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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Intergenerational Discounting

Generational burdens
There is one ethical issue that has always fascinated me since I was an undergraduate philosophy student, and which still perplexes me today. It is the problem of intergenerational justice, of what duties one generation may owe to another.

I was recently brought back to it by an odd letter I read written from Thomas Jefferson in Paris, to James Madison in America, dated 6 September 1789. In it Jefferson writes:

“The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.”

Jefferson intended this to mean that future generations ought not to be beholden, indebted, or enslaved to past generations. It was, therefore, an anti-conservative argument. Each generation has the absolute right to forge its own path unencumbered by the past. Notable in Jefferson’s formulation of intergenerational justice is his concentration on what future generations owe past generations. In his opinion, they owe very little. It is this repudiation of regard for the past that makes his argument essentially anti-conservative (but more on this later).

However, in our times, and especially in the shadow of environmental degradation and resource scarcity, the concern more commonly points in the other direction, towards what the present generation owes future generations. For example, you don’t have to be a hard core environmentalist to be of the opinion that we owe certain duties of resource stewardship to future generations.

Libertarians, at least in the popular mind, are typically not thought of as environmentalists. And they certainly can’t be accused of believing that the earth’s resources are the inheritance of all, to be held in common ownership. And yet, sound arguments can be made even on a libertarian basis for claims of intergenerational justice. To take one example, John Locke, whom Robert Nozick acknowledged a large debt in devising his own theory of property, held that appropriation of land and resources for private use in the state of nature was justified only so long as “enough, and as good” was left over for others. Nozick called this the “Lockean Proviso”. When you stop to think about it, this would be a pretty stringent requirement were it to be taken seriously. And while Locke was concerned with leaving enough for those currently sharing the planet with us, the argument can easily be extended ― nay, likely requires extension ― to those yet unborn. Furthermore, claims of intergenerational justice are often at the heart of libertarian arguments against public debt and fiscal irresponsibility.

So socialists, environmentalists, and libertarians all have reasons for paying some moral concern to future generations. However, we mustn’t leave conservatives off this list, for they too have their own peculiar concern for the future. For conservatives, in addition to whatever rights future generations may have to wealth, resources, and a clean environment, they also have a right to the less tangible but no less real treasure of our shared cultural heritage. According to conservatives, the present generation has the duty to pass on their knowledge, wisdom, culture, and institutions intact to future generations.

Overall then, it is very hard to find a reputable writer who denies claims of intergenerational justice altogether. Even Jefferson’s argument, that future generations owe past generations nothing, still implies a duty of the living to not hinder the freedom of those yet to be born. And such freedom may very well require that those future generations be left with the material preconditions for exercising that freedom, in the form of some fair share of the world’s resources. This, incidentally, was why Jefferson backed legal reforms barring practices like primogeniture and entails: the former tended to engross too much land in the hands of a few, while the latter quite literally gave the dead power over the land of the living for generations. It also partly explains his suspicion of corporations, and other forms of mortmain ownership.

Here is a side question: What would it mean for future generations to owe duties to past generations? Conservatives have answers to this question. Such duties might include honoring the last wills and testaments of the deceased, seeing to their burial and that their graves and monuments are maintained, their memories honoured, their traditions respected, their cultural inheritance to us preserved and passed on to future generations in turn.

It must be admitted that some of these duties are metaphysically problematic, at least insofar as they leave unexplained how it is that one can owe duties to beings that do not exist (because they are dead). Notice too that the metaphysical problem also runs in the other temporal direction: How one can owe duties to beings that do not exist because they are yet unborn, and may never be born?

In any case, many of these conservative intergenerational duties would presumably be anathema to Jefferson, which is why I characterized his position as anti-conservative. On the other hand, Jefferson left a will when he died, so he couldn’t have taken his own ideas too seriously.

What Duties? And How Extensive?

To reiterate, nobody seems to doubt that present generations owe at least some duties to future ones. So the real argument is over what precisely those duties are and how far they extend.

Whether the issue is the environment, resource scarcity, public debt, or wealth redistribution, we can give at least a partial answer to the question of what duties we owe to future generations by subsuming them under one very general duty, which we can call a duty of preservation. From the exploration thus far, I conclude that all the concerns brought up by the various approaches to political philosophy seem to centre on this duty of preservation. They mainly differ on what exactly is to be preserved, or where they believe more than one is to be preserved, they may disagree on which is to be given relative priority. None of this is to say that there aren’t other possible duties owed to future generations that can’t be so easily subsumed under the concept of preservation, but I’m confident that preservation covers most of them.

(Note that even Jefferson’s argument can be framed in terms of a duty of preservation, in this case a duty to preserve the freedom and autonomy of future generations by not saddling them with debts, entails, or economic externalities brought about by our exercise of freedom and autonomy. In which case, it might be tempting to view freedom as a kind of resource, which can be over-exploited, leaving not as much or as good for future generations. The liberty-as-resource analogy should be taken seriously if liberty rests upon a material foundation, requiring adequate access to resources to be meaningfully exercised. Let libertarians chew on that one for awhile.)

Stoicism and Degrees of Concern

The other question remains, of how extensive the duties to future generations are. We can visualize this by thinking in personal rather than temporal terms. I owe duties to some existing persons based on the kind of relationship I have with them. For example, parents owe special duties to their children, public officials owe certain duties to their constituents, and doctors owe certain duties to their patients. This type of role-dependent duty was described in Cicero, De Officiis.

In addition, the Stoics believed that there are duties that we owe to all people, though in varying degrees based on their nearness or relatedness to us. This was the view of Hierocles, the second century BC Stoic philosopher, as preserved by Stobaeus (Florilegium 4.671). Hierocles imagined the self of the moral agent as a series of concentric circles emanating from a central point. Should I help people in distress? Generally, yes. How much should I be expected to sacrifice to help them? Well, if they are my children, I am rightly expected to sacrifice nearly everything. If they are friends, then maybe almost as much. If they are my countrymen, a little less. And if they are total strangers, then maybe I should donate some money to a relevant charity. As one moves from the inner to the outer circles of selfhood, moral ties become less strong and duties less demanding. We are never absolved of all responsibility for those outer circles of concern, Hierocles held that one of the objectives of Stoic ethics was to exercise one’s character and moral powers in such a way as to draw those outer circles inward as much as we can. The Stoics called this process οικείωσις, often translated as “appropriation” but which I prefer to call “integration”. The end result of οικείωσις is a sort of oneness with the universe, which is the essence of Stoic cosmopolitanism, or citizenship in the universal city (the “cosmopolis”). While it is natural to feel more concern for that which is near to us, it is also healthy to extend that sphere of concern, to grow the self in accordance with one’s realization of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything.

Considerations of intergenerational justice add a temporal dimension to the Stoic cosmopolis, extending it immeasurably. And just as there may be varying degrees of concern for our fellow existing human beings based on their nearness to us, so too there may be varying degrees of concern for future generations based on similar considerations of relatedness, as well as on their proximity to us in time. We tend to have more concern for those generations immediately following us that for those living five hundred or a thousand years from now, and more concern for our unborn children and grandchildren than for our unborn great-great-great-grandchildren or for the unborn grandchildren of others.

But again, we are led to the question already posed: How far should we be extending our concern into the future? The problem here is obvious: Given the limitless number of future people and generations we could end up owing duties to, might we be required to sacrifice so much for future people that we neglect our own wants and needs? Just imagine having to give money to the outstretched hands of an infinite number of panhandlers. That’s what we’re faced with when we talk about the wants of future generations. Obviously a line must be drawn somewhere.

Applying Intergenerational Justice

In case you think talking about duties to people living a millennium from now is purely abstract metaphysical speculation, reflect for a moment upon the very real decisions that have had to be made in Canada regarding the management and disposal of nuclear waste. How much money are we willing to spend to dispose of dangerous radioactive materials that will still be capable of causing mass death and destruction hundreds or thousands of years from now? After many years of discussion and consultation, apparently the Government of Canada is willing to spend several billion dollars. The waste will be buried deep underground in bedrock somewhere, in a secure facility.

The exact site has yet to be decided on, and will only be chosen after extensive consultation with the various stakeholders, after which it will be constructed somewhere that will inevitable please nobody, since I imagine nobody will want it anywhere near where they live. Given that they settled on this plan almost four years ago and still haven’t decided on a place for it, I suspect that consultations are not going well. This is probably why the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is trying to spin this as an opportunity for economic development for the host community. To quote their website:

“A centre of expertise for technical, environmental and community studies will be created at or near the site. It will become a hub for national and international scientific collaboration. This multi-billion-dollar project will generate thousands of jobs in a host region and hundreds of jobs in a host community for many decades. It will be implemented through a long-term partnership involving the community, the larger region in which it is located and the NWMO, in a way that fosters the long-term well-being of the community.”

This is truly impressive alchemy, for instead of base metal being turned into gold, a toxic waste dump will become a “centre of expertise”. Sexy stuff, no? Who wouldn’t want a “centre of expertise” to be located in their town? Seriously though, why doesn’t the NWMO simply approach a suitable community and offer its citizens a large cash bribe, instead of spinning this complicated web of high-tech fantasy?

And of course, more to our point, this plan is predicated on the assumption that there will still be nuclear expertise, or people, or a civilization able to administer this facility a thousand years from now. Perhaps it should be turned over to an organization like the Catholic Church, which has an impressive track record of being able to perpetuate itself throughout such a timeframe.

On the other hand, if nobody wants the waste, or is willing or able to do what is necessary to protect future generations from being saddled with the very onerous and dangerous externality that is nuclear waste, then perhaps producing it in the first place is unethical.

Returning to the issue of intergenerational justice, the issue of nuclear waste disposal leads us to the need to figure out how important it is to us, in dollar terms, that in the year 2300 the local warlord of the breakaway Republic of Moose Factory is not able to dig up and weaponize our spent nuclear fuel rods.

Schelling on Intergenerational Discounting

In the remainder of this post I would like to consider one argument that has been offered for limiting rather than extending the sphere of concern for future generations. The argument was presented by Thomas Schelling, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Economics, in a paper entitled “Intergenerational Discounting” (Energy Policy 23 (1995), 395-401). It is offered as a contribution to environment and resource economics. I think it is a flawed argument, but it’s usually very flawed arguments that are the most instructive.

To begin, Schelling points to what he takes to be a relevant analogy between future generations and different cultures or nations. We naturally discount the suffering of others when they are geographically or culturally distant from us, a phenomenon which manifests itself in how little we give in foreign aid to other nations. In a similar way, we discount the well-being of generations the more distant they are from us in time.

This is correct as far as I can see; we do in fact behave in these ways, and there does seem to be a relevant similarity between the way we treat other nations and the way we treat future generations. However, to say that we in fact do this is not to say that we should do this, or that it is rational or moral to do it. We might after all be wrong to do it.

However, Schelling’s argument does not rely on this analogy alone. He also claims that, extrapolating from past trends, each future generation can expect to be wealthier than the one before it. Since generations are like other nations, and since we are justified in not giving foreign aid to nations that are well off, we are also justified in sacrificing little for future generations who will be wealthier than we are. And since wealth is a function of increasing futurity, very distant future generations are owed less by us than more proximal generations are.

In criticizing this argument, I will not go after what I take to be the low-hanging fruit, namely Schelling’s quite dubious claim that we are warranted in assuming that each successive generation will be wealthier than the one that went before. The claim is weak at best. I have a different objection to his argument, which turns on a significant disanalogy between generations and nations.

What exactly might Schelling mean when he claims that our generation does not owe a future (wealthier) generation anything? The only plausible interpretation I can come up with is that he means we are entitled to take a bit more than our “fair share” of the world’s resources for our present consumption (or to generate more than our “fair share” of pollution, which is much the same thing). But what is our “fair share”? Perhaps it means something like the Lockean Proviso, leaving “as much and as good” for future generations. If a future generation is wealthier than we are, then other things being equal, this would imply that we have actually left more and better to future generations, in which case, we are entitled to increase our consumption up to that fair share. At least, that is the most plausible way of interpreting Schelling’s argument. In other words, the argument seems to justify the drawing down of resources (up to some undetermined amount) from future generations to use now.

Now, here is where the disanalogy I spoke of comes in. Whereas we may have a moral duty to transfer some quantity of wealth to poor nations, poor nations have absolutely no right to simply take that quantity (or any quantity) of wealth from us. To use philosopher’s jargon, the duty here is an imperfect one, a duty without a corresponding right. If we were to take his analogy seriously, Schelling seems to say that we are entitled to take wealth away from future generations. But poor nations are not allowed to do this to rich nations.

What’s worse, future generations don’t get a say in how much wealth they will have taken from them. Returning to Schelling’s analogy, it would be as if Burkina Faso were to be made the ultimate judge of how much foreign aid it should receive from the US, and were then permitted to simply take it. This could be described as taxation without representation. It could alternatively be described as a form of robbery. And robbing from the (supposedly) rich is still robbery.

There are other things wrong with Schelling’s argument besides the false analogy. For example, let us grant the dubious premise that each generation is wealthier than the one that went before it, along with his nations/generations analogy. Now, Schelling frames his argument in terms of what we owe to future generations (very little, he says). But isn’t he actually more concerned with what future generations owe us? He is saying that since our generation is like a poor country requiring foreign aid, we are justified in drawing down more resources to even out the wealth imbalance (which I’ve shown to be a non sequitur anyway). If so, then how much can we take? Well, I suppose we could take an amount not exceeding what would make that future generation no wealthier than we are. We cannot make them poorer than us, but otherwise, anything is fair game.

Furthermore, according to this logic, not only are we permitted to draw down resources from that distant generation, but by the same logic every intervening generation can draw down from them too. And, being the first generation in line, we are in the unique and fortunate position of seemingly being permitted to draw down some amount of wealth from each and every generation that will follow us for our current consumption. And each following generation would be able to draw down from those generations following them… and so on. This would make us very prosperous indeed. But pity the poor generation who is last in line! This would obviously be a very unfair way of arranging things.

Instead, perhaps we could arrange all this intergenerational drawing down in such a way that each generation draws down just enough so that the end result would be a smoothing-out of inequalities between the generations, with no generation any wealthier or poorer than its predecessors or successors. In other words, read this way, Schelling’s argument would justify putting a halt to material progress, which I doubt very much was his original intention. Future generations might rightly complain that we have unjustly held them back, given that the status quo would have left them wealthier. And again, this is done without their having a say in the arrangement.

Also, isn’t there something ugly in the notion that it is somehow illicit for a generation to hope to do better than its ancestors, and that they ought therefore to be effectively taxed to pay for present consumption? This begins to sound less like intergenerational justice and more like intergenerational theft. Schelling seems to treat future generations as a source of present revenue, or as a goose to be squeezed for its golden eggs.

Two Alternatives

I believe there are at least two alternative approaches to intergenerational justice that make more sense than Schelling’s, and they may even complement each other. One involves redefining what we mean by “wealth”. Schelling and other economists often treat such wealth as if it’s purely resource-based and zero-sum: I am wealthier the more oil, gas, or food I have available for present consumption. And since these are more or less finite, the more wealthy in this sense that I am, the poorer future generations must be.

But what if it were the case that the present generation’s consumption of resources can subsidize advances in knowledge and technology that can increase the wealth of future generations? In such a scheme, the wealth of future generations is tied to our prosperity. This makes more sense even on Schelling’s own view: How else can we account for his odd assumption that future generations will be wealthier than ours? If all wealth boiled down to resources, and resources are more or less fixed, then if a generation is wealthier than us, this can only mean they are using more than their fair share. It also means that sooner or later, there must be a generation that will be poorer than the one that went before.

The second alternative involves spreading the intergenerational obligations around. Let’s imagine that there are three successive generations: Generation X (which is us), Generation Y, and Generation Z. Arguments about intergenerational justice seem too focused on what Gen X owes to Gen Y and Gen Z. But we must also take into account that by the logic of intergenerational justice, Gen Y also owes duties to Gen Z. Since there are effectively two generations (X and Y) looking out for Gen Z, then the burden can be divided between them and the obligation is to that extent diffused. And the greater the number of generations intervening between Gen X and Gen Z, the more Gen X’s obligation to Gen Z is diffused.

There are two advantages to this latter approach. First, it provides some rationale for why it is that we feel a greater obligation to generations closer to us in time than to those far off in the future: those far-future generations have others to look out for their interests (so long, at least, as the generations in between live up to their obligations), so that we can focus on those immediately following us. Second, it puts reasonable constraints on what we can be expected to sacrifice for future generations. If we bank on there being an infinite (or at least indeterminate) number of future generations, and if we had to share fairly with all of them, then our “fair share” of present resources would be correspondingly infinitesimal (or indeterminately small). We wouldn’t be entitled to enough to live on, which seems absurd.

It is an unrealistic burden to be expected to care for every generation that will ever come after us from now into the indefinite future. To return to Schelling’s foreign aid analogy, we don’t calculate how much aid we should give to poor countries on the assumption that we will be the only ones giving, because, after all, we are not the only ones with a duty to give.


  1. I'm intrigued by your notion of putting the Catholic Church in charge of nuclear waste. Bring on the three-eyed popes!

  2. It wouldn't be a mutant -- it would be a new kind of SuperPope (Simpsons allusion).

  3. The whole notion has quite unexpectedly dredged up thoughts of this novel, which I read decades ago.