Horizons of moral duties

Future People
October 20, 2006

Ever since the publication in 1984 of Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons , moral philosophers have been occupied with the search for a theory that will explain and justify the imperative to extend our responsibility to the future. Such responsibility entails a duty not just to people we know to exist, but to hypothetical people who may never exist. The search has also been for a rational theory by which to determine the scope of our duty to people separated from us spatially, a rational global ethic, a topic on which Tim Mulgan also touches in Future People , despite the title of his book.

Mulgan argues for a theory that is a limited form of consequentialism. The simplest form of consequentialism holds that we have a duty to perform that act that will be productive of the most highly valued Benthamite utilitarianism - the most of what is intrinsically good, in the theories of Franz Brentano or G. E. Moore, for example. Such a theory runs into insoluble difficulties over the possibility of calculating the future outcome of individual actions; and Mulgan sensibly prefers what is known as rule-consequentialism, according to which people adopt a set of principles, some incorporated in criminal law, the general adherence to which has the best outcome.

Mulgan, like Aristotle, starts from what is seen to be the case, that there are certain values very widely shared by all human beings. These he divides into two types: the satisfaction of basic biological human needs and the aspirational values (though he does not use this term) such as are shared by human beings as creatures possessed of hope and imagination. If we have a duty to follow those principles that will maximise values of both kinds, not only for everyone in the entire world now but for everyone who may exist in the future, then we are faced with a burden of obligation that is realistically intolerable. The main thread running through Mulgan's book is the attempt to place restrictions on our duties in such a way as to make moral decisions possible in the real world.

In pursuing this general aim, Mulgan concentrates, though not exclusively, on the principled considerations that should enter into the decision as to whether or not to have a child - that is, to bring into existence a new person to whom one has an obligation. Bringing up a child costs money.

Would not that money be more dutifully spent on a donation to a charity such as Oxfam, or on training to become a doctor so as to spend one's life relieving the symptoms of Aids sufferers in Africa? And there is also the calculation of how many people there ought to be in the world. Is one wrongfully cluttering up the world by adding to the number? One of the intuitive moral preferences that Mulgan proposes is for freedom to make procreative choices. To be coerced into having children or forbidden to do so, especially by the state, would be an agreed moral wrong; therefore the decision whether or not to have a baby is a personal moral decision, albeit founded on general principles.

More or less coinciding with the division between needs and aspirations, Mulgan draws another distinction, between the realm of necessity and the realm of reciprocity. Decisions made within the first realm concern people with whom we have no connection. These decisions are of a different order from those we make in the second. That is where the people affected by our decisions form part of a "moral community" (not necessarily a geographical community). And although we may have duties with regard to people within the realm of necessity (for example, to contribute to disaster relief), such duties cannot be regarded in the same light as those that arise within the realm of reciprocity. The duty to pay for piano lessons for our child will, as a general rule, trump the duty to send that money to Oxfam.

Put baldly like this, Mulgan's theory may look like nothing but an assertion of commonsense morality. And, up to a point, Mulgan would not mind. For he does not wish to lose sight of common sense or everyday moral intuition. His theory is meant to justify such intuitions.

In any case, to put it baldly is by no means to give the flavour of his closely argued theorising. This is not a book for the fainthearted. It is written in a now familiar philosophical style - high abstract, with many named arguments and counterarguments, which required me to constantly turn back in the text to remind myself which was which. There are, it is true, numerous invented case histories to illustrate the problems. But Mulgan is nothing if not politically correct; so most of the protagonists in these little stories are women. Whatever the value of his conclusions, along the way one finds oneself inhabiting a bleak universe, a possible world chillingly unlike the world we know, where solitary women sit weighing up whether to become pregnant (somehow or other) or take off to the developing countries overseas, never to return. It is not, and was not intended to be, a jolly read.

Baroness Warnock taught philosophy at Oxford University until 1985 and was mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, from 1985 to 1991.

Future People: A Moderate Consequentialist Account of Our Obligations to Future Generations

Author - Tim Mulgan
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 384
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 19 928220 X

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