24 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind?

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Dear friends,

I managed to write a very short essay for this Sunday’s topic: Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind? However, I did not have enough time to check it over again. Hence apologies for any typos etc. If I find any big blunders I’ll make the necessary corrections to the copy on the blog.

Take care and see you Sunday,



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Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind?

A few years ago it was quite fashionable for some heads of states especially in Africa to demand an apology from their ex colonisers for the occupation of their land and for any slave trade that took place. Usually such requests had a financial demand attached to them. There was even a feverish rush by all sorts of organisations and institutions to get on the public relations act. Even the Vatican had occasion to apologise for events that took place over the last few centuries. The details are of course not important for our purposes.

I never felt comfortable with these public relations events. Not because atonement and apologies were not deserved, but because the real intentions of those involved were not, shall we say, clear not to mention suspicion. I mean why now? Especially when events in question took place decades if not centuries ago?

Another reason why I was never too keen on this “Apology Game” is because these leaders never seemed to be too concerned with the suffering and exploitations of others. For example, as far as I know, they never demanded the set up of an authority powerful enough to stop any inhumane and exploitative acts by today’s powers. Today, in 2008, we still have slavery, child labour, exploitations of resources and minerals of poor countries and so on.

The theme of our social, political and economic legacies has a number of important of ethical and philosophical issues. The first of which is, who are the “we” in the question? Is there a difference between the collective we and the individual “we”?

Do we have a duty to future generations or people? We certainly have a duty to our neighbour, but it is not philosophically clear whether we also have a duty to future generations. It is not that certain vested interests do not try to exploit this theme, it is just that it is not clear who is the object of future duties are. Even the ten commandments are silent on this theme.

And by the same logic, are we today responsible for the acts of past generations? This question, however, is a more complex question. If, and in many cases, since, we benefit from the exploits of our ancestors, there seems to be a prima facie case of a moral link between us and our ancestors. But this very reasoning also implies that there is at least a prima facie case of ethical link with the ancestors of those who were exploited. The issues that this raises is what is the nature of this moral link? And what are our obligations?

These two aspects of our question, future generations and decedents of past victims, seem to introduce a rather awkward paradox. Other things being equal, if we learn from “our” past experiences (i.e. moral values) how can we today be held responsible for acts that happened when in the past “we” didn’t have such moral knowledge and experience? However, our moral knowledge today makes it obvious to us that “we” did something morally unacceptable in the past.

The “we” in the question needs further examination anyway. We can just about cope with our identity over our life time, but how do we accommodate the identity of a state over centuries. Of course, for practical purposes we do assume that there is a link between us and our past ancestors. But how does moral responsibility work here? How does moral responsibility work over time?

But let’s look at the “we” factor first. Personal responsibility certainly transcends over time. And in many cases even after death. For example, prisoners can be pardoned for crimes that they did not commit but were found guilt in a court of law. Some contracts can continue after death by transferring rights and duties to the next of kin: for example in England and Wales some freehold properties might involve duties towards others such as right of way. Hence someone who inherits this property also inherits the duty to maintain the right of way open to the public.

At face value countries do apply more or less the same criteria over time and generation. But can we also transfer moral responsibility over time and generations: if we cannot then surely we cannot use the ethical model for the individual as a model for the collective group (nation, state, group). In other words, what we cannot apply to individuals the chances are that we cannot apply to groups. Groups are after all made up of individuals.

One of the key elements of moral responsibility is intention. So how can someone intend something when they were not even born yet? Maybe it is reasonable for a child to inherit some of the responsibility of their parents especially if the child also enjoys some real benefit. But how can we stretch this principle to generations in the past or the future? After all we are born into a world as we find it and not as we would like it to be, if that is, we can have any opinion about the world after nine months of existence.

And when we do consider the future this can easily lead to some absurd conclusions as well. For example, let us assume that a nation today is guilty of some immoral deed. We have no problem with today holding this nation (and individuals as well) responsible for this act. Some might even want to seek retribution or compensation, or reparations if it is a war. But what would be the necessary and sufficient conditions for future generation not to inherit the guilt of the bad nation today?

But even if today we seek and get compensation for any evil deeds then surely future generation won’t have to feel guilty, responsible or tender apologies for the actions of their ancestors today. Once compensation is paid in full then surely we have no right to apportion guilt for something that has been already atoned. But if future generations are also to be guilty of some deed their ancestors committed then what are the options? One absurd alternative is to make sure that these future generations won’t be born at all; if today the nation is guilty and future generations are to be guilty, then surely the alternative is not to have any future generations. But this idea is so stupid and absurd that it is not even worth contemplating.

But there is still a downside to paying compensation. The victims of any evil deed would still feel the consequences even after compensation. And moreover, future generations might still suffer the consequences whether compensation has been paid or not. for example, what if a nation uses chemical weapons in a conflict that poison all the waterways and forests in their enemy’s countryside? Maybe compensation is paid but the victims of this unreasonable attack would still be without a countryside.

We usually accept moral responsibility if what we do was intended and done with a free will. We also consider something to be bad, wrong or evil if it does some harm to others. But nit just any old harm, but surely harm that could have been foreseen and certainly out of proportion. In the example I gave about chemical weapons, maybe if we had alternative options this would have been unjustified. But we cannot really say what is justified or not without knowing the context; in the same way that we do not know what vocabulary we should use when we’re talking without knowing the context. However, what we are really concerned with is this: when is a legacy bad enough that future generations have to be responsible for it?

The problem with legacies is that we do not always know what the effects of what we do today will be like in the future. I wonder whether the Romans realised that they were building death traps for today’s car driving youths with their straight roads. Those who have driven in Italy would know what I mean.

Just as it is difficult for us to ascribe responsibility over time, it is also difficult for us to access future consequences of what we do today. (see for example Unintended Consequences By Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, in the New York Times, Published: January 20, 2008)

Which brings me back to the paradox. It is difficult for us to ascribe responsibility over generations because many key factors that establish moral responsibility are not clear or established beyond doubt. And yet we are repulsed that certain wrongs are not made right.

I have already hinted at a possible way out of this paradox. As far as the past is concerned, I think we have to make sure that we learn from it and that we remember any lessons. Therefore, at the very least, today’s generation ought to learn the lessons of the past. but as far as the past is concerned it does not make sense for today’s generation to play the “apology game.”• Of course, I do not propose this option to make it easy for shady heads of states to score cheap public relations coups.

Maybe we can adopt the same attitude scientists adopt when they learn from past mistakes. Today not scientist is allowed to expose themselves to x-ray radiation without full protection. It therefore makes no sense today to condemn the French scientific community just because Marie Curie did not use any protection when she was experimenting (and discovering) this very dangerous energy source. However, it makes full sense, and imposes a duty, for scientists not to allow anyone to expose themselves to x-ray radiation without the necessary protection.

In other words, if today there is someone somewhere who is exposed to x-ray radiation and is not fully protected then we have a duty to stop this immediately. However, I am sure that today there are many people who operate x-ray machines and are not fully protected. In the same way that today there are many slaves and no one is demanding their liberty, or people who are exploited for their labour but we still buy the cheap goods they are forced to make, or oppressed by governments, or victimised by religions or shunned by communities and so forth.

The issue is not whether we are responsible for our legacies, but whether we have a duty for to learn from the legacies we inherit. I certainly think I have established a duty to learn from the legacies we inherit, which in my opinion would serve us well when come to leave legacies for future generations.

Take care


Unintended Consequences By Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, in the New York Times, Published: January 20, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20wwln-freak-t.html

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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we responsible for the legacies we leave behind?

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