On future rights and contradictions

In an introductory philosophy class I took a few years ago, I encountered an argument (presented as an example to analyze logical structure, not as one the instructor necessarily endorsed) that has intrigued me for quite a while. It may not be entirely defensible, but it is somewhat thought-provoking nonetheless.

The argument was as follows:

  1. The liberal position on abortion is based on the idea that a human fetus either has no rights or its rights can easily be overridden.
  2. The liberal position on the preservation of the environment is based on the idea that future human beings have rights that cannot be easily overridden.
  3. Therefore, (many) liberals maintain both that either the fetus has no rights or its rights can be overridden and that we have obligations to future generations.
  4. But it is inconsistent to claim that we can have obligations to future human beings who do not yet exist and at the same time claim that we have no obligation to existing (though unborn) human beings.
  5. Therefore, the liberal positions on abortion and environmental ethics are inconsistent.

I had presented this argument before in another forum at the time I first encountered it, and it was fairly clear from the response that premise 4 was questionable, primarily (and this should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the debate) referring to “human beings,” a description which some object to when applied to the fetus.

What has always fascinated me about this argument, however, is the underlying notion that it makes no sense to guarantee rights to some non-actualized humans (and here I will try to use neutral terms where appropriate) but not to one that have at least in a sense been actualized or have begun that process.* There is something appealing to me in this idea, and I think there is a seed of something more in it.

While it is couched as a liberal argument, the argument for preserving the environment is compelling for many on both sides. It might be useful here to underscore what it entails: 1) Preserving the environment is predicated on the notion that a) the negligent actions of humans often contribute to the degradation of the earth and that b) we ought to act such that (as much as is possible) future generations are able to enjoy and benefit from the earth in something like its earlier pristine state or at least not more degraded; 2) in order to achieve (1b), deliberate action (such as recycling and general conservation of energy) is necessary in addition to the omission of detrimental actions. (1b) is also clearly a moral injunction.

Where the argument gets stuck, in my opinion, is in the vague generality of “future generations”; a common objection I encountered was the notion that persons that are not fully actualized (e.g. aborted fetuses) do not constitute a part of “future generations.” (Consider miscarriage: certainly a miscarried fetus or embryo does not have a right to a preserved environment since he/she will never enjoy it.) So the detractor will say that the guarantee of rights applies only to non-actualized persons that will be actualized.

I’ll grant this, but consider the following scenario. Suppose that every citizen is entitled to receive an acre of land from the government when he/she turns eighteen according to their constitution. But the head of this government realizes that there will not be sufficient acreage to give every teenager about to cross over into adulthood the appropriate allotment. He then sends out a SWAT team to murder the graduating classes of half the high schools in the nation.

Now this scenario might be a little extreme, but it approaches the issue that concerns me most: Abortion is an active denial of rights that would have been otherwise guaranteed to that person upon becoming a fully actualized person (e.g. being born, by the stated heuristic). It is also intentional and not merely negligent by inaction (as a person who simply ignored environmental concerns would be). Finally, it is prejudicial in that it ensures that only those who are permitted to reach full actualization as a person will get the rights entitled to them by the position on environmental preservation, and thus the moral injunction of (1b) above is broken: it is now permissible for “actualizing” humans (ones that have been conceived but not yet born) to be denied the rights otherwise guaranteed to them simply because they don’t have the rights yet. (Perhaps one could argue that the liberal position is inconsistent with a robust position on civil rights – but I will not attempt to do so here.)

Of course, there are far more issues in the complexity of the debate, but I think this should cause proponents of both positions to hesitate for a moment and consider the implications a little further.


*Suppose we consider actualization of personhood to be on a spectrum; sperm and egg gametes are unactualized before conception, a fertilized egg that does not attach to the uterine wall is partially actualized but will not complete that process, and so forth to birth, when the child can be thought to have become a person in practically anyone’s estimation. This might not be quite palatable for those who hold firm to conception as the point at which personhood culminates in the spiritual and/or biological sense, but it is somewhat necessary to argue the point to underscore any potential inconsistency.

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