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.


Must Theories of Justice Confer Rights?

In his paper, “The Impossibility of a Theory of Intergenerational Justice,” Wilfred Beckerman argues that it is incoherent to speak of intergenerational justice because future generations cannot hold rights. His argument is fairly simple:

  1. “Future generations – of unborn people – cannot be said to have any rights.” (53)
  2. “Any coherent theory of justice implies conferring rights on people. (54)
  3. “Therefore, (3) the interests of future generations cannot be protected or promoted within the framework of any theory of justice.” (54)

Of the two, I think that he has the least difficulties defending the first premise. To have a right in the normal sense of the term ‘to have’ you must exist. He says, as an example, that if he were to describe to us how his friend X has a fantastic music collection, and we were to ask who X is, and he replies that there is no X, we would rightly think that he is crazy or is talking nonsense. It does not make sense to us to talk of something that X has if X does not exist. (55)

A further difficulty when speaking of future rights holders is that the right which they have must be something we can satisfy. If my collection of rare and one of a kind stamps were destroyed in a fire, it is meaningless to say that I have a right to have my collection restored. As Beckerman says, ‘ought implies can’, meaning that I can only have a right to something if that thing is possible for someone to fulfill.

The second premise is much more difficult to defend since it is necessary to show that there are no theories of justice which do not confer rights on people. Or to clarify, if there is a single theory of justice which does not confer rights on people then his second premise is false. This is important for his argument since his aim is to not only show that future people cannot be rights holders, which has already been argued by many people before him, but the stronger claim that justice does not apply to future people.

His argument is difficult to decipher from his paper, but I think it can be summarized as follows:

  1. The well-known theories of justice in the literature focus on the distribution of something. For instance, Rawls defines justice as the way in which fundamental rights and duties are distributed.
  2. In an article written by Vlastos, he defines the main theories of distributive justice by the way they finish the sentence ‘to each according to his…’ where the various theories will fill in the sentence according to the good distributed (hard work, need, worth, etc.).
  3. Any theory which can be defined as above can be rewritten to say ‘everybody has a right to…’. So if we said ‘to each according to his needs’ we can rewrite this as ‘everybody has a right to what he needs’, and so on.
  4. Therefore, “a defining feature of any coherent and morally acceptable candidate for a theory of justice is that it attributes rights(and hence counterpart duties).” (64)

The first thing to note in premises (1) and (2) is that they add nothing in their present form to the logic of the argument. For (1), merely having an example of a theory or set of theories which confer rights does nothing to show that all theories of justice confer rights. For this reason premise (1) should be excluded from the argument. The claim in premise (2) is a bit more complicated, since Beckerman’s point is that even theories which do not explicitly use rights language can be rewritten in terms of rights. The first thing to note about his argument here is that premise (2) refers directly to distributive justice rather than justice on its own. It may very well be the case that all theories of justice can be interpreted as forms of distributive justice, and therefore rewritten in terms of rights, but that point needs to be argued.

Suppose that we subscribe to some form of justice which says that justice is acting virtuously in public life. In order to outline this as a form of distributive justice we might say that the good being distributed is honour, so that the sentence from above is ‘to each according to his virtue’, and ‘everyone has a right to honour’. But, as might be seen, to say that virtuous people have a right to honour goes against the common notion of what honour is supposed to be. As soon as you treat it as the sort of thing which can be claimed or justly distributed you destroy part of its character. To use an example from Plato’s Republic, he thought that the perfectly just person would be seen as completely unjust (and therefore lacking honour), whereas the perfectly unjust person would be seen as perfectly just. Even if we were to concede that our system of honour ought to be distributed according to virtue, it seems contrary to the theory to say that we have a right to honour.

This example also attacks the third premise on the basis that even if a theory can be outlined using the statement ‘to each according to his…’, that does not necessarily mean that it can be understood as conferring a right to something.

To put my criticism of his argument into a simple term (or terms), on the first he is equivocating the terms distributive justice with justice since there could be theories of justice which cannot be written in the form of ‘to each according to his…’. While my second criticism is that he provides no clear reason why all sentences of the above form can be rewritten as a right. He says in defence that “[i]t is obvious that all such principles of justice imply certain rights.” (63) He then goes on to list examples of the well-known theories. My argument is that (2) does not imply (3) in all cases, his premise is not obviously true.

Of course this does not mean, even if his argument is successful, that we do not have any duties to future people. Beckerman says that most of the rights we are concerned with for future people are of the type that are called claim rights, using Hohfeld’s terminology. (56) A claim right is a type of right which has a corresponding obligation tied to it. So if I have a right to clean air, then there must be someone who has a corresponding duty to provide clean air (whether this be some individual or the government). While claim rights have corresponding obligations, rights are not the only way to derive obligations. As an example, Beckerman says that if your neighbour’s house is on fire, you may have an obligation to let your neighbour use your phone without admitting that they have a right to do so.

So, for future people we may still have moral obligations to provide consideration for them without that consideration being a requirement of justice or a right. So not only is it impossible for future people to hold rights, and also impossible for them to be subjects of justice, but (luckily) it is not necessary for them to be so. Many theorists seem to think that our obligations are exhausted by obligations of justice tied to rights, but that leaves out an entire set of obligations.

On this point I agree with Beckerman. For most issues it should be possible for our normal system of moral obligations to deal with issues which arise in the intergenerational sphere. But to reiterate, I do not think that he has given us an argument sufficient to show that intergenerational justice is always an incoherent term.


Beckerman, Wilfred. “The Impossibility of a Theory of Intergenerational Justice.” In Handbook of Intergenerational Justice, edited by Jörg Tremmel, 53-71. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006.

Vlastos, Gregory. “Justice and Equality.” In Theories of Rights, edited by Jeremy Waldron, ch.2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984 [originally published 1962].

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.