Greg Alexander has a paper up on ssrn, "Unborn Communities," that engages a topic of much interest to me: whether we owe a duty to future generations. I blogged about this topic a few years back when the GW Law Review had a symposium on "What does our legal system owe future generations." I framed the issue somewhat differently: by asking did previous generations owe us anything? The trusts and estates professor in my is interested in ways that previous generations bound themselves for our benefit. Obviously trust provide one example of a previous generation binding itself -- voluntarily, I know -- for the benefit of a later generation.
Alexander is interested in moral, rather than legal, obligations. But Alexander uses analogies to trusts, too, to try to shift out the property we leave to later generations and some of the limits we try to impose on that property (such as limitations on whether the property can be sold). Here is his abstract:
Do property owners owe obligations to members of future generations? Although the question can be reframed in rights-terms so that it faces rights-oriented theories of property, it seems to pose a greater challenge to those theories of property that directly focus on the obligations that property owners owe to others rather than (or, better, along with the rights of owner). The challenge is compounded where such theories emphasize the relationships between individual property owners and the various communities to which they belong. Do those communities include members of future generations? This paper addresses these questions as they apply to a property theory that I have developed in recent work, a theory that we can call the human-flourishing theory of property.
The conclusion drawn here is that property owners do indeed owe moral obligations to future generations. But the scope of those obligations is restricted, certainly more so than some theorists, such as Jeremy Waldron, have claimed. Unlike Waldron, for whom such obligations are a matter of rights, I argue that the obligations that property owners owe to past generations are grounded on dependence. Specifically, I argue that if we expect fellow members of our communities in future generations to continue what I call the life-transcending projects that we began, then it is incumbent on us to provide that same background conditions that we enjoyed to those future generation community members to whom we transfer the responsibility of continuing or fulfilling our life-transcending projects. Moreover, as the distance between the living and the unborn increases, our obligations to future generational communities generally weaken. Our obligations to them are limited to the background conditions that enable them to continue the life-transcending projects transferred to them. These conclusions place me in an intermediate position between those who take a robust view of the obligations that the living owe to future generations and those who think that the living owe no such obligations at all.
As I said in my blog post back in 2009, previous generations have done a heck of a lot for us, no doubt. And they did so in part, perhaps large part, because they were building something better for the future. One of my favorite quotes along these lines is Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation in "The American Scholar" that insects store up for future generations. He found the common elements of the human mind to store up knowledge "like the fact observed in insects, who lay up food before death for the young grub they shall never see." There's a great tradition in America--and in human society more generally, I suppose, though I don't have the expertise to testify to it--of making sacrifices for future generations, of doing something so that people whose names we will never know can have a better life. One thinks, of course, of the American Revolution here -- and of course the Puritans' Errand into the Wilderness. (The image is of the Sycamore tree at the Brandywine Battlefield Park.)
Come to think of it, there were some antebellum writers and politicians who talked about what was owed the future. They even spoke about this in the context of the "famous" Wyoming massacre -- famous because it was the subject of a discussion I had with my favorite librarian about a painting of a young woman in Wyoming in the wake of the massacre. (That's a long story and portrays me in a rather unflattering light, so I'll reserve it for another time.) Maybe the most directly on-point antebellum address comes from William B. Sprague, The Claims of Past and Future Generations on Civil Rulers. As is so often the case with Sprague -- who looms large in my paper on Phi Beta Kappa addresses -- it's a very thoughtful defense of considering the future on the present.