Bioethics Blogs

Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world—problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on—almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

This is where our research started. We wanted to find out whether people, when faced with the option to keep resources for themselves or to pass them on to future generations, would look out only for themselves – or if, at their own cost, they would provide for people in the future whom they would never meet. Along with our colleagues Alex Peysakhovich and Martin Nowak of Harvard University, we set up an online experiment to discover the answer.

We recruited approximately 3,000 Americans from the online labour market Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.