean that they do not form a part of a narrative. We take our cues from our society and from our culture, these cues limit our options based on our personal background and history, and they impose a structure on use even when we do not recognize that structure.

A modified version of the narrativity thesis would go as follows: “[t]he psychological Narrativity thesis is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings live their lives.” The difference here is that living a life as a narrative, instead of experiencing a life as a narrative, is a life which is constrained by cultural narratives, and is therefore possible to express in terms of a narrative, even though most people never or seldom go through the process of making their narrative explicit. People who live their life as a narrative can do so even though they don’t experience their life in this way. Returning to my first point, to the extent that episodics are influenced by the society around them, as Strawson seems to imply, they will always live their life as a narrative even when they do not see their life as a narrative.

Nagel’s “Equality”, a Defense of Rawls

There are two major developments which Thomas Nagel made in his chapter “Equality” in his book Mortal Questions. The first is the way he develops the debate around egalitarianism as a debate consisting of (at least) three competing values. The second major aim of this chapter is to develop a criticism of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice which Nagel takes as an argument for a form of egalitarianism.

The three competing values which Nagel says are in conflict are the values of equal rights, equal consideration and substantive equality. People who support the first type of equality tend to frame rights as predominantly negative rights, which Nagel described in terms of a right to non-interference, or as a limited veto right against the actions of other people. The type of state which would be defended by people concerned with equal rights would be a libertarian state, in its purest form. With such a state, no amount of public opinion will be sufficient to impose a popular egalitarian law since such a law would impose unjustified restrictions on the freedom of some people.

The second value, the value of equal consideration, he identifies with utilitarian theory. This type of right is a right to have one’s experiences counted as equal to all other people. It basically states that when determining the structure for society, the best possible outcome is the society which leads to the highest overall utility. Due to the doctrine of diminishing marginal utility, such a principle should tend towards what I am calling substantive equality, meaning that in most circumstances the society which has the highest overall utility will also tend to be the society with the greatest (or at least a high degree of) equality. However, since the value is itself equal consideration and not substantive equality, it is possible that the theory would support an outcome which is very unequal if that arrangement would lead to the best outcome for aggregated utility.

His discussion of the third value, equality, starts with a discussion of John Rawls’s theory of justice, a theory which Nagel takes to be egalitarian. Nagel says that there are two arguments in normal moral theory, and a third which is theoretical, which he wants to discuss from Rawls’s theory. The first argument is that Rawls claims that inequalities that are the result of luck (e.g. from the unequal distribution of talents and abilities) are not themselves deserved, and can only lead to inequalities if they are to the greatest benefit of the worst-off in society, which is usually outlined in terms of the difference principle. Nagel thinks that this argument is not conclusive since it presumes that undeserved inequalities are morally arbitrary without justification.

The second argument Nagel considers is the argument Rawls made against utilitarianism that utilitarianism, while acceptable for a single person to use to guide their own action, is inapplicable at the state-level of action because, whereas I may be compensated for a loss I sustain at one point in my life, e.g. I can trade the tastiness of buttery popcorn for greater health later in life, it is unreasonable to expect one person to accept a similar trade-off at the society-level, e.g. I agree to give you ten thousand dollars because you will derive greater utility from that money than I will. Nagel’s response to this argument is simply that Rawls, as with the previous argument, does not provide reasons for us to accept his position. Nagel is not siding with the utilitarian, he is merely pointing out that Rawls has failed to give us any reason for accepting his position instead of the position supported by utilitarians. A trade-off like the one I gave above could be acceptable or required of us.

The third argument of Rawls’s which Nagel considers is his original position argument, which he uses to justify the difference principle, in addition to his other principles. According to Nagel the original position has two details which are of importance for his chapter. First, the decision made behind the veil of ignorance (in the original position) must be unanimous, second, it must be done without knowledge of the probabilities of being in any particular position in society, i.e. we do not know whether we will be one of the best-off or worst-off members of society.

Nagel’s chief complaint with Rawls’s version of egalitarianism is that it (seemingly) gives absolute priority to the worst-off in society. This, even though Rawls has given us no reason for thinking that the decision we made behind the veil of ignorance should be compelling to us once we have removed the veil. In other words, even if Rawls is correct in thinking that his principles of justice are the principles we would choose behind the veil, he still needs to prove that we should find this reasoning convincing in the real world.

In order to show why he thinks that Rawls’s principles of justice are too strongly egalitarian in nature, Nagel presents the following example. Suppose that I have two children, one which is normal and healthy, and the other which has a painful disability. We are given the choice between moving to an expensive city which is close to a treatment centre and special education facility for the second child, or moving to a semi-rural suburb which is not near either of the two facilities. If we take the first option, the entire family will be worse off since the city is very expensive, meaning that the first child will be much worse-off than she would be in the suburb. Furthermore, even if we move to the city, the first child will still have a very poor life, although somewhat improved over the life he would have in the suburbs.

While Rawls would seemingly defend the first option, moving to the city, Nagel thinks that the correct answer will depend on how we balance equality with the other two values of overall utility and rights. So while Nagel might agree with Rawls in the above scenario, he thinks that small changes to the scenario could lead him (Nagel) to change his position. For instance, there were two normal children instead of one, the disutility to the two children from moving to the city might be enough to outweigh the small benefit that would be received by the one child. More convincingly, Nagel believes that at some point we must acknowledge the value of overall utility. At some point the number of children on the one side ought to tip the scale away from the value of equality.

Having outlined Nagel’s argument I believe that Rawls could respond in a number of ways. First, the above argument is problematic because of its scope. Nagel has assumed that his argument is scaleable to the state-level of justice. My criticism here is that the type of problem which Nagel has described would never arise in discussions of justice since we never really face situations where we must do one of two options. We would not, for instance, be given the choice to either fund schools for the disabled or fund parks (which, for our purposes here, would benefit the rest of society more than the disabled). We do not have to choose between providing treatment for disabled people and having a good life, for Rawls, we can have both so long as that inequality leads to greater benefits for the worst-off.

My second criticism of Nagel’s argument is that the type of problem described above simply would not arise for Rawls because Rawls did not treat the severely disabled as subject to the principles of justice. The problem that Nagel has described is one where a group of people, i.e. the disabled, would require vast number of resources in order to improve their lives, effectively leveling down everyone else in society. Rawls has defined these people out of his theory in order to avoid this kind of objection, ensuring that the people at the bottom will be relatively easy to make well-off. The conflict between the values of equality and utility should not arise, except perhaps minor disagreements, since in most cases the poorly-off will be easy to make well-off.

This does not mean that Rawls’s theory is without flaw, as we may decide to push him on his unwillingness to include the disabled in the principles of justice (he does say that should be subject to our consideration at a second level of justice, just not to the principles themselves), but I do not think that Nagel’s criticism succeeds here.

Canada General Election – Part 1

Today I’m going to take some time to write about the electoral system in Canada. We have an election coming up at some point this year, most likely in October, and one of the issues that at least two parties are supporting is proportional representation. Both the New Democratic Party and the Green Party support electoral reform, with the NDP favouring what is called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP.

In later posts I’ll go into detail about MMP, but for now it will suffice to show what I think the problems are with the existing system. Our system as it stands is called First Past the Post or FPP. Our country is divided into 308 (which will change to 338 this year), with each of these ridings being represented by a single Member of Parliament (MP). In a general election eligible voters cast a ballot in the riding in which they live for the candidate of their choice. At the end of the night the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of the margin or of the actual proportion of the vote they received.

In a country with only two parties, such as the United States, this will usually lead to the ‘winner’ in the riding with at least half of the vote. The problems only become pronounced when a country has more than two parties, with the problems becoming more pronounced the more parties we have. In Canada we have three main, national parties, each with support greater than 20% of the electorate, but less than 40%. The Conservative Party is right of centre, the Liberal party is roughly centrist, and the NDP is slightly left of centre. In addition to the main three, we also have one main regional party, the Bloc Quebecois which only operates in Québec, and the Green party, which has support of around 5% of the electorate. Both parties are roughly centrist, with the Bloc a bit further left than the Liberals.

To illustrate the main issue with the FPP system I’ll take the example of a recent poll released by OKOS Research. In the province of Ontario they have the Conservatives at 37%, the Liberals at 35%, the NDP at 18%, and the Greens at 6%. If we were to treat the province as a single riding with one representative there would be no clear winner, but the Conservative candidate would still ‘win’ because her or she has a plurality of the vote.

This gets even more pronounced with Québec where, in the same poll, the Conservatives have 22%, the Liberals have 23%, the NDP have 24%, the Bloc have 23%, and the Greens have 6%. If we treated this province as a single riding the NDP candidate would ‘win’ with less than a quarter of the vote.

Of course, nothing I have written here is novel, especially to people who follow politics on a regular basis. There is an organization called Fair Vote Canada which has as its goal to reform the electoral system and replace it with MMP. A couple years ago they released the following video where they illustrate FPP with pizza (in their example two people vote for meat lovers, with the remaining four people splitting their vote):

What I would like to do for the rest of this post is build on their example because I think that it falls short in demonstrating just how unintuitive FPP can be. When FPP goes from a single riding and is expanded to the results of multiple ridings the results can look very different from what the popular vote was. Further, this isn’t a mere theoretical possibility, the unintuitive results are actually projected.

At they compile and combine the polling data from different sources and use their expertise to project a seat count. They project that 33.4% of people would vote Liberal, 32.6% Conservative, 20.8% NDP, 5.9% Green, and 4.8% for the Bloc. From those figures they project that the Liberals would get 124 seats, the Conservatives would get 142, the NDP would get 66, two for the Greens, and four for the Bloc. This translates into the following proportion of seats for the following parties, 32% for the Liberals, 37% for the Conservatives, 17% for the NDP, 0.5% for the Greens, and 1% for the Bloc (mind the rounding).

What is stunning about the forecasted results is that it would give the Conservatives more seats than any other party even though they are forecasted to come in second place in terms of the popular vote.

To illustrate just how wrong this could turn out, let’s expand on the pizza example from Fair Vote Canada. Let’s imagine that we are students in a school with eleven classes. Each class has thirty students, giving us 330 students. In order to decide what types of pizza to order for an upcoming school-wide pizza party the principal has asked each class to elect one representative from their class to come to a meeting. At this meeting the students must vote on what type of pizza will be ordered.

Now, to make this manageable let’s assume that there are only three kinds of pizza which they can vote for. These are: vegetarian, meat lovers, and cheese (represented by V, M, and C).

Here is one way in which the vote could turn out. In classes 1-6 V receives 9 votes, M receives 10, and C receives 11 (adding up to a total of 54 for V, 60 for M, and 66 for C). If we were using FPP the voters for cheese would elect six representatives (out of 11). As for the remaining five classes, let’s assume that there is unanimous support for V, giving a total of 150 votes for V (but only five representatives.

Our tally is now at 204 for V, 60 for M, and 66 for C. But since the students don’t vote for the type of pizza directly, and since the principal only asks for a majority vote in this meeting to decide which pizza to order, the cheese party will win even though they represent only 20% of the students, whereas the vegetarians, with 62% of the votes get effectively no say.

The chief issue with FPP is not the first step where a plurality of votes is sufficient to ‘win’ a vote, although this is a problem as well, it is the second level where a majority of representatives have absolute control over the agenda of parliament, even though there is no guarantee that, at this second level, they even have a plurality of the original vote. Under FPP obscure results like the one I have described become more likely as the number of parties increases. It also accentuates regional differences and under-represents parties with even support over the entire country.

Rights of Future Generations and Resource Depletion

Richard De George defends the position that future people cannot be said to have rights due to the various issues that would arise if we treated them as if they did. He defends this position in “The Environment, Rights, and Future Generations” which was reprinted in Responsibilities to Future Generations, a volume edited by Ernest Partridge. De George’s focus is on resource depletion and whether future generations can properly be said to have rights to resources which are in limited supply. Before getting into the details of his arguments against the position that future people cannot have rights, I want to quickly go over what he thinks are the limits of his argument.

The first point to note about his position is that he sees the rights of future generations as a topic which has risen out of the increasingly complex world in which we live, at least in part because of technology. Although he does not put it like this, our increasing power to impact future generations of people, even in the distant future, requires us to re-evaluate our intuitions. We hold the power to destroy our way of life in a way which past generations could not. In light of these changes, people have conflicting intuitions about how we should deal with generations of the distant future, and it is here where he seemingly wants to focus (I say ‘seemingly’ for the reason that his claim about the novelty of the debate only makes sense when considering distant generations since, presumably, past generations have had the ability to influence near generations since the beginnings of human society and hence would not count as a novel debate).

The second point to note is that De George only takes his argument to show that rights claims cannot work in the narrow circumstance he is here describing. He says at both the beginning and end of his paper that a more comprehensive argument is needed in order to fully determine what, if any, rights are held by future people. We should not, therefore, take his argument as a definitive attack on rights qua rights for future generations.

The third point to note is that he makes what has become the definitive argument for the claim that future people cannot have rights. The argument says that future people cannot be said to have anything since the present tense verb ‘to have’ does not make sense within the context of future people. Although I do not want to get into the debate here, it should be noted that De George makes a much subtler point than the debate would have us think. What he says is that future people cannot have rights in the same sense as presently existing people have rights (159). This leaves open the possibility that future people can have rights in a different sense, whatever that sense may be, but as he argues at both the beginning and the end of his paper, determining the nature of these rights must be done at length somewhere else.

The position he attempts to defend in this paper is that future generations of people do not have a right to limited resources such as oil. If we use all of the available oil in the next twenty years, so long as we don’t waste it, then future generations will have no right to the use of oil. For this claim he gives three arguments.

First, people can only have a right to something which exists. As an example, if two parents conceive a child who happens, through bad lack, to inherit sickle cell anemia, then that child simply cannot have a right to have been born without the disease. Since the child’s identity is determined by her genetics, and since sickle cell anemia is in inherited trait, she would not exist and could not exist without the disease. She, therefore, cannot have a right to have been born without the disease. Similarly, at least according to De George, if oil is consumed prior to the birth of some future person, that person cannot have a right to use oil.

An argument given by another author, which I find easier to work with, is that current people cannot have a right to see a live Dodo bird since the Dodo is currently extinct and we cannot have a right to see something which does not exist. The problem with arguments of this kind is that they have the consequence that present people can do anything with a resource (or with the Dodo) so long as they are careful to us all of the resource (or hunt the Dodo well). Let’s say that we want to determine whether future people have a right to see a Black Rhino in the wild, of which there are only about 4000 left. If the above argument is correct that future people only have a right to something which actually exists, then we can fulfill our duty by either conserving the Black Rhino or by hunting it to extinction. In the first case we will discharge our duty by ensuring that future people have the opportunity to see something which they have a right to, and in the second we ‘discharge’ our duty by ensuring that future generations do not have a right to see the Black Rhino.

While De George, and others who have made this argument, might be correct in saying that future people will have no right to see a Black Rhino if they no longer exist at some point in the future, their argument contributes nothing to the real issue. The real issue being whether we have duties to future generations. If we still have a duty to preserve the Black Rhino, or oil for future people, then it is useless to ask whether future people have a right to the Rhino or the oil, our actions are already constrained.

The second argument he makes is that if we assume that all future generations have a right to oil, but we also know that the supply of oil is finite, then there must be some generation in the future which uses the last of the oil and therefore violates the rights of the next generation (161). We would have to perpetually save oil, which would undermine the point of the right of future generations to have oil. Before addressing this point I would like to outline De George’s third argument which makes a similar point.

The third argument he makes is that we (present generations) would face impossible demands. We would have to determine how much oil each person has a right to which would give us each very little oil to use, perhaps a thimble full. Given the problems with ascribing rights to future generations for oil, he thinks that it is best to leave them out of consideration altogether. Future people do not have a right to use oil. (161)

The reason why I treated the first argument separately from the second and third is because I agree with De George that future people do not have a right to oil. And I think that the two reasons above give us good reasons not to treat oil as something which future people can have a right to. My point of departure is that I think no generation has a right to use oil to any extent they desire. Resources aren’t the kind of thing which people have a right to. While it makes sense to say that we have a right to clean air or to a stable environment because those things aren’t limited, any limited resource cannot be the kind of thing we have a right in. It is useful to help us fulfill our needs, but it is not the only means to our ends. Without oil to burn I can still heat my house with wind power or solar power. I can power my car with electricity, and with some adaptation, I can do practically anything I can currently do without oil.

There is nothing necessary about oil which gives future people a right in it unlike something like clean air. While I think it is plausible to deny that future people have a right to oil, it is a lot less plausible to claim that they do not have a right to clean air. If in the next hundred years we do something to the atmosphere to make the air unbreathable, or at least damaging to one’s health, it would be hard to defend a position which claims that at the time when the damage was done to the atmosphere, future people had no rights to a clean atmosphere. Or to use a more realistic example, if in the 80s and 90s when science started to show that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer people decided to continue using CFCs knowing that their actions would harm future people, it would be hard to say that the people of that era did not violate the rights of future people.

What my criticism of this paper comes down to, or more correctly, my criticism of the way in which De George’s argument has been interpreted, is that while De George may have present some good reasons for us to assume that future people do not have a right to finite resources, that group of rights was dubious to begin with. The focus on his semantic argument about how we use the verb ‘to have’ has taken on a stronger usage than De George intended, and still needs to be defended with greater rigour if people want to use it to defend the much stronger claim that future people cannot have rights.

De George, Richard T.. “The Environment, Rights, and Future Generations.” In Responsibilities to Future Generations: Environmental Ethics, edited by Ernest Partridge, 157-165. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1981.