Category Archives: Obstacles to Intergenerational Responsibility

Risk Assessment in Developing Countries

In the discussions on how to provide protection against risks in order not to compromise the ability of future people to enjoy a clean and safe environment, one distinction is of particular importance. It refers to the way in which developed and, respectively, developing countries should manage these risks for the benefit of future generations.

Taking this distinction seriously from a normative point of view, two issues are worth exploring:

1)      While in the developed world, the problem seems to be mostly one of optimizing risk management, or how to provide public safety by effectively minimizing natural risks, in developing countries, the main problem stems from a complex system of inter-related social vulnerabilities, which generates a number of separate, additional risks. Certain social and institutional problems specific to developing countries are so important in terms of their negative effect on public safety and environmental protection that they should be considered risks in themselves.

2) Secondly, developing countries display a characteristic which, at first view, may seem paradoxical. They are countries where societal risks are high, pervasive and self-reinforcing, but, at the same time, they are the least concerned to work for minimizing them. Instead, they seem to be focusing primarily on natural risks. On the contrary, developed countries with a tradition of concern for public safety take societal risks seriously, even in cases where these are (comparatively) much lower.

Take, for instance, nuclear energy. Except for particular conditions (for example, high seismic hazards), the natural risks are quite comparable across the two groups of countries using similar technologies.

However, risks of short-sighted or even contradictory policies resulting from institutional backwardness, corruptibility, non-compliance, are not so comparable. In some developing countries, far from being isolated factors, they are the daily background of decision-making.

Choosing a site for a waste repository or deciding on the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant are, therefore, fraught with a distinct set of problems: lack of coherent regulations, poor administrative capacity to take action in case of an accident (starting from overlapping responsibilities of institutions to insufficient buses to transport people from the community affected), or the shallow excuse that public policies should first mirror the immediate interests of citizens (welfare, development).

If this is how things look in some parts of the developing world, I would argue that such different situations should require different strategies. In my view, this would mean that developing countries should abandon the ‘reductionist’ fallacy, of equating risks with (only) natural risks, and take societal risks seriously. The fact that this would definitely be more costly for the time being should not affect the normative dimension of the problem. If we choose to rely partly on the analogy with the budget a person should manage to minimize a set of risks, then being poorer would not imply one should not save. On the contrary, being poorer is in many cases being more vulnerable, and saving could add some protection.

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

One Worry about Representatives for Future Generations

Future generations are affected by present-day decisions but the choices they would make if they could participate in these decisions obviously cannot enter the present-day democratic process. However, their interests can enter the present democratic process and they can do so in at least two ways:

  1. There can be special representatives for future generations in parliament. For example, 10% of the seats in parliament could be reserved for such representatives of future generations with the right to vote.
  2. The normal MPs can incorporate the interests of future generations in their normal decision-making. That’s what we currently do (though we could improve the current model by supporting the incorporation of the interests of future  generations by an ombudsman laying out the interest of future generations for MPs  and exhorting them to take account of them).

There are further options – such as constitutional provisions that put limits on what can be done to future generations – but I want to focus on one specific problem that the first option (representatives for future generations) has in contrast to the second option (expecting normal MPs to incorporate the interests of future generations in their choices).

If a country were to introduce special representatives for future generations in parliament by reserving 10% of the seats for them, then there are three effects:

  1. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of MPs are supposed to incorporate and represent exclusively those future interests.
  2. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of the MPs constantly remind the other 90% of the concerns of future generations.
  3. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process worse because the 90% “normal” MPs might give less weight to the interests of future generations than they would do if there were no 10% special representatives. In other words: The fact that there are special representatives for future generations “crowds out” the motivation in normal MPs to take account of future generations. They can tell themselves that the concerns of future generations are already taken care of (by the 10% special representatives) and thus they can stop worrying about the future themselves.

I am worried that the third effect might outweigh the first two (and countervailing) effects. Even though it seems that reserving a certain number of seats in parliament for future generations would serve future generations well, the opposite might possibly happen. If special representatives mean that everyone else stops considering the future their own responsibility, then it’s better not to have special representatives.

Neoliberalism and Climate Change

Here you can find a collection of interesting thoughts on climate change by George Monbiot, published on his personal blog:







God as a Solution for Population Paradoxes?

Population ethics drives us into the most perplexing philosophical paradoxes. The “Repugnant Conclusion” is one of those mindboggling issues: How can we avoid the claim that we shouldn’t aim at creating a population of, say, 200 billion people with lives that are barely worth living (call that state Z) rather than a population of 5 billion with lives well worth living (call that state A) – without presupposing premises that stand in contradiction to some deeply held intuitions? A precise and thorough account of the “Repugnant Conclusion” can be found here.

After the literature has come up with innumerable ingenious but unsuccessful attempts to solve the theoretical paradoxes in this area, I would like to suggest a sketch of a further solution – a theistic solution to the paradoxes surrounding the Repugnant Conclusion. Two caveats in advance: Firstly, this post is for those who have some familiarity with the Repugnant Conclusion. Secondly, others in the literature might have suggested the same as I do here but I haven’t been able to find that on the quick.

The basic idea of the theistic solution is this.

  • Yes: state A and state Z can be compared in terms of how valuable they are.
  • No: How valuable these states are does not matter for human choices between these two states of affairs (at least not directly). It’s simply not our responsibility as little human beings to make the world a better place by creating more (or less) of us human beings.
  • Yes: How valuable these states of affairs are does matter for divine choice between these two states of affairs (which is then, possibly, commanded to humans subsequently). It is God’s responsibility to decide on population size and to take into account the value difference between state A and Z.
    The value of these two states is not the only factor that matters to the divine choice. There are further factors that matter for God’s choice between state A and Z. These further factors might well be inscrutable to the human mind. For example, God might have in mind to bring about certain specific individuals. Or s/he might have in mind to bring about a certain number of human counterparts for himself/herself. (I leave it open whether these further factors are whims of the divine mind – i.e. merely arbitrary preferences – or whether God has good reasons to give weight to these further factors).

Some further exposition about what this “solution” does solve and doesn’t solve.

In my view, the hardest problem about the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t have to do with claims about value. In my view, state Z (i.e. 200 billion people with lives barely worth living) might well be more valuable than State A (i.e. 5 billion people with lives well worth living). There is no reason why we should expect our commonsense intuition (which resists the claim that state Z is more valuable than state A) to be reliable in such questions.
In my view, the hardest problem about the Repugnant Conclusion has to do with the fact that certain obligations follow from these claims about value. The SEP entry on the Repugnant Conclusion makes the point very well: “It might be tempting for people who have little sympathy with utilitarian thought to try to set the problems raised by the Repugnant Conclusion to one side, thinking that it constitutes a problem only for utilitarians. However, most people tend to believe that we have some obligation to make the world a better place (…).”
What the theistic solution to the Repugnant Conclusion does is the following. It agrees that, generally, there is some obligation to make the world a better place and it agrees that adding further people might well make the world a better place. While the theistic solution agrees that value differences between different states of affairs affect obligations in most cases (for example in the case where a child can be saved from drowning in a pond), it does not agree that value differences between states affect obligations for humans in those cases where the value difference is rooted in differences of population size. In those cases where the world can be made a better place by creating more people, only God has obligations derived directly from the betterness of the existence of more people (these obligations could then, of course, be transferred to humans via commandments). Population size is singled out as a special case — and moral responsibility for this specific area of choice is in God’s hands rather than in human hands.
This leads to the upshot that humans can acknowledge that (i) it might well be more valuable to have more people and (ii) that, in general, value does matter for our human choices but that (iii) the specific value of having more people does not matter for our human choices about population and procreation (except indirectly via divine commandments). Humans can therefore make their choices in politics and personal life in a two-step-procedure: Firstly, they can decide on population size and procreation on the basis of a limited set of reasons (including reasons such as the fact that adding people will affect the welfare of existing people and including reasons such as God’s commandments about population size and procreation). Secondly, given these decisions about population and procreation, they can then decide on further issues in life on the basis of the usual, comprehensive set of reasons (such as general consequentialist, deontological, and religious reasons).
What reasons might God have to keep the choice of population size for himself/herself? Here are two reasons. Firstly, some of the deepest moral problems seem inscrutable to the human mind similarly to how some of the deepest scientific and mathematical problems seem inscrutable to the human mind. It is no surprise then that God might step in for us little humans and solve these hard tasks (such as paradoxes in population ethics) for us and communicate the solution of these hard tasks to us without informing us about the rationale for the solution. A second and important reason for God to keep this area to himself is this: The decision about which humans and how many humans ought to exist seems to be a decision for which God as the creator and counterpart of humans – and as the “Ground of Being” – is the right person. Making up his/her mind about such things is his/her core business. If s/he had reasons to want, create, and love  humanity in the first place, s/he might as well have reasons for wanting a certain number of humans.
In my view, the “theistic solution” presents a coherent picture that takes the sting out of the hardest aspect of the Repugnant Conclusion. In other words: It denies – and it does so in a coherent way – that we have at least some reason to create a huge population of people with lives barely worth living. However, the theistic solution of course presupposes a certain premise: God. If anything, that is the “theistic solution’s” Achilles’ Heel.

An Objection

One might object that the “theistic solution” is ad hoc. It “solves” the Repugnant Conclusion by simply positing a God who mysteriously solves the Repugnant Conclusion in a way that humans cannot understand. That’s a bit too easy, isn’t it?
Well – if a solution is easy, that doesn’t really speak against it. Neither do I think that the solution is ad hoc. I actually gave some reasons why God (if s/he should exist) might keep the task of solving the Repugnant Conclusion to herself/himself (firstly because it is so difficult for humans and secondly because it has to do with creating individuals which is his/her business anyway). It’s not arbitrary to reserve exactly this moral problem for God to figure out.
One might think that any argument in science or philosophy that posits God just takes the “God of the Gaps” track. The “God of the Gaps” objection is roughly the following: “If we cannot understand how something works, it’s wrong to escape our lack of understanding by simply putting God into the equation. S/he should not serve as the ‘joker’ who rounds off the blanks in any unfinished theory. As time goes by, s/he will be needed as an explanation for less and less scientific and philosophical problems.”
To this I answer that the “God of the Gaps” objection is, when taken in general terms, an unsound objection anyway. If a certain entity explains something well, this gives us at least some reason to posit that entity. If God explains certain facts about the world or morality well, then that is a reason to posit God’s existence.
The real objection to the “theistic solution” must be that there are good (and independent) reasons to believe that there is no God.

Some kind of nobility

Historically speaking, humans have taken great pride in being the epitome of evolution. We have attained consciousness about our surroundings, and ourselves and are able to pose the profound question: “Who are we?” We have developed language that enables us to communicate complex and intellectually stimulating thoughts and theories, but also developed technologies that give us control over our bodies and surroundings. Indeed, our power over the planet is unrivalled!

These abilities have been used to distinguish us from ”nature”. The environment has – to an ever-greater degree – become a place without importance in itself upon which we humans play out our drama. It has literally speaking gone from being nature (that which we are born out of) into being the environment (that which we see around us). It has furthermore become reduced to only being seen as a resource from which we can wrestle what we need, in order to fulfil our ever-growing requirements. Carried on the back of anthropocentric interpretations of monotheistic religion and philosophy, with no patience for beings that do not possess human rationality, we have become masters of the universe with license to use the planet as we see fit.

In spite of all our accomplishments, we have however reached an impasse, or perhaps even a dead-end, since that which we take so much pride in seems to be in the process of failing.

When we ask: ”Who are we”, the contemporary answer seems to be: ‘consumers’! This implies a  reduction of humans to “walking wallets”, whose only reason for existing is to ingest the products of our labour at a constantly increasing rate. Faced with the glaring implications of overconsumption, climate change, dwindling resources, and economic melt down, our only response so far is: “More growth!” An understanding of ”we” as more than a species of individuals that eat till they drop, seems to be out of our collective reach. And those that do have different visions are easily over-heard in the daily white noise of commercials.

We use language to face up to problems, to share the beauty of the universe, and to ask the questions of life, the universe and everything. However, more and more it seems we are reduced to using language to fulfil our needs, escape the consequences of this, and inventing yet more needs. The public sphere teems with means of communication. We can instantly be in touch with one another, anywhere on the planet, and access knowledge about anything. We use these amazing new abilities to check sport scores, surf porn, and gossip about people whose only accomplishment is to be more visible than others in the hurricane of entertainment that we use to distract ourselves from the pressing problems of our behaviour.

Finally, we have turned technology into a holy grail. Faced with the consequences of our lifestyles and the immediate need for changes, we close our eyes and keep dreaming that somebody will turn up a gizmo that can solve all the problems and enable us to continue our lives of over-consumption and adolescent recklessness. ”Humans have always come up with a solution” it is said, conveniently forgetting that there is no instance of a human civilisation overcoming the destruction of its ecosystem. In fact, civilisations depend vitally upon their physical and biological surroundings.

All of these arguments are well known elements in the contemporary critique of Western civilisation. There is nothing new here, except for the urgency with which it is put forth as the different crises of environment, food, energy, resources, and climate converge and paint a bleaker future than most of us have the courage to imagine.

In the face of this, most of us attempt either to remain oblivious or to fly into a panic. As Al Gore mentioned, we seem to move from absolute denial to absolute despair in seconds. However, somewhere between these two extremes, we just might be able to prove to ourselves that we at least have the courage to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. We have a chance to show that thinking ourselves the epitome of evolution was not merely a fit of megalomania.

Whether we can actually solve the problem of these converging crises and return to some kind of ”normalcy” is doubtful however. The present situation is truly more like a catastrophe that will inescapably change the basic conditions of life for us all, but also other beings and organisms on this planet. This does not negate the need or requirement to do the best we can, of trying to salvage what can be salvaged, and seeking to live responsibility rather than in denial. This may not get us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, but rather than relegating our species to the status: ’destructive infestation’ at least it will confirm some kind of nobility for the human race. We are, after all, the self-appointed epitome of evolution.

 Thanks to Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions

Social Capital and Corruption in Post-Communist Countries (I)

Many theories on institutional confidence emphasize the importance of social capital for the creation of a functional institutional structure. According to a classical definition, social capital is a public good ‘which refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putnam, 1993, p. 167).

One of the arguments developed by such theories is that there is a strong connection between trust in institutions (and especially in the legal system) and interpersonal trust. More specifically, some researchers have argued that the institutional framework and the system of public policies in a country influence the level of social capital, namely that corrupt public officials generate mistrust among ordinary citizens. Conversely, it is argued, taking efficient steps against corruption will result in increasing the levels of interpersonal trust.

As a national of a former communist country, I agree that high levels of corruption and a strong social capital cannot go together. However, I would like to highlight two particularities of post-communist countries, which should add a nuance to the causal mechanisms between interpersonal and institutional trust:

  1. The distinction between high-level and petty corruption is still fundamental in some of these countries, to the extent that in many cases only the former is perceived as ‘real’ corruption, whereas the other is ‘getting by’, i.e. deceiving ‘the system’. Though many people fall prey to this latter mechanism in everyday situations and complain about it, they have also come appreciate the usefulness of ‘not standing in the queue’ when a shortcut is possible. Therefore, petty corruption is generally perceived as a necessary evil, and people tend to be more tolerant towards this phenomenon as compared to high level corruption. Consequently, widespread petty corruption does not proportionally shake interpersonal and institutional trust. Further, in countries where high level corruption is rampant, people become somehow inured to it, and anti-corruption measures have a much slower impact on trust than in consolidated democracies. For an interesting analysis of this issue, see Uslaner, 2008 (chapters 5 and 6).
  2. Secondly, I think the idea of ‘trust in institutions’ is less clear in countries that experienced communism. At empirical level, the Romanian example shows a gap between citizens, on one hand, and the state and its institutions on the other. There is a consistent collective perception of the state as a monolithic, immobile entity, and it is difficult to think of institutions as the result of a negotiated partnership translated into public policies. Also, unlike consolidated democracies, where criteria for assessing the performance of public institutions are clearer and ordered, in countries like Romania, there is a mix of criteria leading to sometimes paradoxical conclusions. For instance, a 2010 opinion poll revealed that three out of five respondents believed that human rights are not respected in Romania, half of the respondents said they would vote for the reintroduction of death penalty, and the Police (55%) was significantly less trusted than the Church (80%) or the media (61%).

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences regarding trust and institutions in post-communist countries.

The Moral Pragmatics of Climate Politics

This is the first version of an article  written as part of a research on intergenerational responsibility. Your comments are very welcome.

1. Introduction: Future ethics and the idea of a moral pragmatics

The branch of ethics that deals with questions reaching far into the future, in short, future ethics, is primarily concerned with ends rather than means. It is interested, in the first place, in the moral quality of the ends to which future-directed actions pertain and much less with the means by which these are, or might be, attained. It even has a tendency to leave questions concerning means to recognised ends to more “technical” disciplines like economics and political science. This does not mean that future ethics is inherently of a teleological or even utilitarian kind. Nevertheless, its primary concern is with postulating certain values and benefits, aggregative or distributional, irrespective of the means their consistent pursuit may involve.

This tendency contrasts in important ways with what is usually assumed in practical morality. In practical morality, the means usually matter no less than the ends. The saying, frequent in some ethical systems, that if you will the ends you must also will the means to that end, has no valid counterpart in practical morality. Even if there are strong moral reasons to achieve a certain end the situation may be such that the only available means are morally problematic to an extent that you either have to look for morally more defensible alternatives or to give up pursuing of the end in question. Even ends that seem to be highly morally commendable or even morally required have to given up if the only means to achieve them seem morally indefensible. From the point of view of practical morality, not only means have to be adjusted to ends on the basis of what is known about their expected efficacy and efficiency but also ends have to be adjusted to what is known about the means available for achieving them. Adjusting means to ends is a double-sided affair.

Continue reading