Do we have obligations for the future? A critical review

Saturday, 13 June 2020 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Adverse impact to the climate/environment is not a sudden disaster. It is already proven that unsustainable resource 

consumption patterns by past generations are the main cause for adverse climate change variations at present. If the 

present generation utilises resources in a disastrous manner like in the past, the future generation will definitely be 

affected by those activities – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


As human beings living on this planet, each has different obligations. It may be either family obligations or the obligations beyond that may be either to the society, the country or to the earth. Therefore, people are legally or voluntarily bonded to various such obligations, strongly interlinking with diversified activities and different attitudes. 

However, obligations to the future generation is somewhat deviated and controversial. The future generations are not belonged to the present. Therefore, especially philosophers have different views and arguments on obligations to the future. However, recognising the real responsibilities of present generation to the future generations and how these obligations transform to the future are necessary.

Considering what obligations we have to the future generation, we need to focus on present and future population and consumption patterns, do we have real responsibilities for the future, what we need to give future generations? 

Obligations to the future

Based on several studies, actions of present generation affect the future generations especially in terms of environment, economic, sustainability and other issues. The Western thinking of obligations to the future is very erudite and has been expanding since the 1970s. 

There are certain views and arguments by various people in terms of obligations for the future, but the core issue pertaining to this is almost similar; that is whether the present generations need to make certain sacrifices for the future generation or whether the present generation has a right to utilise all resources without any obligation to the future generation. At the same time, whether future generations have the right of having adequate resources and a better environment than their previous generations.

Further, basically the perception of ethical obligations to the future generation can be applied in the areas of environment and economic backgrounds. Therefore, it is observed that the present generation has certain responsibilities and obligations to the future generation. However, this matter is subjected to various arguments. 

One philosophical opinion says that obligations for future generations are not clear due to various factors such as the uncertainly of the type of future generation and their interests. It can be explained further in a manner that, since present people will not exist in the future, it’s difficult to talk about the obligations of the present generation to the future after long decades. 

Other philosophical opinion; the “argument of ignorance”, that explains the degree of responsibilities we have for the future generation. It emphasises, since people are not aware of the exact needs of the future generation, we do not need to limit our actual needs for unknown needs of the future generation. 

Within this argument, it is needed to clarify the exact needs of present generation. The basic requirements for the existence of life on earth can be discussed in a broadly scientific manner, however a benign environment including fresh and clean water, air and food can be the most basic primary need for human beings to exist on earth. People can’t restrict breathing fresh air and save it for future generations. By the time the present generation cannot limit required amount of drinking water as it is obviously if somebody argued as a limited factor for the future generation.

In this sense, what the present generation can do is utilise the natural resources in a sustainable manner without wasting and polluting. Then obviously, the future generation will have a benign environment including fresh air, clean water, etc. As to the philosophical argument “the argument of ignorance”, it’s true that the present generation does not scarify their actual needs for the unknown needs of future generation, however they sense that future generations will have the same basic requirements like the present generation and therefore it is worth facilitating them to fulfil their basic requirements. Therefore, the present generation has a certain obligation to prevent environmental pollution and factors related to create adverse climate change variations enabling the future generation to fulfil their basic living needs. 

Some arguments reveal the future generation’s interest will be the spending of better life with minimum requirements such as clean air/water including a less polluted environment. In this context, it is important to discuss conceivable impacts for the future generations in terms of environmental pollution and required to take mitigatory/preventive measures to avoid terrible effects in the future. 

Do we need to pay for future generations?

If people conclude that they have certain responsibilities for future generations, then they need to think about what do have to pay for the future and also from where those responsibilities should be generated.

Considering the question of what the obligations to the future are, according to the concept of maximum happiness of utilitarian philosophers, the present generation needs to maximise the happiness of all people. Within this concept, future generations are also included and people need to take actions to maximise the happiness of future generations as well. 

There are two ways of happiness i.e. total overall happiness and average happiness. For a constant population, when maximising happiness, overall happiness and average happiness remains the same. But with the increasing population, this concept creates issues on maximising the happiness of all.

For an example, if the world has to face a food scarcity, either due to climate change implications or latest pandemic crises, each new born will affect overall happiness and average happiness. Therefore, it is observed that maximising the happiness of all people is not practical at all times, especially with the population growth of the future generation, however it is better to increase the marginal happiness of future generations. Then even in sudden disasters/pandemic situations, it is practicable to maintain marginal happiness. 

Rights of the future people 

The rights of future generation are still in the argument stage. Can non-existent people have rights? Some argue that assigning rights to future generations in terms of a function is more logical than considering directly “the rights of future generations”. 

Within the concept of assigning rights, we can have an option to talk about the rights of the future generation and automatically right function (rights as a function of limiting behaviour of the other person) creates limitations of other person generating certain obligations on him to protect the rights holder’s basic interests. But this concept also moves towards various arguments and finally concluded as the present generation’s responsibility is to provide access to the future generations to equal opportunities, rather than providing specific goods or resources. 

Giving examples to explain this concept, if the present generation utilises natural resources extensively, making less provision for future generations, the present generation needs to owe them by investing in new alternative solutions such as alternative energy resources for future generations, conserve resources by increasing efficiency using technology (eco-efficiency) and also avoiding overpopulation. By investing in new alternative energy resources for future generations, the present generation provides equal opportunities to utilise alternative energy options. At the same time, controlling population by the present generation also provides the future generation access to equal opportunities to use existing energy resources avoiding competition. 

However, rather than depending on various utilitarianism based arguments and concepts, it is widely understood that as humans, the present generation has ethical obligations to the future generation at least to provide them a favourable environment. At this point, it is important to provide clean water, favourable atmosphere and climate, productive lands for agriculture, adequate clean energy, etc. 

Furthermore, there are several arguments regarding future rights of future generations in terms of various ecosystems such as forests, oceans and so on, which are having diversified natural fauna and flora. In this case definitely the future generation might relish these resources as the present people who obtain enormous enjoyment utilising these different natural ecosystems. 

When we consider a virtue-based approach to obligations to future people, we do not ask, “What are the rights of future people?” Instead we ask, “What type of environment do they need to spend a better life?” Using the virtue-based approach, a favourable life for future generation can be created. Based on this concept, it can be considered the life pattern and what sort of people in future and therefore the present generation can develop a better environment for the future without justifying and emphasising their rights, providing them at least the life what we live today.

Further, there is an experiential evidence that people are motivated by a concern for the detached future, but against that some believe that people are motivated greatly by self-interest which known as “psychological egoism”. According to “psychological egoism” because of self-interest, they make benefit for others. Finally, based on several approaches, it is revealed that the present generation tends to think of the future generation and takes opportunities for the benefit of future generations.

In this sense, sustainable development is a good practice for the present generation. By practicing the sustainable development concept generation to generation, future generations will definitely get a better life and the existence of human beings and other living organisms will continue favourably. 

Obligation to future generations based on sustainable development

The term ‘Sustainable Development’ has a significant meaning since it considers the consumption of resources at present, while remaining for the future generation. According to ‘Common Future’ which was published in 1987 by the Brundtiand Commission, sustainable development can simply be defined as the “development of present generation utilising available resources while considering future generations to meet their respective needs”. This definition builds a strong link between two generations i.e. present and future, revealing the obligations towards the future.

In the 1960s, people were concerned about the environment, especially paying more attention to environmental degradation due to extensive increase of the population. In contrast, it was believed that industrial development was the major reason for devastating environmental effects. These arguments created a very important equation i.e. environmental impact is conversely proportionate to population, consumption pattern and affluence and technology. Therefore, it is obvious that intensive population and consumption patterns affect the environment in higher intensity. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic situation is a visible example which has directly affected the lifestyle of all humans around the globe despite their wealth or power, which reopens the people’s eyes to their worst consumption patterns, technology improvements, etc. Another very good example is the consumption of crude oil. When the population increased, consumption of crude oil became higher and it automatically affected the environment/climate patterns. 

This situation can be explained the other way round too. Even if the population remains constant without having a population increase, people can use crude oil in an unsustainable manner. These two incidents gradually transform the climate pattern and make it even worst in the future. Intensive agriculture and different food consumption patterns can be identified as a few other major reasons for environmental pressure. 

The Millennium Ecosystem Survey 2006 revealed that, over the past 50 years, ecosystems faced rapid and intensive changes due to high demand for food, pure water, fuel, forest resources and so forth. These impacts created irreversible losses to life diversity of the earth. The energy sector is responsible for more than a quarter of total GHG emissions. In addition, industries such as cement and iron and steel production have also contributed significantly.

Therefore, adverse impact to the climate/environment is not a sudden disaster. It is already proven that unsustainable resource consumption patterns by past generations are the main cause for adverse climate change variations at present. If the present generation utilises resources in a disastrous manner like in the past, the future generation will definitely be affected by those activities. 

Therefore, sustainable development needs to move away from recent industrialised consumption patterns and needs more efficient and effective use of resources, ensuring long-term productivity, despite arguing about uncertainty of interests and requirements of future generations. 

The whole world should recognise the obligations to future generations and adjust appropriate policies and programs to minimise the adverse impacts on future generations, paying more attention to population, consumption patterns and technology. 

(The writer holds a BSc Degree from the University of Peradeniya, an MSc in Forestry and Environmental Management from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and an MSc in Climate Justice from the UK and is a Deputy Director at the Department of National Planning. The views presented in this article reflect the writer’s own ideas and should not be construed as those of the Government; she can be contacted via