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Environmental policy and 'the identity problem'

Pasek, J.; (1993) Environmental policy and 'the identity problem'. (CSERGE Working Papers GEC-19). CSERGE, University of East Anglia: Norwich, UK. Green open access

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Since Antiquity philosophy has abounded with provocative arguments in which what appear to be relatively simple and indisputable assumptions lead to unexpected and often baffling conclusions. Zeno's paradoxical arguments against the existence of motion (e.g. Achilles will never catch up the tortoise), or the Liar Paradox which undermines our belief that propositions must be either true or false, or Berkeley's argument against the existence of matter, are just a few examples. In contemporary discussion of the terms of intergenerational justice, which arises out of our concern with environmental problems and our sense of obligation to leave the world to our succesors in an inhabitable state, we encounter one particular argument which - very much like those time-honoured arguments mentioned above - appears to reach highly paradoxical conclusions. From rather simple assumptions, which we might be inclined to accept, we unexpectedly arrive at conclusions which most of us would be inclined to reject since they seem to violate deeply engrained convictions, or common sense, or our moral intuitions. Several authors have discoverd this particular argument, which is now known in the literature as the Identity Problem, or the Non-Identity Problem (both names come from Parfit), or as the Paradox of the Future Individuals (as Kavka calls it).2 The Identity Problem leads to the conclusion that, whatever policy we adopt towards the future, we are not harming future people. Therefore, we have no moral obligations towards them and we are free to choose any policy we like. Whatever choice we make, future generations would have no grounds for complaint even if we left them a very depleted world or exposed them to risks, such as the risks of nuclear radiation. There is no need to emphasize the possible practical significance of this conclusion if we were to accept it and to allow it to provide moral guidance. Much of the environmental debate involving economists, philosophers, politicians, and environmental activists would become pointless. It would no longer be morally relevant whether we leave to our successors enough natural resources and a clean and safe environment. Most of the major environmental questions (including the question of our moral obligations to future generations) discussed today would seem a waste of time. In a sense, therefore, the Paradox of Future Individuals is a prior problem as regards the problem of inter-generational justice. Only if it can be circumvented is there much point in pursuing further other aspects of inter-generational justice - e.g. whether one should adopt a Rawlsian framework, or a Utilitarian framework, or whatever. One of the most interesting apects of the apparently morally inadmissable Paradox of Future Individuals is that it does not follow from any assumptions about our selfishness, or our lack of concern about the future , or even from a belief in the priority of the needs of the present generations over those of future ones. Rather it claims to follow logically from certain assumptions concerning the concept of harm and the concept of personal identity . It is the purpose of this paper to discuss these assumptions and to argue that they do not, in fact, lead to the conclusion that we have no obligations to the future generations.

Type: Working / discussion paper
Title: Environmental policy and 'the identity problem'
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: http://www.uea.ac.uk/env/cserge/pub/wp/gec/gec_199...
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of Economics
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/18378
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