Do We Have Moral Obligations to Future Generations?

There’s a thought I’ve mulled over now and again for some time and I wondered what anyone else might think about this issue. What better time to write on it than “Back to the Future Day”— the day in the future that Marty McFly went to in the movie Back to the Future II. (I realize that “Back to the Future Day” is Oct. 21, 2015 and that I’m posting this on Oct. 20, 2015, but (perhaps ironically to some) I’m anticipating what my writing today might have on the readers tomorrow.) 

By way of background, anyone who listens closely enough to conversations among the faculty at Southern Evangelical Seminary will quickly realize that we’re unashamedly philosophically partisan Thomists (though, also unashamedly, our theology is Evangelical and not Roman Catholic). To be a Thomist means that we agree with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (who was himself a follower (with certain qualifications) of the philosophy of Aristotle). What is more, our Thomistic perspective seemingly is shared by very few in our culture, even among philosophers.

Given this, certain current concerns in our culture strike me as curious if not incoherent. There seems to be a wide-spread mind set in our culture that our current actions (collectively if not individually) should take into consideration the impact those actions might have on future generations. How often have you heard the refrains regarding current US economic policies vis-à-vis the national deficit and debt that “we’re borrowing from the future,” and thus, “placing a financial burden on our grandchildren”? One also hears the prophets of doom sounding the warnings of climate catastrophe in the not-too-distant future due largely to current behavioral and governmental policies that are failing to attend to our lack of restraint regarding human beings’ impact upon the climate. These concerns rise above a mere practical matter and take on a moral mandate.

My question is this. Since future generations (beyond the children who are alive now) don’t have any existence or reality in any sense of the terms, that is, according to the metaphysics (or lack thereof) of most of the people I have run into who sound these alarms, then how is it that we can have a moral obligation to them? The next time I have an opportunity to engage someone who is concerned about how our current actions are leading to climate change or economic collapse and, thus, are threatening our great-grandchildren, I want to ask “how many great-grandchildren do you have?” If they say they have none, then my question is “how can you have any moral obligation to something that doesn’t exist” in any sense of ‘exist’ according to your metaphysics?

It makes perfect sense according to the metaphysics of Aristotle (and, thus, according to Thomism) that one might have some moral obligations to future generations that do not exist. This is because in Aristotle, there is a middle ground between the real, actual, full existence of a thing and the complete non-existence. That middle ground is the potential existence of something that resides within a thing that actually exists. Potency, for Aristotle and Aquinas, has some amount of reality. To illustrate, consider the fact that I am sitting while typing this blog entry. (I’m using an example of an action rather than a substance, but the point applies to both, mutatis mutandis.) Even though I am not actually standing, there is in me the potency (or potential or capacity) to stand. Thus, while the standing in me is not fully real, it is potentially real. Now compare the “not standing” in me with the “not standing” in a rock. Both I and the rock are not standing. But the “not standing” in me is something real in me that is not real in the rock (even though, at one level, they look like the same thing, viz., a “not standing”). This line of thinking is related to the (perhaps more familiar) discussion about evil as a privation. When a human cannot see, we recognize that as a privation because, by virtue of being a human, one “ought” to see. But we do not consider the rock that also cannot see as being blind. This is because it is not of the nature of a rock to see. It does not have any potency to see. Instead, its lack of seeing is a negation. But the human has the potency to see and when that potency is not actualized (by, for example, some defect in the body) then we call this a privation. So we understand that the “not seeing” in the blind human (a privation) is different than the “not seeing” in the rock (a negation).

Now, I’m not here insisting that, because I am a Thomist and because my metaphysics can make sense out of claims of moral obligations to future generations, that such moral obligations actually obtain. It is not the case that I am morally obligated to something merely because it potentially (or even fully) exists. But it would seem to me that some modicum of existence is a necessary condition for a thing in order for it to be possible to have any moral obligation to it.

With all this, I would love it if people’s moral “intuitions” told them that it is possible to have certain moral obligations to future generations and that, further, they would come to believe that the metaphysics of Aristotle was the philosophical model that could render coherent such moral obligations. By taking his metaphysics and supplementing it with Aquinas’s metaphysical innovations (specifically, Aquinas’s notion of existence together with his notion of the essence/existence distinction) one can construct a demonstration of the existence and certain attributes of the God of Christianity. I’ll leave to someone else or some other time to explore whether the current allergy to Aristotle or Aquinas (if, indeed, there is such an allergy) is motivated by a concomitant allergy to such a demonstration.

One comment on “Do We Have Moral Obligations to Future Generations?

  1. Del Potter says:

    Dr. Howe,
    Grace and peace to you! Excellent article as I believe scripture leaves little doubt that we are obligated morally to future generations especially in light of scripture:

    “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing (James 3:8-10)”.

    Cause and effect here for we are accountable by what we say and how we (morally) say it! Jesus quite clearly says “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean (Matt. 15:11).”

    Now, obviously this answer gives an apology on how we are verbally obligated to say what is morally right. However, I also believe this gives us a reference point to bring into the discussion that because we are created in the image of God (past), there is potency implicit in man (present) to uphold God’s moral law (future) for He, being the moral lawgiver, has placed His eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11)! Blessing 2 U! Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

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