Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Problem of Future Generations: Part I

Any attempt to establish a cooperative, inter-generational morality will have to contend with the vexing puzzle known as the "Problem of Future Generations." Although this is vexing for all moral perspectives, it is especially vexing for social contract theories. Let's take a quick look at social contract theory. There are several competing formulations of social contract theory; all of which are all descended from the original eighteenth-century contractarian philosophers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. The eighteenth century social contract theorists were mostly concerned with the formation of national governments, however, social contract theory, if valid, ought to be equally applicable to the formation of non-governmental groups, especially businesses, military organizations, gangs, families, and sports teams. The two basic questions that face all social contract theories are: "Why join a community?" and "Why stay?" The answers to these questions are usually based on two competing theories (narratives) of human nature: communitarianism and individualism.

Communitarians since Aristotle have argued that human beings live in cooperative groups by nature. The underlying idea behind all social contract theories is that "society" is the product of deliberate cooperation. The rub here is what do we mean my "deliberate?" Back in the eighteenth century Rousseau, a communitarian, argued that human beings living "naturally" in groups develop a "general will" or, what we'd call a "mental mechanism" that predisposes us to act based on the interests of the group, even in opposition to their own self-interest. For now, let's call it altruism.  In other words, human beings living in a "state of nature" deliberately sacrifice their own self-interest for the group. Implicit in this approach is that individual contractors actually "know" specifically what those group interests entail. Here it is important to note that the social contract theorists are are profound philosophers and that their theories are enormously complex. One such complication is how to integrate social organization based on leadership and followership into their theory. In a short blog, I can't get into that right now. But I'll try to cover it later. Sorry. My friend Peter Corning, an excellent contemporary social contract theorist has written a book called The Fair Society that addresses many of the puzzles that confront communitarian social contract theory. I'll examine some of his arguments in a forthcoming entry for the APLS Blog.
Locke, an individualist, argued that the "state of nature" for humans is individual, and that human beings forge groups based on self-interest. Thus, communities that violate the interests of individual members tend to lose members. Why? Because there is no "general will" apart from the wills of the individuals that comprise those groups.  Hence, all "wills" are individual and all rights are individual rights. In other words, human beings "cooperate" with others and form "groups" because they deliberately and rationally conclude that at least sometimes, we are "better off" cooperating with some groups rather than others. Therefore, in the absence of a "general will" many communities simply employ coercive force to hold their community together.

Evolutionary ethicists observe that we are most likely to form groups based on "kin-altruism;" that is to say, we are genetically predisposed to cooperate with other human beings that are genetically related to us. Knowledge of genetic relatedness is less certain for males than females, therefore, males must often rely on other sensory cues, most obviously: "Does this other person(s) look enough like me to be my son, daughter, brother, sister, aunt, uncle etc? During the Pleistocene era hunters and gathers lived in small, genetically related kin groups that formed cooperative in-groups. The "general will" for kin-altruism is genetic. So how can the social contract extend beyond kin groups? Cooperative groups comprised of strangers require trust. When Pleistocene in-groups encountered neighboring out-groups that looked very different (call them strangers) they were more inclined to compete (kill them) than cooperate. Thus evolutionarily, one of the main problems for social contract theory is how to explain how strangers can ever become included within any contracting group. There are many possible explanations. One way is to follow Rousseau and postulate a complex "mental mechanism" or brain function that corresponds to a "general will."

Individualists argue that if there is a such thing as a "general will,' it would be revealed in democratic political processes. However, consensus in large groups of strangers is rarely achieved. If there is such a thing as a general will, it is more likely to emerge out of small homogenous groups than heterogenous groups comprised of multiple racial, religious, ethnic groups, or even age groups. Thus modern democratic nation states like the United States have a problem reconciling conflicting "general wills." Therefore, any large-group communitarian social contract theory will have to explain how to develop a national (or global) "general will" that trumps conflicting wills of constitutive small groups, or individuals. Peter covers this as well as any social contract theorist.

Now, back to the problem of future generations...Here's the basic problem. If there is a such thing as a "general will," how can it extend beyond the present generation? After all, future generations are, what I'd call, the ultimate strangers. They don't even exist yet! Does the present generation of contractors have duties toward  future generations of humans? Or, in other words, do future generations have rights? If so, what are those rights? We'll cover that in Part II.                                                

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