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Intergenerational justice and the chain of obligation


  • Richard Howarth


The actions and decisions taken by the present generation will affect not only the welfare but also the composition of future generations. A number of authors have used this fact to bolster the conclusion that the present is only weakly obligated to provide for future welfare since in choosing between futures of poverty and abundance, we are not deciding the welfare of a well-defined group of future persons but instead deciding which set of potential persons Ð the poor or the rich Ð will become actual. Provided that future generations have lives that are worth living, they will be grateful to us for bringing them into existence Ð or so the argument goes. In this paper, I argue that this position overlooks an important aspect of the intergenerational problem. We are obligated to provide for the actual children of today, who will in turn be obligated to provide for their children, and so forth from generation to generation. A chain of obligation is thus defined that stretches from the present into the indefinite future, and unless we ensure conditions favourable to the welfare of future generations, we wrong our existing children in the sense that they will be unable to fulfill their obligation to their children while enjoying a favourable way of life themselves.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard Howarth, 1992. "Intergenerational justice and the chain of obligation," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 1(2), pages 133-140, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:env:journl:ev1:ev109

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    Cited by:

    1. Illge, Lydia & Schwarze, Reimund, 2009. "A matter of opinion--How ecological and neoclassical environmental economists and think about sustainability and economics," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(3), pages 594-604, January.
    2. John C. V. Pezzey, 2004. "Sustainability Policy and Environmental Policy," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 106(2), pages 339-359, June.
    3. Toman, Michael & Pezzey, John C., 2002. "The Economics of Sustainability: A Review of Journal Articles," Discussion Papers dp-02-03, Resources For the Future.
    4. repec:bla:metroe:v:68:y:2017:i:1:p:147-184 is not listed on IDEAS

    More about this item


    environment; philosophy; intergenerational justice; obligations to future generations;

    JEL classification:

    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth


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