In The Age on Saturday we got a fairly standard critique of the case for addressing the global warming costs faced by future generations. Instead, it was argued, we should concentrate on the economic needs of current people. According to the author, Mirko Bagaric, future generations are non-existent ‘uncertain’ people whereas current people are ‘certain’ people who deserve greater weight in any moral calculus. More certain too than future generations are the 90,000 potential Australian’s consigned to become a bucket of blood by abortionists. Indeed, the abuses of millions of other sentient beings, such as animals slaughtered for food, deserve greater weight than uncertain future people, according to Bagaric.
These are not foolish or naive arguments at all. There is hypocrisy in much of the claimed altruism that pervades modern environmental debates. While many bleat about the need to account for the needs of future generations there is a measure of stinginess in many citizens when it comes to using tax policy as a redistributive tool or for assisting the disadvantaged.
A celebrated proponent of the view that we should place low weight on the welfare of future generations is the philosopher Derek Parfit in his fascinating Reasons and Persons. Parfit’s view is that the course of history determines who gets born since it affects which potential parents actually meet and have children. In addition the precise timing of conception determines the meeting of specific sperm with specific eggs and hence the precise children who are born. Both history and these timing events depend on the resource use levels of current people. If the current generation are not altruistic towards future generations that will determine a sp[ecific identity for their progeny. Were they conservationist the next generation would have a different identity.
Then future persons have a no right to complain about our resource conservation action since they would not have existed if things had been different. Under these circumstances current people should ‘have a party’ with respect to the earth's resources and use them to maximise their utility without concern for other than the current generation. This will optimize current welfare. Of the future generations we should be concerned with those people who actually exist rather than merely potential people. The people who do actually exist in the future will appreciate the fact that current people enjoyed a feast of resources since they would otherwise not have existed at all. Those potential people who might have existed had we employed a different current usage policy are irrelevant in the Parfit calculus.
Many economists I have spoken to reject Parfit-type arguments on the basis of overlapping generations arguments. Simply put our children do not arrive after we die but while we live our lives. For example if people live to age 80 and reproduce at age 25 then current and subsequent generations will overlap by 55 years. One suggestive strand of thinking that followed the Stern Review determines the implication of this view for the weight we should place on the welfare of future generations in terms of discounting. The claim is that social rates of discount are revealed to be low because of the way we do value our own lives and those of our children. John Quiggin has suggested that setting low discount rates makes sense if we attach plausible values to our own lives and the lives of our children at not too distant periods in the future – discounting at only 3 per cent involves attacking a 50% weighting to lives only 16 years in the future – hence the argument goes we should discount at very low rates in order to prevent such absurd undervaluations. This is a plausible argument and, consistent with the Parfit critique it relies only on observations about actual rather than potential people.
This argument appeals to me and resolves the issue of discounting in an intellectually satisfying way. Thus one does not need to think vaguely about duties to future anonymous generations as Parfit and Bagaric do. The hypocrisy of displaying foresight toward future lives but disregarding disadvantage among those currently living still surprises me but presumably reflects our selfish genes. We will incvest huge amounts in ensuring extremely good outcomes for our own children but disregard poverty in our community and around the world. There should be a less selfish balance.