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Equal Rights For Futurians!
Tony Milligan tells a futuristic story about the rights of future people.
The statue of Boudicca shows the warrior queen urging on an invisible army with more than usual vigour. Striding past her plinth, a man approaches. He is dressed i n the classical style with a decorative partial-toga. His hand is raised and he booms: “Greetings Near Earthians!”
“We seem to be lost. What is this place?’ I reply, hoping that the natives are as friendly as they seem.
“Do not be alarmed. Disorientation is to be expected. Your machine – a remarkable contraption – has transported you to Real Earth. You are in Real London. This is the realest that London will ever be. You may find that certain things here are familiar; and as for uncertain things, they will remain uncertain. Above all, you will find that everything and everyone is slightly better than you’re accustomed to. The buildings are prone to slower decay. We have a functioning public transport system, and a political set-up that satisfies the most rigorous standards.” The man in white takes a moment to observe our travel-weary clothing. “Our streets are also cleaner.”
“I see,” I say. Turning to my navigator I ask, “I thought we were going home?”
“You may be,” the native interrupts, “but for the moment you will have to make do with something better than home.”
“You called us ‘Near Earthians’. Am I given to understand that the Earth is somewhere else, hopefully somewhere nearby?”
“Not entirely. That is, not geographically. Your Earth is one of many possible Earths. It is near only in the sense that it is nearly the same as this Earth.”
“I see. And you are?”
“I am Tomoros, a Member of Parliament for Specified Future Generations. You can call me Tommy. When we realized that you were coming, it suddenly dawned upon us that there was no-one to meet and warn you. And, well, the long and the short of it is that I’ve been sent down here.”
“Warn us? About what?”
Ignoring me, he says, “Of course, trans-world travellers – or as I like to call them, ‘meddlers’ – aren’t my thing at all. No, not at all. I represent the future for Parliament; or more precisely, a limited segment of the future. It’s a very important job.”
“Alright then, Tommy, you are a proper Member of Parliament, aren’t you? I mean the genuine item, with voting rights, and access to all the bars in the building?”
“And I suppose this representation for the future, or selective bits of the future, is part of what makes your Parliament slightly better than the one we’re familiar with?”
“Again, just so.”
“How does that work? I mean, do you pop back and forth between times carrying out surveys, canvassing opinion, that sort of thing? Or do you just run a committee?”
“Ah! You’ve hit the nub of the matter directly on its head. Having recognized that it would be quite wrong to use up all the Earth’s resources for our own generation, some of us thought it wise to accept that future generations had, or will have, interests that ought to be factored into our present legislative process. We started a campaign for equal rights. ‘Equal Rights for Futurians!’ we cried. Halcyon days they were, halcyon days! But since our political culture turned out to be slightly better than anything you will be familiar with, the call was taken up and acted upon, after a fashion. All I do now is sit on committees and draft reports. It’s rather dull work. I was almost glad when you arrived.”
My companion smiles engagingly and launches into his sales routine, “I’ve got the machine that will allow you to make direct contact with your constituents and find out what your Futurians really want…”
“Oh no!” replies Tommy, rather shocked. “We ruled out that kind of thing years ago! We legislated against it at great length. Besides, what if we made contact with what seemed like our future, but it turned out to belong to someone else? Think of the embarrassment, the confusion, the legal costs. Instead of dubious temporal meddling, we simply accept the moral standing of future generations, and then make our best shot at giving due regard to their reasonable wants, needs and entitlements. We estimate how our actions could impinge upon them, and whether or not we would be doing anything wrong by acting in one way rather than another.”
“So you wing it?” I ask.
“Well, if you mean that we have to estimate the probable outcomes of various actions under conditions of uncertainty, then yes, we wing it. In any case, the relevant determination requires no detailed knowledge about the future at all. It requires only the reasonable probability that there will be a future, and that future generations will be a part of it. But even if there turned out to be no Futurians at all, our present actions would still be wrong if we overlooked the reasonable likelihood that there could be.”
“So you grant rights to these hypothetical individuals?”
“That’s a curious thing. We thought about doing that, but on closer inspection we decided that concern for future individuals would, in most instances, misfire. I’m actually the Member of Parliament for ‘Almost-Definitely-Going-to-Exist-but-Fairly-Distant Future Generations’. I don’t have anything at all to do with future individuals, not even hypothetical ones.”
“But how can you represent anybody if you don’t represent individuals? And in any case, why would you want to?”
“Well, at first it was decided that there should be safeguards to protect future individuals. But then it was pointed out by a thinker called Parfit …”
“You mean the philosopher Derek Parfit?”
“Yes, but not your one – although ours is at least as good as yours. Well, our Parfit pointed out that even relatively minor changes in current policies would lead to cumulative radical alterations in future persons.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“It’s really quite simple. Policy affects public behaviour, and alterations in public behaviour influence who will subsequently exist. Each of us is alive only because we were conceived precisely when we were conceived. If our parents had a child a month earlier, then most of us would not be here at all. Even relatively minor alterations at some point in the past would have rippled through spacetime with the result that other humans would have been born in our place, if anybody was born at all. So since public policies affect actions, they cannot concern a fixed future that will be enjoyed by a particular specifiable group of individuals. They can only concern the generation of people that the policies themselves help to bring into existence.”
“I still don’t get it,” my navigator replies. “Why don’t you just make things as fair as possible for as many people as you can?”
“That isn’t so simple,” the MP says. “Suppose that we deplete natural resources with the result that some future persons, call them Mary, Tom and Alice, are less well-off than we would wish. The environment in which they live is impoverished in various respects. What this actually means, is that they turn out to be less well-off than some other people who would have existed instead of them had we pursued a less damaging policy. Let’s call these other people Barney, Iquabod and Taneth.”
“If you must,” replies my companion critically.
“Well, this means that when we deplete resources, we’re not doing harm to Mary, Tom and Alice. We’re not violating any of their individual rights: if anything, we’re helping them to exist rather than harming them. If we didn’t deplete resources they’d simply never be born. If anybody is harmed by our actions, it’s the individuals who don’t get to exist. But that’s a harm we can’t avoid inflicting. Besides which, it’s a harm that nobody ever suffers from, and so perhaps it’s not really a harm at all.”
“I see,” my companion replies. “But of course there will be some people who will still be around no matter what you do?”
“Maybe so. If there are any people of that sort, then they do get harmed by bad policies. But generation by generation, there will be fewer and fewer of them, because policy increasingly affects breeding options. If the time of harm is sufficiently distant, there were be none of those people at all.”
My companion is puzzled: “What I don’t understand is, what if the future is fixed? What if it’s all determined by physics?”
“Well,” replies Tommy, “in that case, our deliberations aren’t harming anyone – or at least, they’re not harming anyone in a way that could be avoided. If they are morally wrong their wrongness is of a mitigated and unavoidable sort. It’s not a matter of villainy or moral carelessness.”
“I see’, replies my companion. “So remind me again, just who do you represent, if you don’t represent future people?”
“I represent particular future generations at relatively distant future times. They are the generations that we are pretty much certain will exist, no matter what we do… short of rendering the planet uninhabitable.”
“So,” I say, “these future generations have just as good a claim as the current generation upon presently available resources?”
“Again, not quite straightforwardly. The earth has finite resources, and although there will only ever be a finite number of future generations, there may and probably will be a great many of them. Equal consideration for all generations would result in nobody at all being allowed to live at all well. Life would in fact be wildly impractical, unless we took measures to ensure that the ranks of Futurians would be exceptionally small. And that would involve restricting their freedom is various unacceptable ways.”
“So what do you do?” I ask.
“Well, it’s a combination of things. Mostly we try to make sure that nobody gets to build ecological time bombs – on your Earth they’re known as ‘nuclear power stations’. We also try to avoid actions that would result in extinctions. And, unless we have essential needs that would otherwise be neglected, we try to ensure that the resources we use have a reasonable likelihood of being replaced by something else just as good; and that their sourcing doesn’t itself cause excessive and irreparable damage.”
“Does all of this work?”
“Some of it… We’re not quite sure, but we hope so.”
“But how does it all get done? I mean how does your political system cope with present problems and the future too?”
“Good heavens! Is that the time?” replies Tommy, who looks at his watch and then glances anxiously into the distance before starting to back away. “I really cannot stay another moment! You too should be going!”
“What’s happening?” my navigator asks.
“We have, as I mentioned before, very strict views about people who jump from time to time. Temporal intrusion is seriously offensive to us. I was sent here to warn you to leave as quickly as possible, before the ‘Nobody Owns Time’ marchers arrive and start a riot. And here they come!… If you could also avoid travelling to anything that looks like our future as well, we really would be most grateful!” Tommy’s retreat turns into a headlong scramble as a noisy crowd is heard approaching.
Desperately I cry out after him: “What about the political mechanisms… the institutions required to make it all happen?” But it’s too late. My navigator has gently pulled me inside, and he’s frantically trying to crank-start the engine.
© Tony Milligan 2011
Tony Milligan is the author of Beyond Animal Rights, and is currently finishing off a volume on Love for Acumen’s Art of Living series.