The needs of future generations matter morally and should be taken into consideration when making decisions today.
The idea rests at the center of people’s desire to make the world a better place. The modern focus on climate change echos this concern for future generations, while the Greek proverb “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” is evidence to the fact that this thinking has resonated with people for centuries1.
The rationale is simple. Though people in the future do not yet exist, their needs are still very real and our decisions today have significant consequences for them. The mere fact that these consequences do not occur immediately, or don’t affect a current person, is irrelevant. In essence, we have little reason to treat people of the future in a morally different way2.
It may seem strange to consider the needs of future people, but in fact, we constantly make choices of this sort. People plan for having children, save money for retirement, and work to change their consumption to prevent ecological damage. In each case, people are sacrificing a little on behalf of people who do not exist, and yet these choices feel natural. I think it is important to make the assumptions underlying these choices explicit, so we can better understand how we might help future generations.
Concern for the future may be reasonable and natural, but it’s also a winning strategy in some sense. Societies which abide by a concern for the future easily outperform those which are shortsighted. As time goes on, the civilizations that perform the best will be the ones which most strongly consider their future citizens, and focus on long term growth. Governments already do this to some degree today, and its strange to imagine what a purely shortsighted civilization would look like. A society which truly disregarded future generations would have no children, spend all of their material wealth, and sacrifice everything for a single generation of pure hedonism, collapsing during lifespan of it’s current citizens. Perhaps people of the future will regard our current modes of governance the same way we regard this short-sighted society.
Concern for future generations is unobjectionable, but has some important consequences. As most people recognize, concern for future generations means that it is important to preserve the ecosystem and maintain clean air, clean water, and natural resources. Further, building stable, effective institutions is crucial for giving future people ways to coordinate their activities in a peaceful, prearranged manner. It is perhaps most important to maintain economic growth and innovation in order to grow existing prosperity and propagate it into the future.
- It’s nice that the Greeks were worried about how to make society better for subsequent generations, but could they really have made things much better or worse for me, living centuries later? Today, we cannot comfort ourselves with the thought that our actions might be inconsequential to the future. Ecological damage, existential risk, and the importance of building strong institutions make it clear that the influence of our collective choices can be long lasting, or permanent. These potentialities should raise our concerns for how our choices will affect the future.
- Of course, people in the future have to be treated differently when making decisions due to the fact that we are uncertain about their needs, uncertain if they will exist, and uncertain about the consequences of our actions. This is not a moral distinction between current and future people, but a practical one.