Presented at the Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos State, Nigeria



Narveson, in his article, ‘Duties To, And Rights Of, Future Generations: An Impossibility Theorem’, examined the question of our duty towards future generation. He brought to the court of justice two categories of people – The future generations, or future occupants of the earth, or simply the people of the future, as against the present generation, or the presently living occupants of the earth. The question is: who has right over the other, and ‘right’ in what sense of the word. This paper argues that we have a duty towards the future generation. We then use this position to argue for a policy towards guiding child birth control in most African nations, as an urgent duty we owe the future generation address the problem of overpopulation which has catalysed the level of poverty within the continent.

The paper assumes that the future people has rights, and invariably the present people has duties towards them – one of which is Child birth control policy. The means of this child birth control (use of contraceptive, family planning, etc.) is outside the scope of this essay. Our argument is that part of our duty to future generation is to limit the number in relation to present facilities or resources available for worthwhile living and the socio-political condition of our African nations.

In the debate of the question of the right of future generation, there are simply two camps: people for and those against. The former mandates the present generation to do things intended to benefit future people, while the latter wonders why we should be obliged to people whose existence depends on our voluntary activities. This debate has featured scholars like.

        1.0                         INTRODUCTION

This paper argues that there is a causal connection between over-population and poverty in most African nation. This assumption accounts for why most developed nations, in order to address the crisis of poverty in Africa questions why African kept giving birth to more children yet kept crying foreign aids. The response is always, ‘African loves children’! Such beliefs only worked for the past generation who have more children in order to increase the labour force on the farm. In this global, industrialized and computerized age, when one consider the plight of homeless, starving and abused children, one queries the validity of such belief and ask- why bringing this children into existence when we are quite sure that we have no resources to make their lives worth living.

In 2012, Melinda Gates, wife of billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates, pledged billions of dollars to extend ‘affordable, life-saving contraceptive services to an additional 10 million women in the world’s poorest countries by 2020[i]. The rationale behind this is that


2.0                         JAN NARVESON

It is not surprising that people say this sort of thing. After all, people in the future are people, and differ from us only in the usual ways that people differ from each other, apart from which we all have the common humanity that is the source of our rights. That common humanity, whatever it is, being essentially the same for all, would therefore endow us all with the same moral properties, and therefore with the same rights – would it not? And we all think that we all do have rights – human rights – against each other.

He pointed out two serious asymmetries between us and “future people, which he us, make it used to argue against the view that present people have any sort of duty towards future generation. These asymmetries are:

1.         Existential

a.         Unlike persons at present, the existence of people in the future, and especially of any particular sort of persons, let alone any persons in particular, is by no means a sure thing. It is a very likely thing for the existence of those organisms is dependent on the normally voluntary activities of present people. So, it should be the other way round, we do not owe them anything, rather they owe us the very fact that they exist.


b.         We ought not be bored about what we should do for future generations since they cannot really do anything for us.

2.         Epistemic

It is also true that future people will be able to do things to and for themselves and each other that we can‟t do to or for them. This is on the basis that they will know a lot more than we do and so have an enormous advantage over us. As they will be better at solving problems of all kinds than ever before with   their newly acquired improved methods of doing things


His position: For Naverson, the only duty we have towards future people is to do nothing as a matter of moral obligation so as avoid violating the rights of the present people. He argued that even if we did have any other duty beyond doing nothing to future people as some scholars posited, we must refrain from doing anything since doing something would imply imposing certain conditions and policies on the people of the present generation. From this utilitarian standpoint, he ask – What profit would that bring? Narveson cannot see how that would bringabout the greatest good or happiness of the greatest number or favour the living as they would bear the cost of such obligations. 




  1. Non-existence:

If the person does not exist how can we talk about attributing rights to them and consequently, forming of an intergenerational theory? This implies that obligations can only make sense when they are owed to people who actually exist[ii]

  1. Non-identity:

Jan Narveson asserts that if we owe anything to future generations, we owe the perpetuation of the human race to future persons themselves. However, he adds, this idea is controversial. “For if we do not carry out this ‘duty’, we suddenly find that there is nobody we can claim to have let down, to have defaulted or failed in discharging our duties to them. The existence of the supposed subjects of this obligation is contingent on our fulfilling it”[iii]  This approach can be better examined with the example that if X was to have a child and the child ended up unhappy; it does not make X responsible in anyway. If X were not to have the child, “there is no one to whom the obligation refers”[iv] .

  1. Reciprocity:

The present generation should not try to establish a system of intergenerational justice, as we would be sacrificing for the future people but all they could offer is their eternal gratitude, if anything. 

  1. Conception of good and technological advances

In order to carry out our duty to future generation, we believe that whatever we do for them is directed towards their chance to have a good life as we conceives it. Meanwhile, Brian Barry felt that the defining characteristics of human beings is their ability to form their own conceptions of the good life[v], so it would be presumptuous of the present generation to claim to know the choices of future generation as we surely will have differing tastes .


3.2       ARGUMENT FOR

1) Non-existence:

Even though future people do not yet exist, but constructing a moral theory of our obligations towards them is not unreasonable, since we start with the assumption that they will exist.  For Baier, the fact that they are not living persons in the present is irrelevant to the issue[vi]. Gregory Kavka, arguing against the non-existence issue, opined that location in space does not hold us back from attributing worthiness and giving aid, so, “Why should location in time be any different?”[vii] He argued that the moral obligation to save someone in need, or not to hurt them applies not only to people we know, but to strangers as well. Then, if we call future people the future strangers, this obligation should apply to them as well.

2) Non-identity:

The controversy with the non-identity problem is not the question of whether these people are going to exist or not, it’s rather the question of who they will be. To this extent, one can claim that Narveson’s account is quite individualistic, the identity of the people is irrelevant to the fact that there most possibly will be a society of humans in the future. As many authors formulate their arguments from this assumption (i.e. Joel Feinberg9), the identity of the individuals in the society does not matter, as long as we accept that they will be rational human beings. “There is nobody who can contemplate the question whether he should or should not be conceived-if he’s in a position to contemplate this, then he has already been” (Narveson, 1978, pp.50). The point here is that we can make the living conditions of a group of people better or worse. Who they are does not change the fact that what we do has a moral significance as well. The basic needs of people, do not change with their identities. “They are not merely possible persons, they are whichever possible persons will in the future be actual” (Baier, 1981, pp.174). Thus, the non-identity problem does not constitute a strong challenge to the idea of leaving ‘as much and as good’ resources for our successors. 

3) Reciprocity:

Although future people cannot reciprocate, it is not a favour we are bestowing upon them when we take on the responsibility to leave them a habitable environment; reasonable conditions to live a ‘good enough’ life.


4.0                   POVERTY AND OVER-POPULATION

According to Thomas Malthus, high level of child birth and poverty[viii] goes hand in hand. Thus, he felt that reason supposed to propel anyone to refrain from bringing beings into the world for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence[ix]. Malthus presents the situation of a man who refuses to consider this principle:


….Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he as present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? And if he has a large family, will his utmost exertions enable him to support them? May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them? And may he not be reduced to the grating necessity of forfeiting his independence, and of being obliged to the sparing hand of charity for support?[x]


Furthermore, recent researches has shown that child birth control do matter for poverty reduction-for poor households and for poor countries[xi].


5.0                   CONCLUSION

Attributing rights to future generations is essential to forming an intergenerational justice theory. However, by assigning rights to future people, we are entailing duties on ourselves. Human rights are intrinsically mutual; there are the duty-bearers and the right-holders. That is why opposing to attributing rights to future people seems like the rational thing to do. Since they do not exist yet, we cannot see the damage we inflict on their living conditions.

Beckerman (1999, 2001), Parfit (1984), Warren (1978), Macklin (1981) and Schwartz (1978) are among the most prominent supporters of the idea that these non-existent, non-sentient creatures cannot have rights. Because they do not exist, they do not have interests. Because they are not sentient, they cannot make the claims themselves. Because they are affected by everything we do, their identities are contingent on our actions. Because they cannot reciprocate our sacrifices, it is not rational on our part. And because they might have astonishingly developed technologies in their possession, they will not need the resources we are dependent on now.

Furthermore, often, the distinction between the overlapping and the remote-future people is quite clear cut for thinkers on the subject. We will have no relation to them and even though the Kantian moral philosophy advocates concern for all regardless of kinship or any other relationship, the rational animal that is the human being shall not sacrifice his interests and desires.

However, the arguments of non-existence, non-sentience and non-identity have been analysed. Mostly, even those who oppose to the idea of attributing rights to future people start with the assumption that future people will in fact come into existence. Thus, the non-existence issue gravitates towards the non-sentience issue. The latter is essential to the argument of being able to have interests and to claim rights, lodge complaints of violations. But since the effects of resource depletion and environmental degradation are already noticeable today, it has been argued above that legitimate proxies can be the bearer of their rights. The crux of the non-identity problem, on the other hand, is that even if we assign rights to non-existent future people or adjust our policies to suit the interests of the future generations, it does not affect them. Because then, they will most certainly not exist and other people instead of them will be born. This dilemma can be overcome with the idea that a group of people will indeed benefit, or minimally not be harmed consequent to our alteration of our policies. Additionally, we do not possess the knowledge of who will be born beforehand. However, even if a complete change in the identities of future people occurred because of our good-will actions, if there is no right to existence, this shall not affect our judgement. The ones who are born, though, will have a right to life with their basic needs provided such as clean air, water and soil. It is highly unlikely that the technological advances in two hundred years or so, will let people live without these. It has been argued that future people’s conceptions of good of might

be different than ours. However, the need for basic needs are not likely to change even if in the future plastic trees were to be more appreciated than real ones.

This paper has not touched upon the theme of past generations. Although it has been suggested that they did not deliberately make us suffer consequences of our actions. If we are to decide that all in all, we do not have the slightest concern for future people after long deliberation, it is unlikely that they thank us for being alive instead of other people, as Schwartz (1978) or Parfit (1984) has suggested.

In conclusion, future people shall be assigned rights. Intergenerational justice is a feasible context in morality. It might be overruled by economists for not being rational, if rationality is to be perceived as pursuing own interests regardless of any consequences on others. However, intergenerational justice is an essential part of anthropocentric environmental ethics and through the care we intrinsically have for our direct descendants, it may be extended to remote-future generations.

[i] Globalization 101, “The Battle Over Birth Control for Developing Nations”, August 6th 2012 Source: http://www.globalization101.org/the-battle-over-birth-control-for-developing-nations/

[ii] C.f. (Gosseries & Meyer, 2009, pp.3).

[iii] Narveson, Jan. 1978. Future People and Us. In Obligations to Future Generations. Ed. Sikora, R.I and Barry, Brian. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 43


[iv] De-Shalit, Avner. 1995. Why Posterity Matters Environmental Policies and Future Generations. London: Routledge, p.72


[v] C.f. Barry, Brian. 1999. “Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice” in. Dobson, Andrew. Fairness and Futurity Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.104


[vi] Baier, Annette. 1981. The Rights of Past and Future Persons. In Responsibilities to Future Generations Environmental Ethics. Ed. Partridge, Ernest. New York: Prometheus Books, p.173


[vii] Kavka, Gregory S. 1978. The Futurity Problem. In Obligations to Future Generations. Ed. Sikora, R.I and Barry, Brian. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p.188


[viii] Poverty is seen as pronounced deprivation in well-being, and comprises many dimensions. It includes low incomes and the inability to acquire the basic goods and services necessary for survival with dignity. Poverty also encompasses low levels of health and education, poor access to clean water and sanitation, inadequate physical security, lack of voice, and insufficient capacity and opportunity to better one’s life. (Cf. World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001, Washington, D.C: World Ban; and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000,p.23

[ix] Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), p.8


[xi] C.f. Thomas W. Merrick, ‘Population and Poverty: New Views on an Old Controversy’ in International Family Planning Perspecties Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2002, p.35

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