Bioethics Blogs

Not content with temporal parochialism

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatal Ethics, Director of medical ethics

Why should we care about what happens to future generations? What reason do we have to sacrifice our own well-being and interests for the sake of people who will exist after we are dead?

Last night Professor Sam Scheffler from NYU gave the first of the 2015 Uehiro lectures on this controversial and challenging topic.  (The Audio file of the lecture will be made available here as soon as possible)

He started by observing a phenomenon he described as ‘temporal parochialism’. Our world has become increasingly globalized, and cosmopolitan. We recognize and care about the impact of our actions on people on the other side of the planet. However, Scheffler argued that we have at the same time become increasingly isolated in time – both from our ancestors and from our descendants. We do not appear to consider the moral concerns of the past to be relevant to our age, and we struggle to be motivated by the plight of people in the future. Should we be temporally as well as spatially broad-minded? Should we care about the far future?

Questions like the ones above are obviously highly important and relevant for policies on climate change. The Paris climate change deal was motivated in part by concern for future generations. However, Scheffler noted that policies on climate change affect people (both living and not yet born) with whom we might have relationships. Given that relationships form the basis for much moral concern, it is more straightforward to appreciate why we might be prepared to sacrifice some of our own wellbeing for the sake of theirs.

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.