Why are Future Generations Important?
Toby Ord’s book The Precipice is a wonderful introduction to existential risks, and is worth reading for basically anyone interested in Effective Altruism, reducing suffering, or, well, human beings in general. But there is one set of claims that Ord makes that strike me as dubious, and I thought they would be worth writing about. If you don’t know anything about the book or existential risks, maybe check out Scott Alexander’s review of The Precipice first. Or, as a very brief summary, the book is basically making the argument that there are lots of possible threats to the survival of humanity: there could be a pandemic (probably one created by human beings, but possibly a natural one) that could wipe us all out, there could be a nuclear war, and so on. Ord argues that these risks matter, and that human beings aren’t doing enough to reduce and mitigate these risks. So far, so reasonable (more than reasonable, in fact - vitally important!).
But where I’m sceptical about Ord’s book is his reasoning about why future generations matter. Why should we care about people who aren’t currently alive - about preventing their suffering, or about ensuring they exist at all? One argument that Ord makes is that we owe it to our ancestors - the people who came before us didn’t damage the world to the point that it is uninhabitable, and we owe it to them to keep everything running smoothly. Ord writes:
In the months after my daughter was born, the magnitude of everything my parents did for me was fully revealed. I was shocked. I told them; thanked them; apologised for the impossibility of ever repaying them. And they smiled, telling me that this wasn’t how it worked - that one doesn’t repay one’s parents. One passes it on.
Ord goes on to use this as an analogy for our duties to future generations - writing:
Our duties to future generations may thus be grounded in the work our ancestors did for us when we were future generations. So if we drop the baton, succumbing to an existential catastrophe, we would fail our ancestors in a multitude of ways.
Ord makes a separate argument about why we have duties to future generations, which is precisely the opposite of the argument outlined above: he claims that we have duties towards future generations because of the flaws of the past - we need to clear up the pollution caused by human beings, we need to address some of the damage that humans have done to the climate, we need to confront past horrors and genocides by ensuring the flourishing of future humans, and so on.
But I think these arguments are wrong. It is fairly odd to make two somewhat contradictory arguments - we have a duty to future generations because our ancestors left everything in such a good state for us, and that we have a duty to future generations because our ancestors have been so awful that we need to clear up the mess. I guess it sort of resonates with people - Ord’s story about his baby daughter is a common one: parents feel that they need to care for their daughter just as their parents cared for them. And similarly, the adult children of parents who didn’t give them a good childhood often say something like “I’m going to give my child opportunities that I never had - I’m going to end the cycle here”. So people definitely do take both of these views about why they owe their children a good life.
My view is actually that all parents have some responsibility to their children. It isn’t contingent on whether they had good parents or bad parents, or whether they had parents at all! It isn’t contingent on the fact that a parent tacitly agreed to have and look after a child by having sex or not getting an abortion or anything else. The basic reason that parents have a responsibility to their children is a utilitarian one: a parent who neglects or abuses their child will cause their child to suffer, whereas a parent who tries to ensure their child flourishes and succeeds is reducing suffering and increasing happiness. This remains true whether you are the biological parent of your child, whether you adopted your child, or whether you’re just looking after a child for some period of time.
We have a responsibility to prevent the suffering of future generations (and to prevent them from going extinct) for similar utilitarian reasons. Suppose that you discovered that there was some great historical cover-up, and that the oldest person you’ve personally encountered was the first person to ever exist. Would this reduce the importance of preventing the suffering of future generations? The arguments Ord uses suggests that it might - if our responsibility to future generations is contingent on the virtues or flaws of previous generations, our responsibility is surely diminished if those future generations didn’t exist! But I don’t think this should reduce our responsibility - reducing human suffering is an end in and of itself.
In Ord’s defence - I’m not totally convinced that he believes these arguments himself. In his appearance on the 80,000 hours podcast, he gives an overview of why we ought to believe that future generations matter, and goes through arguments from utilitarianism, arguments from deontology, arguments from virtue ethics, arguments from the cosmic significance of complicated life, and so on. My guess is that his view is basically this: Protecting future generations is really important. There are lots of different arguments about why we ought to protect future generations. I’m just going to recite all of them, in the hope that a listener/reader will find at least one persuasive. My view is slightly different - some arguments for caring about future generations are bad. If you take some Burkean view about the importance of ensuring that everything is left in tact for future generations, you’re more likely to only care specifically about the future generations in your country (as they were, on one view, the people who preserved things for you). For Edmund Burke himself, ‘the nation’ was of utmost importance, and he used the same analogy that Ord uses, writing:
Next to the love of parents for their children, the strongest instinct both natural and moral that exists in man is the love of his country.
I don’t want to commit the genetic fallacy here. The argument about protecting future generations because of the actions of previous generations isn’t bad because it’s Burke’s argument. It’s bad because it’s wrong - future generations matter regardless of your ancestors!
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