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Should we discount future generations’ welfare? A survey on the “pure” discount rate debate

Listed author(s):
  • Grégory Ponthière

In A Mathematical Theory of Saving (1928), Frank Ramsey not only laid the foundations of the fruitful optimal growth literature, but also launched a major moral debate: should we discount future generations’ well-being? While Ramsey regarded such “pure” discounting as “ethically indefensible”, several philosophers and economists have developed arguments justifying the “pure” discounting practice since the early 1960s. This essay consists of a survey of those arguments. After a brief examination of the – often implicit – treatment of future generations’ welfare by utilitarian thinkers before Ramsey’s view was expressed, later arguments of various kinds are analysed. It is argued that, under the assumption of perfect certainty regarding future human life, the “pure” discounting practice seems ethically untenable. However, once we account for the uncertainty regarding future generations’ existence, “pure” discounting seems more acceptable, even if strong criticisms still remain, especially regarding the adequateness of the expected utility theory in such a normative context. those limits would be faced by any other consequences-based ethical theory in front of Different Number Choices.

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Paper provided by Centre de Recherche en Economie Publique et de la Population (CREPP) (Research Center on Public and Population Economics) HEC-Management School, University of Liège in its series CREPP Working Papers with number 0302.

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Date of creation: 2003
Handle: RePEc:rpp:wpaper:0302
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