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.


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.

Can Future Generations Correctly Be Said to Have Rights? By Ruth Macklin – Summary and Analysis


In this article, Macklin argues that future generations cannot properly be said to have rights, but that we ought to still give them moral consideration when acting in the present.

Her main argument is fairly simple, she says that future generations cannot have rights because they do not exist to be subjects of rights. She asks us to compare how we treat duties and rights, stating that these ought to be treated the same way unless we have a good reason to do otherwise. Typically we do not say that non-existent people have duties (I put this too weakly, I have never heard people say this). If a non-existent person cannot have duties then, since duties and rights almost always travel in a single package, non-existent people cannot have rights either.

But, says the critic, we commonly give people or other things rights without giving them duties. Macklin lists the mentally disabled, the young, the sick, and the old, but I would also like to add non-human animals to this list (although all of these are still under dispute, let’s assume that they do in fact have rights). However, according to Macklin these groups have rights solely in virtue of the fact that they are sentient. And, as it turns out, sentience is sufficient for rights, but it is also a necessary condition. So, concedes Macklin, there is a slight asymmetry between rights and duties, but nothing to be worried about as these two still go together in the case at hand.

Assuming that her argument was successful, she concludes that future people cannot have strict rights, but might still be subject to our moral consideration. She says that under a utilitarian type calculus the overall balance of pleasure over pain would take future people into account, so we can give future people some consideration without giving them the strong protection of absolute rights.


The first point of criticism is that the utilitarian calculus might be subject to the same problem as the one she identified for rights (Parfit calls this the non-identity problem). As she said in a footnote, she wants to work within the same framework that Parfit described, so she is certainly aware of the non-identity problem. The problem is that when we speak of maximizing the good, while there aren’t any explicit constraints on how far we can calculate into the future, it seems to me that the calculus could conceivably be restricted to existent sentient beings. I’m not confident on this criticism, and I don’t know what modern scholarship on the non-identity problem says, so I leave this as an open criticism for the moment.

The second point of criticism is against her approach in distinguishing between rights and lesser (utilitarian) morality. In addition to the problem I described above, we might wonder what rights are supposed to do in the context of justice and human rights in general. For instance, we might reject all rights as just a veiled way of saying that ‘such and such judgments of morality are so central to our thought that we give them the name rights’. If that is the case then we might be able to expand ‘rights’ to anything we find central to morality. In other words, describing rights as ontological entities that only living beings can have is a rather limited view of rights.