Volume 4, Issue 4, Winter 1982
Bryan G. Norton
Environmental Ethics and the Rights of Future Generations
Do appeals to rights and/or interests of the members of future generations provide an adequate basis for an environmental ethic? Assuming that rights and interests are, semantically, individualistic concepts, I present an argument following Derek Parfit which shows that a policy of depletion may harm no existing individuals, present or future. Although this argument has, initially, an air of paradox, I show
that the argument has two intuitive analogues-the problem ofgenerating a morally justified and environmentally sound population policy and the problem of temporal distance. These problems are shown both to resist solutions in individualistic terms and to embody difficulties similar to those raised by Parfit. Since utilitarianism and modem deontology are individualistic in nature, they cannot provide the basis for an adequate environmental ethic and they do not rule out policies such as that of depletion, which is clearly unacceptable environmentally. I dose with an exploratory but generally pessimistic assessment of the possibility that rights and interests can be reconstrued as nonindividualistic.