OCTOBER 9, 2022
GLOBAL WARMING IS ARGUABLY the most important topic in the news right now. Unless we act quickly and decisively, the lives of future generations are sure to be very grim. For this reason, at the very least, Tiziana Andina’s new book, translated by Antonella Emmi, deserves attention. Her blessedly brief and relentlessly lucid account offers a philosophical perspective on our situation. A Philosophy for Future Generations has four parts: an explanation of why the future matters; a survey of the relevant philosophical literature; a constructive analysis of philosophical responses; and, finally, three applications of her analysis.
Most of us believe that global warming is an extremely real problem, and want to do something about it. We believe that we should live responsibly and shouldn’t consume resources at the expense of future generations. That said, as Andina shows in detail, the challenging philosophical task is to justify this eminently plausible thesis. According to traditional “social contract” theories, a just society is based upon a generally accepted agreement. John Rawls’s liberalism, to cite an influential recent development of that theor, argues that under certain circumstances inequalities are justified. But it’s not obvious how this well-entrenched theorizing is to be applied to the problems Andina discusses in her book. Contracts require the agreement of all parties involved. How, then, can a contract be made with people who don’t yet exist? What obligations, she asks, do we have to future generations?
It’s easy to see why the traditional philosophers Andina discusses — Spinoza, Hobbes, and Schopenhauer — didn’t focus on these issues. Only recently has global warming become an important practical issue, so it’s not surprising that novel philosophical theorizing is called for now. People are typically concerned with the welfare of their children, but what’s at stake here is something quite different: the moral concern with the welfare of historically distant people living at some point in the future.
Concern for future generations is not easy to justify. Suppose we recognize that, since the increase in population is one important cause of global warming, we should control birth rates. As a result, a century from now, a relatively small population will have relatively good lives. But, because of our choice, many people who might have lived are not born. And if we hadn’t acted in this way, there would be many people living relatively poorer lives. Making such choices that will affect people yet to be born is tricky. Who are we to choose how they will live or even whether they will live? We may imagine that these future people will think like us, but that seems like highly problematic paternalism. Indeed, suppose someone refuses to adopt a policy that makes life better for future generations. Who are they wronging? No one — not yet. Justice within a society demands recognition of the rights of all. Justice for future generations requires considering the lives of potential people.
Andina offers two responses to these dilemmas. Perhaps, she suggests first, future generations are like fictional literary characters. Just as we can judge the actions of, say, Marcel Proust’s Charles Swann, so too can we moralize about the rights of as-yet-unborn people. But as she herself indicates, that analogy is not very promising. I may admire or detest Swann, but I have no moral obligations towards him, for he exists only in Proust’s novel. Swann will never exist in flesh and blood, but in the future, as-yet-unborn people will eventually exist — in the same way we do. Or at least some of them may exist, depending upon what policies we choose. And so, since our present actions will affect them, we do have a moral concern about the quality of their lives.
Andina’s second response, which appeals to Hegel’s philosophy and John Searle’s notion of collective intentionality, is more favorable. Every rational agent is concerned with their future. We intend that our projects will be accomplished, and that often takes time. And so, what’s required to concern with future generations is to include larger groups in our thinking. When we speak of “our projects,” we should mean the tasks of generations of people. Hegel does this by presenting an intersubjective theory of consciousness. To fully achieve self-awareness, he argues in his Phenomenology of Spirit, I need to be recognized by an Other, by other persons. Searle is similarly interested in intentions that essentially involve groups of people. A sporting team, for example, has a goal which can only be understood in terms of their collective activities. Hegel and Searle are odd bedfellows, but we may plausibly extend their arguments, Andina suggests, to consider not just the Others here-and-now, but also future generations. Full self-awareness requires awareness of our place in a larger story — in history.
In the third chapter (“Metaphysics”), Andina tackles this problem in detail. For much of the time, most people are more concerned with what will happen to them in the immediate future than at more distant times. Indeed, often entire nations are more interested in immediate concerns than in the far future. It’s hard for individuals or groups to reflect on temporally distant concerns. This, after all, is why global warming now attracts so much attention: it’s no longer a distant problem, but a source of disasters right here and now. What’s required, Andina suggests, is that we think of ourselves not as mere individuals, but as members of larger social groupings. If we can do that, then questions about what will happen to the planet long after our death will seem as important to us as short-term calculations. I agree that this is desirable but fear that neither Andina’s appeal to the child’s relation to the mother nor Hegel’s view of agency, nor Kant’s account of sociability, will solve this problem.
Here we see the problem of nationalism writ large. At present, what’s considered in political debate are the concerns of citizens, but not of immigrants or people in other countries. In thinking about transgenerational morality, Andina urges, we need to consider not just people who live elsewhere, but also future generations, for if we ruin the planet, then they will have miserable lives. She argues, following the philosopher Raimo Tuomela, that we sometimes think of collective actions, which essentially involve other people. I agree that sometimes we speak in these terms, as when (to cite her convincing example) in an emergency we act collectively. But I am unconvinced that we can so readily extend discussion to consider what interests her: transgenerational agents, and their actions. It’s one thing to speak of my present community and quite another to identify myself as a member of some such future group of people — especially because, as Andina allows, the features or even the existence of these people may depend in part upon my current actions . Here, as often is the case with philosophical skepticism, there seems to be a gap between what argumentation can prove and what seems intuitively plausible.
The final part of Andina’s book discusses three examples: the Venetian Republic, Italian retirement laws, and environmental futures. Early on, Venice was a successful state because it looked towards the future. Now it is just a tourist center, without any such concern or forward-looking thinking. Venice has survived, although the Venetian Republic has not. However, I’m not sure that the failure of that republic can be entirely traced, as Andina suggests, to internal Venetian political policies; the whole nature of the European states changed.
The case of Italian pensions, judging from Andina’s summary, is more interesting, for it is a story of the short-term reasoning triumph. Just as some Americans want to continue using oil and coal because it is cheaper than alternative energy supplies, so too in 1973 the Italian prime minister Mariano Rumor sponsored unwise pension funding. He sought popularity without regard for the longer-term economic consequences. The problem was that, with lower population growth, paying for retirements placed an unfair burden on the workforce. This affected people of different generations.
What makes Andina’s third, and most important, case — climate change — special is the need to look further into the future. As she notes, while Rumor’s plan was quickly rejected, dealing with global warming requires long-term considerations. We need to consider the lives of our descendants in many decades.
Andina’s admirable book does what philosophy should normally do but rarely does: it presents a serious dilemma, shows why that dilemma matters, and offers some provocative examples. That Andina’s own analysis is not entirely worked out or completely satisfactory is less important. What’s important is that she has gotten a very important discussion going.
David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His In Caravaggio’s Shadow: Naples as a Work of Art is forthcoming.