Public ideas

Our moral responsibility to the future

It was Marx (G Marx) who asked “What should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me”.

Awareness of the effects of climate change, and of our generally unsustainable demand for non-renewable resources that have contributed to our material wellbeing, is forcing us to think of our responsibility to future generations.

Writing in The Conversation Michael Noetel of Australian Catholic University asks What do we owe future generations? And what can we do to make their world a better place?. His piece is largely a review of William MacAskill’s book What we owe the future.

The question of a trade-off between present living people and future generations has long been of concern to economic philosophers such as the late Thomas Schelling. Nicholas Stern grappled with this question in his 2006 seminal work on climate change.

The general approach to such questions used by economic philosophers has been to apply some discount to future benefits. That’s because new technologies may overcome today’s resource constraints, or some catastrophe could wipe out humanity leaving no one to be concerned about. Although in the medium-term there is some discount rate to be inferred from looking at how people behave in markets, in the very long term there is nothing to go by. Stern admitted to a somewhat arbitrary choice of one percent.

But Noetel is writing about the very long term, when the mathematical practice of discounting fails to make any sense. He sums up his mathematics in one sentence “Even if we last just 1 million years, as long as the average mammal – and even if the global population fell to 1 billion people – then there would be 9.1 trillion people in the future.”

Socrates’ sin: he made people think

Oscar Davis of Bond University has a Conversation article Explainer: Socrates and the life worth living. It’s a compact summary of the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, and of Socrates’ epistemology.

Socrates’ sin for which he was forced to die by hemlock poisoning: he forced Athenians to think.