Our responsibility to the future: justice or love?

My latest article, published in Saturday’s EDP:

How ought we to think of our relationship to – our responsibility for – future people? Is this question (a question pressing all the harder in the wake of the recent failure to adequately safeguard those future people, at Copenhagen) essentially a question of justice? The rallying cry at Copenhagen was, “What we do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!” But what if it’snot enough to call for justice?

Let me explain…

Future generations – future people – are collectively our children. We give birth to them. They are even more powerless than the newest new-born baby. They cannot entreat, nor even scream, let alone return our gaze. They are dependent upon us for every aspect of their life-chances. For we cause them of course to come into being; but moreover, and ever-increasingly, we cause their conditions to be what they are, too.

What is fair is decided in a negotiation, or in a court. In the course of the negotiation or case, one deploys principles to make one’s case. These principles, ideally, secure a reasonable agreement. But, there is no fairness, no genuine equity, between two utter unequals. Treating one’s baby merely ‘fairly’ is abominable. Dividing food,warmth or shelter ‘fairly’, in such a circumstance; doing this ought to be a matter of profound shame. Such ‘fairness’ is an invitation to bad faith; because there is no actual ‘contract’ here, no agreement, no negotiation; just whatever you decide ‘is’ fair.

So: fairness is not what is most to the point, here. We need to rely on something stronger.


Well, one must love one’s newborn child. It must be second-nature to treat it as generously as one can. Or, to treat it as not separate from oneself at all.

The very same is true of future people. The analogy is so direct, it is barely worth calling an analogy: future generations are our children. The case is stronger still: if it is true that we must love our new-borns, then it’s even more obvious that we must love our descendants, the future ones. Because they are still more profoundly our dependents (our children) than our own dependents (our children) are, for they are nothing without our love and care. Without that care, they will in many cases not even get the chance to exist…

There is no real chance of our descendants inheriting a planet habitable for civilisation, unless we love them. It is not enough to seek to be fair/just. We are going to have to open our hearts to the people of the future as we open our hearts to a new-born. We are going to actually have to care about them enough, for instance, to be genuinely willing to sacrifice the fripperies that decorate our dwellings, our lives, etc., and which are being produced at the cost of the future. It would be truly terrible not to do this, as (on a business-as-usual model) seems likely.
It may be very demanding, to demand love. It may leave us with little hope that we can do enough. But it’s better to try to do something that would be enough than not even to try.

Let us give our all for our descendants, our collective children. For us not to be myopic, they need to bereal to us. In short: let us love them.

That’s the answer to the question which forms my title. It’s not enough to try to do right by future generations merely by trying to do them justice, or merely to be ‘fair’ to them. We should give up, and admit that we do not love and do not really care, and consign them to their terrible fate – or we should love them.

I recommend the latter course.

One thought on “Our responsibility to the future: justice or love?”

  1. Thanks Rupert – thought provoking.

    I must be a sort of presentist because I’m inclined to think future problems are an extension of current problems, and it’s therefore the current problems that are worth addressing.

    Should we be merely fair? Depends on your definition of fair. Fair to me means agreeable, or at least not worthy of complaint – regardless of what the law is. I disagree that being fair to a child could ever be abominable. The teachers at a school may only be fair to the children – this is certainly not abominable.

    You would have a case were you saying it is unfair for a child to have a parent that does not love it. How unfair depends on the fairness with which the child is treated. Some may think there is moral worth in someone treating children fairly when they do not love them (Kantians).

    The very example of people raising the importance of future persons, and indeed your item, seems to me, to be voicing that certain activities are unfair. As justice is a word for the philosophy of fairness, the matter at hand clearly has issues of justice at heart of it.

    I would go further to say that unlike fairness, love can be a negative thing. Like when love drives people to become overprotective, or obsessional, or to spoil, or not to provide boundaries or structure etc etc.

    Maybe the answer is for people to have a love for fairness (in whatever context), rather than merely a grudging tolerance of it. An open acceptance of fairness. Yet to achieve that, we must improve the philosophy of fairness, and consequently become more just.

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