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National Debt and Longtermism

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On September 23rd, the U.K. Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng outlined an array of tax cuts and other economic measures to jumpstart the economy and tackle the growing cost of living. His hope was that an increase in economic growth would result in a less turbulent recession and, ultimately, an easing of the pressure on household and business finances. However, the markets met the measures with less than favorable responses. Immediately after the announcement, the value of the pound dropped to a near 40-year low, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers remarked that “[t]he UK is behaving a bit like an emerging market turning itself into a submerging market” and that “Britain will be remembered for having pursued the worst macroeconomic policies of any major country in a long time.” Unfortunately, the bad news kept coming as, early on September 26th, the pound plummeted to a record low against the dollar.

Despite the inherent complexities in national and global finances, one of the most significant criticisms against this dramatic shift in financial policy has been a relatively simple question – who will pay for all this? After all, if you want to cut taxes but still provide public services, the money must come from somewhere. For Kwarteng and the U.K. government, the answer is to borrow. But we’re not talking about a small loan. The U.K. government will borrow £72 billion over the next six months alone. This is in addition to the borrowing it had already planned to do.

Of course, if you want to avoid going bankrupt and defaulting on your loans, borrowed money needs to be repaid at some point, alongside interest. This fact is something which the Chancellor has been hesitant to acknowledge, sidestepping the question when he’s asked. Nevertheless, the matter remains – who will have to pay back this money? The answer is future generations.

Money borrowed today will be paid back, in the form of taxes, by those yet to be born. In other words, the U.K. government is trying to solve today’s financial problems by pushing them onto tomorrow’s generation.

To some, this seems exceedingly unfair. After all, those future generations, who are yet to be born, weren’t the ones who borrowed that money. So, why should they be the ones to pay it back? Indeed, those making decisions about national borrowing – the ones in government positions – face no personal repercussions for their borrowing decisions beyond those shared with everyone else. And while they borrow on their nation’s behalf rather than their own, there’s seemingly a disconnect between financial decision-making and the consequences.

So, ultimately, the benefits of borrowing – increased economic activity, better public services, more generous subsidies – are enjoyed by those alive today, while future generations will be stuck with the bill. And, of course, the prospect of borrowing money to make our lives easier and not having to pay back that debt, as it will be someone else’s problem, makes for a mighty tempting offer. James Buchanan, Professor of Economics at Harris University, summarizes this nicely:

the institution of public debt introduces a unique problem that is usually absent with private debt; persons who are decision makers in one period are allowed to impose possible financial losses on persons in future generations. It follows that the institution is liable to abuse this and overextend its borrowing practices.

So far, I’ve painted a picture in which the arguably reckless borrowing exhibited by the U.K.’s newest government does, at minimum, a disservice and, at most, an injustice to future generations. While an intuitively appealing stance, it rests upon a proposition that might be less than well-founded. Do we, or can we, actually owe anything to future generations? If a government or I take action that, theoretically, harms the interests of someone who doesn’t exist yet, have I done something wrong?

According to Oxford Philosopher William MacAskill, the answer is not only that we can owe things to future generations but that our inclination to think in the short-term is one of our most significant moral failings. As he argues in What We Owe the Future, if we’re to draw ethics down to a simple utilitarian numbers game, where the most ethical actions are those bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number, then not only should we take into account the interest of future generations, but those generations outweigh the interests of those alive today. This is because the number of potential persons yet to be born far outweighs the number of people currently alive.

As such, if we’re committed to a utilitarian ethical framework, then it follows that we should sacrifice our well-being and hamper our interests if doing so could bring about a better life for the multitude of future potential people – you are singular, but your descendants are possibly innumerable.

When made explicit, this idea of acting in the best interest of the yet-to-exist at our expense can sound counterintuitive. But, we’re typically intuitively inclined toward such thinking. As MacAskill writes:

Concern for future generations is common sense across diverse intellectual traditions […] When we dispose of radioactive waste, we don’t say, “Who cares if this poisons people centuries from now?”

Similarly, few of us who care about climate change or pollution do so solely for the sake of people alive today. We build museums and parks and bridges that we hope will last for generations; we invest in schools and longterm scientific projects; we preserve paintings, traditions, languages; we protect beautiful places.

As such, it seems, much like with the motivation to curb climate change or refrain from radioactive waste dumping, that making things harder for ourselves today can be justified, even ethically required, if doing so has significant and material benefits for future generations.

The question, then, is whether the extreme measures Kwarteng’s taken will eventually make things better for the U.K. economy, ideally, benefit not only those alive today but the country’s future overall. According to his supporters, the answer is a resounding yes. Unfortunately, it’s coming from too few voices. Ultimately, only time will tell whether the Chancellor’s gamble will pay off. But if it doesn’t, any short-term gains he may have just secured would almost certainly pale compared to the long-term harms he’s potentially unleashed.

Living in the Hinge of History

photograph of telescope pointed above the lights of the city

Consider three things. First: technological development means that there are many more people in the world than there used to be. This means that, if we survive far into the future, the number of future people could be really, really big. Perhaps the overwhelming majority of us have not yet been born.

Second: the future could be really good, or really bad, or a big disappointment. Perhaps our very many descendants will live amazing lives, improved by new technologies, and will ultimately spread throughout the universe. Perhaps they will reengineer nature to end the suffering of wild animals, and do many other impressive things we cannot even imagine now. That would be really good. On the other hand, perhaps some horrific totalitarian government will use new technologies to not only take over humanity, but also ensure that it can never be overthrown. Or perhaps humanity will somehow annihilate itself. Or perhaps some moral catastrophe that is hard to imagine at present will play out: perhaps, say, we will create vast numbers of sentient computer programs, but treat them in ways that cause serious suffering. Those would be really bad. Or, again, perhaps something will happen that causes us to permanently stagnate in some way. That would be a big disappointment. All our future potential would be squandered.

Third: we may be living in a time that is uniquely important in determining which future plays out. That is, we may be living in what the philosopher Derek Parfit called the “hinge of history.” Think, for instance, of the possibility that we will annihilate ourselves. That was not possible until very recently. In a few centuries, it may no longer be possible: perhaps by then we will have begun spreading out among the stars, and will have escaped the danger of being wiped out. So maybe technology raised this threat, and technology will ultimately remove it.

But then we are living in the dangerous middle, and what happens in the comparatively near future may determine whether our story ends here, or instead lasts until the end of the universe.

And the same may be true of other possibilities. Developments in artificial intelligence or in biotechnology, say, may make the future go either very well or very poorly, depending on whether we discover how to safely harness them.

These three propositions, taken together, would seem to imply that how our actions affect the future is extremely morally important. This is a view known as longtermism. The release of a new book on longtermism, What We Owe the Future by Will MacAskill, has resulted in it getting some media coverage.

If we take longtermism seriously, what should we do? It seems that at least some people should work directly on things which increase the chances that the long-term future will be good. For instance, they might work on AI safety or biotech safety, to reduce the chances that these technologies will destroy us and to increase the chances that they will be used in good rather than bad ways. And these people ought to be given some resources to do this. (The organization 80,000 Hours, for example, contains career advice that may be helpful for people looking to do work like this.)

However, there is only so much that can productively be done on these fronts, and some of us do not have the talents to contribute much to them anyway. Accordingly, for many people, the best way to make the long-term future better may be to try to make the world better today.

By spreading good values, building more just societies, and helping people to realize their potential, we may increase the ability of future people to respond appropriately to crises, as well as the probability that they will choose to do so.

To large extent, Peter Singer may be correct in saying that

If we are at the hinge of history, enabling people to escape poverty and get an education is as likely to move things in the right direction as almost anything else we might do; and if we are not at that critical point, it will have been a good thing to do anyway.

This also helps us respond to a common criticism of longtermism, namely, that it might lead to a kind of fanaticism. If the long-term future is so important, it might seem that nothing that happens now matters at all in comparison. Many people would find it troubling if longtermism implies that, say, we should redirect all of our efforts to help the global poor into reducing the chance that a future AI will destroy us, or that terrible atrocities could be justified in the name of making it slightly more likely that we will one day successfully colonize space.

There are real philosophical questions here, including ones related to the nature of our obligations to future generations and our ability to anticipate future outcomes. But if I’m right that in practice, much of what we should do to improve the long-term future aligns with what we should do to improve the world now, our answers to these philosophical questions may not have troubling real-world implications. Indeed, longtermism may well imply that efforts to help the world today are more important than we realized, since they may help, not only people today, but countless people who do not yet exist.

COVID and Climate Change: Taking the Long-Term Seriously

photograph of ripple on lake expanding

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders are assembling in Glasgow for COP26, the UN’s climate change conference. Both the pandemic and global warming are powerful reminders that the choices we make can have consequences that continue to unfurl over decades and centuries. But how much should we care about these hard-to-predict long-term consequences of our actions? According to some, so-called moral “longtermists,” we ought to care a great deal. Others, however, have called longtermism “the world’s most dangerous secular credo.”

COVID, climate change, and the long-term impact of our choices

The coronavirus now appears to be endemic. It is likely to continue to circulate across the globe indefinitely, causing more and more human suffering, economic damage, and disruption to our lives. The total sum of harm an endemic virus can cause is theoretically boundless. And yet, if China had better regulated its meat markets or its bio-labs (depending on your preferred origin theory), it would have likely prevented the outbreak entirely. This failure, in one place at one time, will have significant long-term costs.

The headline ambition of COP26 is for nations to commit to specific plans for achieving net zero (carbon and deforestation) by the middle of the century. Whether or not these talks are successful could have a profound long-term impact. Success could put humanity back onto a sustainable trajectory. We might avoid the worst effects of climate change: biodiversity collapse, flooding, extreme weather, drought, mass famine, mass refugee movements, possible population collapse, etc. Taking effective action on climate change now would provide a huge benefit to our grandchildren.

But the comparison between climate action and inaction does not stop there. As helping our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the benefits of effective climate action now would likely continue to snowball deep into the next century. Instead of our great-grandchildren needing to allocate their resources and efforts on mitigating and reversing the damage of climate change, the twenty-second century might instead be spent in pursuit of other goals — eliminating poverty, making progress on global justice, and deepening our understanding of the universe, for example. Progress on these goals would, presumably, generate their own positive consequences in turn. The good we can achieve with effective climate action now would continue to accumulate indefinitely.

Commitment to taking the long-view

Both COVID and climate change make a strong intuitive case for moral “longtermism.” Longtermists think that how things go in the long-term future is just as valuable, morally speaking, as what happens in the near-term future. If you can either prevent one person from suffering today or two tomorrow, the longtermist says you morally ought to prevent the two from suffering tomorrow. But if you also had the option of preventing three people from suffering in a million years, they say you should do that instead. It doesn’t matter how far events are from us in time; morally, they’re just as significant.

The second part of the longtermist view is that we can influence the long-term future with our choices today. They argue that the long-term future that occurs depends on what humanity does in the next century. And the stakes are high. There are possible futures in which humanity overcomes the challenges we are faced with today: ones in which, over millennia, we populate the galaxy with trillions of wonderful, fulfilled lives. There are also possible futures in which humanity does not even survive this century. There is, in other words, a very valuable possibility — in moral philosopher Toby Ord’s words, a “vast and glorious” version of the future — that’s worth trying to make real.

A catastrophic future for humanity is not a particularly remote possibility. Ord, who studies existential risk, sees the next century as a particularly dangerous one for humanity. The risks that concern him are not just the cosmic ones (meteorites, supernova explosions) or the familiar ones (nuclear war, runaway global warming, a civilization-collapsing pandemic); they also include unintended and unforeseen consequences of quickly evolving fields such as biotech and artificial intelligence. Adding these risks together, he writes, “I put the existential risk this century at around one in six.” Humanity has the same odds of survival as a Russian roulette player.

The cost of failing to prevent an existential catastrophe (and the payoff of success) is incredibly high. If we can reduce the probability of an existential risk occurring (even by a percentage point or two), longtermists claim that any cost-benefit analysis will show it’s worth taking the required action, even if it incurs fairly significant costs; the good future we might save is so incredibly valuable that it easily compensates for those costs.

But, for whatever reason, reducing the probability of improbable catastrophes does not rise to the top of many agendas. Ord notes that the budget of the Biological Weapons Convention, the body that polices bioweapons around the globe, has an annual budget of just $1.6m, less than the average turnover of a McDonald’s restaurant. As Ord explains this strange quirk in our priorities, “Even when experts estimate a significant probability for an unprecedented event, we have great difficulty believing it until we see it.”

Even short of generating or mitigating existential risks, the choices we make have the potential to put the world on different trajectories of radically different value. Our actions today can begin virtuous or vicious cycles that continue to create ever-greater benefits or costs for decades, centuries, or even millennia. So besides thinking about how we might mitigate existential risks, longtermists also claim we need to give more thought to getting onto more positive trajectories. Examples of this kind of opportunity for “trajectory change” include developing the right principles for governing artificial intelligence or, as COP26 is seeking to achieve, enacting national climate policies that will make human civilization ecologically sustainable deep into the future.

Challenges to longtermism

Last week, Phil Torres described longtermism as “the world’s most dangerous secular credo.” A particular worry about longtermism is that it seems to justify just about any action, no matter how monstrous, in the name of protecting long-term value. Torres quotes the statistician Olle Häggström who gives the following illustration:

Imagine a situation where the head of the CIA explains to the U.S. president that they have credible evidence that somewhere in Germany, there is a lunatic who is working on a doomsday weapon and intends to use it to wipe out humanity, and that this lunatic has a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding. They have no further information on the identity or whereabouts of this lunatic. If the president has taken [the longtermist] Bostrom’s argument to heart, and if he knows how to do the arithmetic, he may conclude that it is worthwhile conducting a full-scale nuclear assault on Germany to kill every single person within its borders. 

Longtermism entails that it’s morally permissible, perhaps even morally obligatory, to kill millions of innocent people to prevent a low-probability catastrophic event. But this can’t be right, say the critics; the view must be false.

But does Häggström’s thought experiment really show that longtermism is false? The president launching such a strike would presumably raise the risk of triggering a humanity-destroying global nuclear war. Other countries might lose faith in the judgment of the president and may launch a preventative strike against the U.S. to try to kill this madman before he does to them what he did to Germany. If this probability of catastrophic global nuclear war would be raised by any more than one-in-a-million, then longtermism would advise against the president’s strike on Germany. This is to say that if the president were a longtermist, it’s at least highly debatable whether he would order such an attack.

Of course, we can modify Häggström’s case to eliminate this complication. Imagine the chance of the madman succeeding in blowing up the world is much higher — one-in-two. In such a case, longtermism would likely speak in favor of the president’s nuclear strike to protect valuable possible futures (and the rest of humanity). But it’s also a lot less clear that such an act would be morally wrong compared with Häggström’s original case. It would be terrible, tragic, but perhaps it would not be wrong.

Maybe the real risk of longtermism is not that it gives us the wrong moral answers. Maybe the criticism is based on the fact that humans are flawed. Even if it were true that longtermism would rule out Häggström’s nuclear attack on Germany, the strategy still seems to place us in a much riskier world. Longtermism is an ideology that could theoretically justify terrible, genocidal acts whenever they seem to protect valuable long-term possible futures. And, ultimately, it’s more likely that flawed human minds perform unconscionable acts if they have an ideology like longtermism with which to attempt to justify their actions.

This last criticism does not show that moral longtermism is false, exactly. The criticism is simply that it’s dangerous for us humans to place such immense faith in our ability to anticipate possible futures and weigh competing risks. If the criticism succeeds, a longtermist would be forced to embrace the ironic position that longtermism is true but that we must prevent it from being embraced. Longtermists would have to push the view underground, hiding it from those in power who might make unwise and immoral decisions based on faulty longtermist justifications. Ironically, then, it might be that the best way to protect a “vast and glorious” possible future is to make sure we keep thinking short-term.

Under Discussion: The Marginalization of the Future

photograph of human shadow stretching out over dry lakebed

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

Predictive models projecting the course of global temperature rise and general climate change have been largely accurate. As the anticipated effects have become clearly manifest in weather effects, governments, businesses, and individuals have begun to consider the grim future that awaits. And yet across the world, especially in the United States, many people continue to deny that human action is responsible for climate change. Or, even where people acknowledge the reality of climate change, they do not deign to take action. Frequently this inaction stems from a conflict between the scope of the needed action, and a belief in individualist and free-market ethics.

Proponents of free-market views on economics and ethics argue that what is most efficient or most ethical, respectively, is to allow individuals to negotiate one-on-one exchanges in accordance with their preferences. This is the rationale behind at-will and right-to-work employment laws and the repeal of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, among other things. Anathema to a free market is centrally-coordinated action from strong governments or monopolistic corporations. This is where the reticence of even those who recognize the looming danger of climate change enters. They disagree that either massively and centrally-coordinated actions are necessary or that such action, even if in some sense pressing, is not politically or ethically acceptable.

Why not? What could be unacceptable about massive and centrally-coordinated action? The idea is that such action necessarily tramples on individual preferences. If most individuals want to act on climate change, then they will make deals in the market to affect that change and top-down institutional action will be superfluous and risk creating a tyranny that outlasts the current emergency.

What can easily evade our attention here is what does not get mentioned: nothing is said about the people and creatures that will inherit the world as shaped by our choices. People who do not yet exist do not have preferences and so the free market had no direct mechanism to factor in their interests. This difficulty is highlighted by a constellation of issues known as the non-identity problem, future individual paradox, or intergenerational justice. (Note: intergenerational justice also covers the rights and interests of past and deceased persons.)

The marginalization of future persons within a free-market decision-making structure is a deep-seated, structural problem. A free-market exchange assumes that interested individuals are directly interacting to advocate for their preferences or interacting through an agent who will do so. And future persons are not the only entities marginalized in this way: any lifeforms that cannot secure meaningful advocacy for themselves are effectively marginalized. The forms of racism, misogyny, and other invidious bigotry with which we are all too familiar also operated (partially) through this mechanism. Whereas future persons do not exist to advocate for themselves, oppressed groups have been — and are — deliberately prevented from such advocacy. Like future persons, non-human animals and the inanimate environment are, by the nature of their existence, incapable of advocating for themselves.

But don’t people with the ability to advocate for marginalized entities do so? Can’t that solve the problem? In short, no. In the case of currently existing human beings, there has proven to be no substitute for self-advocacy or advocacy through others who share a meaningfully similar perspective. Hence the importance of historic firsts in political representation, like Kamala HarrisRaphael WarnockDeb HaalandIlhan OmarSarah McBrideRashida Tlaib, and Jon Ossof. However, there is no way to extend the power of political participation to animals, the environment, or future persons.

While there is rhetoric to the effect that we must consider how our actions will affect the world inherited by those that come after us, its reach is often limited and the motivations behind it sometimes suspect. Deficit hawks in U.S. politics wring their hands and rend their garments about the debt we are foisting on our children and grandchildren as a way to avoid spending money on current problems that aren’t in line with their preferences. Many young people are concerned for the world that they will have to live in imminently and seethe at the injustice of having to clean up the mess made by their predecessors. This latter concern is not illegitimate — it simply isn’t the same as concern for people who do not yet exist.

“OK Boomer” and the Generational Divide

photograph of unsmiling girl giving thumbs up

Millennials and members of Generation Z, fed up with condemnatory think-pieces (which deride everything about young people, from their taste for expensive brunch food to their role in the death of the napkin industry), have a new retort to combat dismissive baby boomers. “OK boomer,” a pithy and dismissive response to any patronizing or out-of-touch statement made by an older person, has become common parlance both online and off. The meme started on Twitter sometime in 2018, but it recently garnered attention from mainstream news sources when nineteen year-old college student Peter Kuli released a remix of Jonathan William’s song “OK Boomer,” which mainly consists of Williams repeating the song’s title interspersed with a few lines poking fun at baby boomers, on the social media app Tik Tok. The song includes lyrics like, “You’re all old and racist / All about that fakeness / I’m tryna pay my bills / But I’m all on the waitlist,” and “The way you wear that MAGA hat / Lookin’ like a facist.”

Baby boomers are generally taking the meme as an ageist attack against their generation. The language they use to describe the meme is violent and martial; economist Tyler Cowen called it “the latest linguistic weapon of generational warfare,” and Meghan Gerhardt, the founder of a movement aimed at promoting harmony between generations in the workplace called Gentelligence, called it “a pre-emptive strike against baby boomers [launched] using the most powerful weapons in [Generation X’s] arsenal—social messaging platforms TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.” Some have taken their resentment to almost cartoonish extremes. Bob Lonsberry, a conservative radio show host, called it “the n-word of ageism” on Twitter. He received a significant amount of backlash, and, of course, many people responded to the original (and now deleted) Tweet with “OK boomer.”

Many think pieces about “OK boomer” (because this meme, of course, has become yet another source for countless condescending think pieces about the follies of young people) have elevated what might have been laughed off as a harmless joke to a serious issue with moral weight. It’s worth considering whether or not young people are actually fostering generational divide by propagating this meme, and if so, what the moral ramifications of that could be. While the notion that strict demarcations divide us into “generations” has been called into question, the idea that a shared set of values, or the memory of a transformative cultural event, binds us to other people in our age group persists. Whether or not it actually exists in a quantifiable sense, many of us still perceive a difference between the young and the old.

The controversy around this meme is based in large part on a question of privilege. Baby boomers who dislike the meme argue that young people who use the meme are truly the ones who are privileged, or have at the very least inherited privileges from their parents that they are incapable of acknowledging. In an article for The Guardian, Bhaskar Sunkara implies that young people ought to turn their attention towards the truly privileged, the “capitalists, [and] the politicians who serve them,” rather than their parents. This statement, however, implies that there is no overlap between the two groups, that capitalists cannot be baby boomers or that those born in the post-World War II era have not in large part created our current economic situation.

At the same time, many argue that this meme attacks those from the baby boomer generation who were marginalized or underprivileged. This becomes evident when the idea of discrimination in the workplace enters the picture. Gerhardt writes about the harm that ageist sentiments can inflict in the workplace, claiming that,

“Generational difference is one of the final frontiers where identity-based stereotypes, prejudice and putdowns are allowed to not only run rampant […] As a new generation comes of age, it’s an ideal time for all of us to become aware of the harm this does—and the potential to be found in generations respecting and learning from each other instead.”

She argues we should value generational difference and the new perspectives it gives us, both in and out of the workplace. This criticism, that we gain more from solidarity between generations than division, is certainly valuable.

Another criticism of this meme claims that it relies too heavily on a white middle-class perspective; children of the poor and people of color, as some on Twitter have pointed out, can hardly subscribe to the idea that their parents have it easy or are in possession of socioeconomic advantages that their children lack. “Okay Boomer,” in other words, is a meme that primarily speaks to the anger of white teenagers that feel locked out from privileges and economic prosperity their parents enjoyed. However, as evident in the song that made this meme so popular, “Okay Boomer” is not a putdown for baby boomers in general. Rather, it attacks the most vocal and powerful group within that demographic; the wealthy, the white, and the conservative. It is within this context that the meme is most often used, and its older critics almost invariably come from this demographic.

Even more central to this story than privilege is the idea of voice; whose voices are valued in our society, who is allowed a platform, who is allowed to criticize whom. Both sides feel dismissed and undervalued, and both perceive the other as holding the power to speak and be heard. “OK boomer” is, in its most common and widely proliferated use, a way of dismissing a privileged voice from an assumed non-privileged position, but we should still be aware of how our assumptions and how voice can shape the way we perceive generational difference.

The Ethics of a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax

photograph of traffic gridlock for multiple blocks

“It’s just an excuse to take more money from us.” As Canada has implemented a carbon tax, this is the commonly voiced complaint. This kind of skepticism appears to be grounded in the belief that a) climate change either is not real or not a threat and that b) a tax is an inappropriate reaction to the situation. When first confronted with the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax people’s response is often one of puzzlement. However, after explanation, skeptics often become receptive. But is a revenue-neutral tax ethically better than one that is not revenue-neutral? 

A revenue-neutral tax is a tax that does not increase the revenue for the operating expenses of the government. All of the money collected through taxation is distributed back to people, usually in the form of rebates directly to taxpayers or through reductions in income taxes. The government’s net revenue does not increase, hence the tax is revenue-neutral. Those who favor such taxes like the idea that the size of government does not increase. It also answers the skeptic from earlier; it isn’t just an excuse for a tax because it does not contribute to the government’s net revenue. 

If every taxpayer receives a rebate of the same amount, then those who use the least carbon get to keep the largest amount of money. Those who use the most carbon either save the least or have to pay more. Thus, the economy as a whole is incentivized to use less carbon and to invest in products and technologies that are better for the environment. Ethically, a tax like this seems prudent; it helps address climate change and it does so in a way that it can address the concerns of tax skeptics. 

On the other hand, a revenue-neutral tax potentially overlooks important ethical concerns. For example, climate change is likely going to lead to infrastructure and public health problems. Philosopher Simon Caney has described some of the ethical duties in adapting to climate change. These include spending money on building sea-walls to protect people in coastal areas, subsidizing people to move from threatened coastal settlements, and spending money to inoculate people from infectious diseases that will become a greater danger due to climate change. Often, these kinds of expenses fall on governments to fund. 

British Columbia was the first jurisdiction in North America to implement a revenue-neutral carbon tax. One of the legal requirements of the tax initially was that carbon tax revenue be offset through income tax reductions. 

As one can imagine it is difficult to raise those taxes again after they have been cut. Thus, as costs relating to climate change begin to fall on governments those governments may find it more difficult to raise additional revenue to pay for additional expenses because of a revenue-neutral tax.

Further, the effects of climate change are going to be most felt by future generations. Climate change will be expensive as well as economically disruptive. This means that those most affected by the costs of climate change will be worse off when it comes to managing the effects. A non revenue-neutral tax would allow governments to provide additional funding and investments for future generations and thus better fulfill ethical duties of adaptation to climate change. Indeed British Columbia recently opted to change their revenue-neutral policy so that those tax funds can be devoted towards energy retrofits and public infrastructure in order to support climate adaptation.

Often carbon taxes are considered justifiable according to what is called the polluter pays principle. According to Mizan R. Kan this principle has a long standing and widespread rationale. It holds that those who cause damage through pollution should pay for it. While not universal, many interpretations of the principle hold that the polluter should not only pay for engaging in pollution, but also to compensate for that damage. This would mean that there are duties of funding adaptations to climate change. 

A revenue-neutral carbon tax does require polluters to pay for their pollution but it does not require them to compensate for the damage that their pollution costs. Thus, the polluter pays principle may better justify a non revenue-neutral carbon tax over one that is revenue neutral. If we interpret this principle not only as an economic principle but as an ethical one, then a non revenue-neutral tax that uses funds for adaptation would seem to be more ethically justified then a revenue-neutral one.

Of course, a carbon tax is not the only way to meet ethical duties of preventing and adapting to climate change, and a non revenue-neutral tax may be a harder sell to the public and to politicians. Conservatives can support a revenue-neutral tax because it does not increase the size of government and proposing the alternative may increase political gridlock, making it more likely that nothing will be done at all. This is why the choice between a revenue-neutral and a non revenue-neutral tax presents an ethical dilemma. 

A non revenue-neutral carbon tax offers the opportunity to use funds to meet ethical duties both to prevent climate change and to fund adaptations to climate change. This can not only help us today but it can satisfy duties that we may have to future generations. Thus, as a single policy it better satisfies our ethical duties. However, it may be more difficult to get bi-partisan support to pass such a tax given skeptical attitudes and cynicism regarding efforts to tackle climate change. If no tax is passed at all and no other policy proposal (such as a cap-and-trade scheme) is enacted then even fewer ethical duties are met. Thus, because a revenue-neutral tax may be more practical in that it has the best chance of being enacted, it may be the most ethical option. 

Perhaps the best solution is to ensure that the public is better informed about the differences and merits of both kinds of taxes so that a more rational and fact-based conversation can be had. For the public to best articulate its needs and determine which is the most effective option, it will likely require an open and honest discussion about what the needs of local communities are and will be, and what will allow the public to see a carbon tax as a legitimate option for addressing climate change.

Individual Obligation in the Face of Global Climate Change

photograph of earth from space with one-half illuminated and the other half in darkness

The planet is currently home to 7.7 billion humans. This number is steadily increasing, along with earth’s temperature. Environmental change is happening because the earth is overheating, scientifically referred to as the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by several gases, emitted in excess because of human activities and industries. The long term consequences of environmental change are predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of over 1,300 scientists from multiple countries including the United States. They predict a rise in earth’s temperature ranging from 2.5 to 10 degrees in the next century. Although it may not appear impactful, it has been historically proven that small changes in temperature can cause enormous environmental impacts. NASA cites an example on their website: “. . .at the end of the last ice age. . . the Northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.” Long-term effects of environmental change, as reported by the National Climate Assessment Reports three and four, will extend beyond this century and include rising temperatures, longer frost-free seasons, changing precipitation patterns, more droughts and heat waves, stronger hurricanes, a rise in sea level, and the arctic losing all ice.

Consensus within the scientific community is that environmental damage is caused by human activity. Environmental damage is carried into the future, it is cross-generational, and will impact all those who are not yet born. Thus, the actions of those today affect the lives of those tomorrow. Does this mean current society has an ethical obligation to protect the environment for future generations?

Society acknowledges the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every individual is born with. But what about those who are not yet born? Are they deserving of the same rights? Some would say no, that there is no ethical or logical reason to extend rights to people who do not exist. Others might disagree, arguing that unborn people are entitled to the same natural rights as the living.

Maybe one barrier to having empathy for future generations is the “short-termism” oriented society we live in. This term refers to the difficulty in thinking seriously about the future and how our actions now will impact it. So much of current culture is focused on the now, that it can be hard to think about the then. Sociologist Elise Boulding described it as “temporal exhaustion,” if we are so tired from the present, how can we think about the future? And “if we are prone to neglecting the wellbeing of our own future selves, it’s even harder to muster empathy for our descendants.”

On the other hand, protecting those who are not yet living could harm those who are alive, the people who may bear the burden could be the currently disadvantaged. How can we worry about the environment when there are people starving to death today?

In reality, the effects of climate change are felt by many today as their homes are damaged or destroyed and their lives are threatened by natural disasters. If these acts were committed by an individual, they would face the punishment of the law. If we do not accept a behavior that directly results in infringing upon one’s natural rights as a society, then why should we allow societal behavior that indirectly results in infringement on these same rights? Death and destruction occur in both instances. The difference, however, is in the distance of the action from the result, and the lack of a single culprit. If an arson burned someone’s house down they would go to prison. In 2018, 85 people died in California’s deadliest forest fire, but who will be held responsible for this? Climate change is the product of the collective actions of society members, but this does not lessen the severity of its effects.

Approximately 108 billion people have lived and died on the Earth over the past 50,000 years, while 6.75 trillion people are projected to live and die on the Earth over the next 50,000 years. We may have an ethical obligation for societal efforts and resources to be focused on combating existing inequalities and improving the plight of the currently disadvantaged. But we may also have an obligation that lies in spending our collective energies on protecting the future generations, so they do not inherit a world and a life of a lesser quality than those that came before them.

Climate Change and the Philosophical Pitfalls of Grounding Duty to Future Generations

Two young women in the foreground of a protest march, with signs behind them saying "our future our choice"

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Reports of mass extinction, extreme weather events, speedily melting ice caps and the inundation of low-lying islands by rising seas suggest that the environmental disaster scientists and activists have been warning about for several decades, has now begun.  

On the face of it, there isn’t really a good argument to be made against a moral imperative to fight climate change. Those who voice opposition to, and those who lobby against, climate action generally deny climate change is real rather than argue against an obligation to do something about it.

Governments across the world are nowhere near where they need to be on acting to prevent worst-case scenario outcomes, even where climate change is grudgingly acknowledged by the powers that be and even as its effects start to become difficult to ignore.

In January this year, David Attenborough told a cohort of business and government leaders, diplomats and influential celebrities at the Davos World Economic Forum that “What we do now, and in the next few years, will profoundly affect the next few thousand years,” and “Unless we sort ourselves out in the next decade or so we are dooming our children and our grandchildren to an appalling future.”

Few would now disagree that there is urgency about the issue of climate change; however, the question of our moral relation to future generations is philosophically complex. Does it make sense to claim that we have moral duties to persons who do not exist?  Do future persons, not already alive, have rights? How are the rights of future persons connected with moral duties that we have now?

There are some meta-ethical issues at play here (issues about what we take ethics to be centrally concerned with). A common foundation for morality is how the behavior of persons affects other persons (and sometimes other creatures/entities). The ‘moral community’ is that group to whom we owe moral consideration; whose well-being makes moral claims on us, or whose interests, or rights, provide imperatives and checks on our actions.

On one level, using a simple example given by Derek Parfit, we can see how, straightforwardly, the actions of someone now can harm an unknown, hypothetical person in the future. Parfit points out that, if I leave some broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood, which a hundred years later wounds a child, my act harms this child. This is of course familiar and quite intuitive reasoning; it forms the basis of things we tell our children every day, of the ilk: “don’t leave that there, someone could trip over it.”

Is it morally significant how far in the future that harm occurs? On one view it is not, as there is a direct causal relation between action of burying the glass and the child’s being cut by it. When I tell my child not to do something as it may harm someone, I am likely not to be thinking that far into the future as Parfit’s example, but this seems to be a result of the psychology, rather than the morality, of temporal distance.

However, it could be argued that moral accountability is weakened by temporal distance, because part of what it means to be in a moral community is that there is moral accountability, by virtue of reciprocity, between members – so that there is an in-principle possibility of the wronged party holding the other to account.

In response to Parfit’s example it should also be noted the person burying the glass is only causing a future harm as long as the child (or someone else) is later cut by it. That outcome is highly contingent. If the lack of reciprocity between individuals who are not one another’s contemporary, together with the contingency involved in any particular outcome, are problematic then it may be even more difficult to make decisions about the behaviour of a current population’s effect on a future population.

The question about how current people’s actions harm, or directly impact, future people encounters a paradox: because each person born is the product of so many and such complex contingencies, and all future persons are a product of actions taken in the present, a different set of actions (even one different variable) will produce a different human being.

Imagine two possible scenarios. In the first, no action is taken and climate change produces a disastrous future for all people on the planet. In the second, massive effort is undertaken, now with the outcome that disaster is averted and future generations are able to pursue happiness and have the opportunity to flourish.

Because of this paradox, it isn’t quite right to say that particular future persons will be better off if action is taken, since particular future persons who come into existence in the first scenario, if action is not taken, would not have existed in the second scenario. Can the people of the future in the first scenario really blame us, since had we made different choices they would not exist?

This line of thinking may appear to yield the conclusion that even if we do not conserve the environment for future generations of people, it cannot consistently be said that we have wronged them. But can we cogently argue that they cannot complain since in any other set of circumstances they would never have existed?

This is a difficult moral question – borne out in other problems or areas of practical ethics, such as whether to choose to have a disabled child. It opens up issues of how we value existence, what type of existence we value, and what level of difficulty we would be prepared to accept for the sake of existence itself. I shall not try to resolve this problem here – but it is not necessarily agreed that such future persons, in unbearable hardship, have no right to complain of the actions of their forebears that led to that hardship.

This paradox seems to arise in part where morality is taken to be centrally concerned with how actions of certain individuals affect other individuals – the problem here is that there is too much focus on particular individuals.  (Parfit himself thought that we should rescind the principle of morality being centrally concerned with individuals and employ a more impartial principle to ground morality in actions which produce the most wellbeing.)

But this solution creates another problem, which is encountered in consequentialist ethics of a utilitarian persuasion. Since utilitarianism is based on a principle of maximising happiness or wellbeing, it functions as a calculation of total possible happiness. This produces the counterintuitive outcome that a very large number of people who were borderline miserable would be preferable to a very small number of very happy people. Obviously this system cannot provide a foundation for a reasonable, binding, moral relation to future generations.

An argument from the notion of rights appears to fare better. If we acknowledge universal and inalienable human rights such as a right to life, liberty and security then, by virtue of their universality, we could extend them to future persons by including them in the moral community of holders of rights.

It has been noted by some philosophers, however, that the concept of rights is in some sense morally inadequate – it can fail to capture the moral seriousness of a situation. Imagine having to answer to future persons living with the devastation of our failure to act when we had the means and opportunity. It would not go all the way to the heart (so to speak) of their moral grievance to simply note that their right to live a full human life was violated – in the same way that the moral terribleness of murder is not adequately captured by noting that the murdered person’s right to life has been violated.

A still better grounding might be in a notion of moral duty as suggested by Immanuel Kant in the principle of universalisation: that we discover our moral duty by asking if we could will any action to be a universal law. Applying this principle our moral duty to future generations becomes clear when we simply ask what we would have endorsed were we to find ourselves in the same situation.

The window, we are being told by scientists, is closing fast. We may have little more than a decade to avoid unstoppable climate catastrophe. This means that the future is arriving. In a sense, the future is already here. Children born in this decade may be alive at the end of the century, and will be directly affected by our current actions or failure to act. Those future generations that appear in the abstract in the philosophical discussions of the past twenty to thirty years are already here. There are some hopeful signs; the new generation is starting to demand action as high-profile strikes by schoolchildren across the world put pressure on those in power to act to rescue the future they will inherit.