The Rights of Past and Future Persons. By Annette Baier – Summary and Analysis


Similar to the last two papers I looked at, this paper deals with obligations to future people and the rights that they might have. Unlike the past two, Baier thinks that it is meaningful to say that future people have rights.

Like De George, Baier asks whether the will of a dead person can be considered an example of the state or government respecting the rights of people who no longer exist. She thinks that it is. It should be noted that neither De George nor Baier give strong reasons for thinking that this is so, with De George just saying that we can appeal to the rights of present people as an alternative (but without giving a positive argument for why). The lack of strong arguments on either side is telling of the dispute given that everything rests on this answer.

In addition to diverging from De George on this point, Baier also introduces the concept of role-based rights. She says that her position as an educator gives her certain duties to indeterminate future students. She has these duties to do things like prepare for the course and order textbooks even before any students have registered for the class. She uses this example to put pressure on the distinction between rights to those who are living and rights to those who will live in the future. In both the case that she describes as an educator, and in the usual case of intergenerational justice, the identity of the people to whom we owe duties is indeterminate. The only difference is that in the first case they indeterminate in their particular identity, whereas in the second they are both indeterminate and do not exist. If the important feature is that they are indeterminate, meaning that these two cases are conceptually identical then both groups should be granted rights based on their role. From this she concludes that conceptually speaking it is not incoherent to speak of rights for future people.

Why, then, should we consider future people to have rights? Baier thinks that we have duties in virtue of the fact that we find ourselves in an intergenerational community. We are interdependent, and we have what has come to be called a form of indirect reciprocity with different generations. We have received benefits from past people, obligating ourselves to pass on at least as much to the future.

She says that there are five considerations that we ought to consider when determining how far our duties go. Also note that she does not actually determine how far our responsibility lies, she only gives us the tools to find out. We need to consider (1) that we are relatively well-off compared to our ancestors, (2) this well-being is dependent, at least in part, on the actions of our ancestors, (3) we have almost absolute control over the future conditions for other generations, (4) compared to past generations, we have a much greater understand of how our actions will impact the future, and (5) that prior savings were made for all posterity, not just for us. From this she concludes that at the very least we have duties to leave the world in at least as good a state as before, and that deliberate destruction of institutions or goods is a violation of the rights of future people.

We form a kind of trusteeship for past generations, ensuring that our actions do not wantonly abandon their projects. Earlier in her paper she used the example of an early generation opening a public university for the good of posterity. If the present generation decided not to maintain the university out of their own self-interest, then such a move would violate the rights of their ancestors, and future people could rightly feel that their rights have been violated. In this way the relationship between the rights of past and future generations is a close one.


The easiest criticism of this paper is that the feeling that I have been wronged does not mean that I have in fact been wronged. If we simply deny that past generations have any claims on us, then we could, referring to the example I just described, let the university fall into ruin without violating anyone’s rights. In the future people may feel that they have been wronged, and they may feel that we ought to have acted differently, but I think that it is inappropriate to derive a duty or right from this feeling, especially considering the original argument (that we have duties to past people) is not well defended.

We could also press Baier on the concept of role-based rights. We could argue that in some broader sense she has duties to actual, determinate people in virtue of her role as a teacher, whether this be to the school itself, or to some other person. I think it was Macklin who said that we can easily think of people as having rights at some point in the future without conceding that they have rights at the moment. Role-based rights could follow a similar principle. As a teacher preparing for a course I could have duties to future students, assuming I have future students, which I need to prepare for even though there is no one who exists now whom I have a duty to. In other words, I’m not convinced that role-based duties or rights would be capable of solving this issue.


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