This Note advances a rights-oriented approach to our moral and legal relations with people who will exist long after we die. To understand the theoretical hurdles such an account must overcome, it is helpful to begin with an example. Its facts are stylized, but it is not purely hypothetical.
Suppose that we must choose one of two policies, Depletion or Conservation. If we choose Depletion, the world in the year 2200 will be much less hospitable than our world in a number of ways: fewer resources, more pollution, a weakened ozone layer, more vector-borne disease, less biological diversity, and so forth. Conditions in the Depleted future certainly will not be so dire as to make its inhabitants regret having been born, but their lives will in general be much more difficult than our lives today. Under the policy of Conservation, in contrast, we can expect the world of 2200 generally to resemble our own world. Suppose further that pursuing Depletion rather than Conservation advances the self-interested aims of those of us alive today to only a very slight degree.
Most of us intuitively believe that it would be wrong to choose Depletion, and we would look askance at any moral theory that did not ratify our reaction. Yet many of our normally reliable forms of moral reasoning have an extremely difficult time explaining why the adoption of Depletion would be wrong.
Bruhl, Aaron-Andrew P.
"Justice Unconceived: How Posterity Has Rights,"
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 14
, Article 4.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol14/iss2/4