Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Virtue of Previous Generations

In a recent post Neil Buchanan raises the following puzzle:

"We always talk about fiscal policy as being good if it makes future generations better off and bad if it leaves them worse off. . . . [nevertheless] we have very good reason to believe that future generations of Americans (and some others) will enjoy much higher material living standards than we do. Advocating policies that require us to sacrifice today for the benefit of 'our children and grandchildren,' therefore, actually means (on average) advocating a transfer from the relatively poor to the relatively rich."

Assuming this projection of the economic well-being of future generations is correct, how can we explain the strong lingering intuition that we should still try and improve the lot of future generations, even at some expense to us? Here is an initial attempt at a partial explanation.

Buchanan's puzzle is framed in terms of distributive justice (with an egalitarian component), pointing out that adopting a fiscal policy that benefits us at the expense of future generations is just, since even under such circumstances future generations will be much better off than we.

However, distributive justice is not the only framework for explaining moral duties. There are, for example, relationships and roles that generate duties that are supererogatory in terms of distributive justice; duties that do not arise outside such relationships and roles. Such roles and relationships usually involve either a relationship of great dependency or of strong ties. The virtuous mentor, parent, teacher, doctor, superpower, privileged class, employer, grandparent, friend, spouse etc. is the one that at least attempts to benefit those dependent or close to him/her. This often remains the case, even when the beneficiary will most likely do better, down the road, than the benefactor. For example, a teacher who does not help a student to fulfill his or her full potential because that student is destined to surpass the teacher is a less than virtuous teacher. Parents who do not strive to improve the future of their children, because they know that their children are destined to have a better life than they themselves have, are not virtuous parents. Similarly, future generations are often depended on us and may also be "close" to us – for example, the present American generation may have duties towards future generations of Americans; duties that they do not have towards future generations of other nations. Perhaps one partial answer to Buchanan's puzzle is found in this notion of relationship-based virtue.

Posted by Ori Herstein