Further to the earlier post about ethics and future generations, this post from last year over at Worldchanging.com tries to establish that future generations have rights which might be legally defensible in the present.

Think of this example: If someone set a bomb to go off in a public square 100 years from now, is he committing a crime? Should he be stopped? Almost everyone would say yes. Should he be tried before a court of law and prevented from doing further harm? Most of us would agree that he should.


One of the commenters on the post suggests that there is a problem with this line of argument:

The reason we can arrest and try someone today for setting bomb that will go off in 100 years is essentially because direct responsibility and intent to do harm, or even by knowable negligence. In the case of climate change, nobody has the intent to do harm. We might have knowable negligence, but then the problem is the lack of direct responsibility. We have collective responsibility. No one person, or select conspirators, cause this to happen.


There are two issues here: one, the lack of direct intent, and also the uncertainty concerning the precise nature of any causal connection between any particular act or series of acts in the present and the future consequences thereof. This latter places in question the whole possibility of a “legal” approach to motivating and enacting responsibility for future generations.

This is because we typically require legal proof (established by judgements about scientific evidence, resulting from appropriate judicial processes) of such causal connection before imputing responsibility to someone. But is this perhaps why motivation to act responsibly in the interest of future people is often lacking? When it comes to thinking about responsibility, have we come to rely on varieties of evidence (such as scientific interpretations of a set of past events, and legal principles) which are simply inappropriate, given the temporal reach of the dangerous actions of which we are now capable? Instead of the legalistic and scientific approach, do we need systems of belief, or social practices and rituals, that can convince us of the existence of such connections? If so, what might these be, and where might they come from?

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