The Environment, Rights, and Future Generations. by Richard T. De George – Summary and Analysis


De George’s main aim in this paper is to give us arguments for why the common approaches to intergenerational justice are inadequate, but also to give the beginning of a possible solution.

Unlike Macklin, who I just reviewed, De George rejects both the rights approach and the utilitarian approach. Like Macklin, De George also argues that rights cannot apply to future people in virtue of the fact that they do not yet exist. The counterexample that he considers is the way we treat wills of people who have died. According to this objection, a will is respected by the law, apparently granting rights to people who are dead. Since we give rights to those who no longer exist, says the objection, why not give rights to future people as well. De George replies that in these types of cases the law doesn’t actually recognize the rights of people who have recently died, rather, they recognize the right of the currently living to inherit the property of those people.

He also considers whether future people have a right to be born. He argues that future people have no right to come into existence. But he does grant that the more likely it is that a particular person will come into existence, the stronger we should take their interests into account. I take him to be arguing along the lines that our duties to future people are very weak or non-existent when speaking of people in the far-off future, slightly stronger as we approach the present, and very strong (yet not of full rights status) when considering those who will soon be born. But you cannot hold a right to come into existence because you need to exist to have a right to something.

He divides his argumentation against rights into three distinct arguments. I have already mentioned the first, which is that you need to exist in order to have a right. His second argument is that giving rights to future people would undermine the purpose of the rights. He asks us to consider a division of rights to a particular non-renewable resource, oil. Since it is non-renewable it is impossible to use it to an extent that would prevent its running out. If everyone, including those presently existing and those who will exist in the future, have a right to all of the remaining oil, then any use of that oil will deprive future people of their right to it. The result being that no one could ever use the oil that everyone has a right to use, undermining the purpose of the right.

His third argument is that right make impossible demands on us. Either we must draw an arbitrary line separating the future generations who we consider and those we do not, or we take every generation into account, leaving us with almost nothing. This is similar to the argument above, but its force of persuasion is not that it undermines rights, but that it makes rights either too demanding (that we do not use oil) or too complicated (that we determine the limit of rights at a set distance in time from us). These problems lead De George to reject the use of rights for intergeneration justice.

De George also gives us three arguments against the next proposal, the utilitarian calculus. First, we would have to determine just how many generations to include in our calculus. Second, our calculation will depend on how many future generations will actually depend on oil, something that we cannot determine. And third, if we run out of oil we can go back to doing things the way we did them before (I don’t see why this is a problem for the utilitarian method, and he seems to treat it as an advantage). This third objection turns into the much larger issue of whether present generations have a duty to make later generations better off than they (present generations) were themselves. De George doesn’t think so, and while I don’t want to get into the argument right now, it seems that a number of philosophers, including John Rawls, agree with him. Suffice it to say that it would be extremely difficult to include future generations in the utilitarian calculus without any odd consequences.

As a result, De George argues that we cannot owe consideration, either in terms of rights or in our utilitarian calculus, to distant generations. So what do we owe them? At the very least we owe them the vast wealth of knowledge that we have accumulated. In the end our own interests trump those of future generations, but we ought not to completely ignore their interests.


I am going to focus on his suggestion that he gave at the very end of his paper that we have a duty to pass on our knowledge. There wasn’t actually a lot to work with here, so I don’t know the justification for passing on knowledge. He does say that there aren’t any reasons for why we wouldn’t do so, but this does not turn into an obligation. For instance, if I want to cross the street, and someone says to me that I have no reason to cross the street (and let’s say that this is true), I could just cross the street for the sake of doing so. Likewise, if we collectively decide that we don’t want a certain bundle of knowledge to be passed on, not because of the harm it will cause but because we just don’t want others to have it, it seems that we could destroy it.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not convinced by the human rights argument, but I do find utilitarian reasoning to be more persuasive in this area. It is unfortunate that his argument against utilitarianism is only a few lines long and without much justification, because someone could respond to his first argument that all generations count, but only in terms of negative utility. We may not have a duty to ensure that people in the future are well-off, but we at least have a duty not to cause harm. This would, of course, get us into the non-identity problem (since the identity of the harmed people would be dependent on our doing the harm), but I don’t think that his arguments are strong enough to reject utilitarian reasoning outright.


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