We know that our actions are bound to affect the wellbeing of future persons, both positively and negatively. For some of our actions we may know or we can more or less confidently predict what the effects will be. In that case, it’s relatively uncontroversial to state that we have a moral obligation to refrain from actions that are likely to harm future persons when we can foresee and avoid such possible harm. Future persons are on a par with existing persons, they are no less valuable and have the same moral status. Their rights aren’t less important than the rights of living persons.
“Future persons” includes persons’ futures. We should also avoid actions that may not harm persons now but may harm them later in their lives.
When we don’t know what will be the likely consequences of our actions on future persons or persons’ futures, we can’t be held morally responsible for these consequences, since we can’t choose other actions (or choose not to perform certain actions) as a way to avoid these consequences.
So far so good, although some of you may already object here. But bear with me, arguendo. What if we must choose between harming a future person and a person’s future? For instance, suppose we have to choose between closing a polluting factory and laying off the workers – thereby making it more likely that they end up in poverty – and protecting the environmental wellbeing of future persons? (And suppose also that there’s no third option that avoids harming anyone).
There’s obviously a large number of morally defensible ways of reacting to such a dilemma. I just mention three:
- The rights and wellbeing of existing persons always have priority over the rights and wellbeing of future persons (inter alia because something might happen that results in the non-existence of these future persons – e.g. the Apocalypse happens tomorrow – so we run the risk of sacrificing the rights of existing persons for the benefit of nobody).
- If the future persons affected are more numerous than the existing persons, or if the harm done to future persons if more severe than the harm done to existing persons, then the future persons have priority.
- The rights and wellbeing of future persons always have priority over the rights and wellbeing of existing persons since the former are by nature more numerous (their number is potentially infinite).
More moral dilemmas (which are still open to votes by the way).