Last night I heard an argument used in relation to the climate change argument and Man’s alleged role in driving it, that went along the following lines: We have a responsibility to ensuing generations, maybe even those around 1,000 years or so hence, which means we should do X or Y to curb CO2 emissions etc to ensure that these future generations’ lives are not blighted.
Now of course nothing is more likely to get your humble blogger annoyed than the “Do it for the children” line. The precautionary principle: do nothing if you cannot prove it will not cause harm – would have killed the Industrial Revolution at birth, prevented any life-saving drug from having been brought to market, been used to shut down scientific speculation, space-faring, advanced dental surgery, modern medicine, the whole 9 yards of human endeavour. And the problem with the argument that says “We have a responsibility to generations yet unborn” is that it demands a great deal. How on earth can I or others evaluate the proper limits or scope of such a responsibility? What about the Law of Unintended Consequences? For instance, if we adopt the PP, and we severely curtail the pace of industrial development, scientific advance or economic growth, will we not bring about disastrous consequences for our children, grand-children and so on? In fact, if folk want to bring up the issue of “Do it for the kids”, I tend to respond that if we are to take this sort of multi-generational responsibility, then we should go for as much freedom and growth as possible, and not the other way around.
Another way to think about this is from the position of scarcity, both in terms of time and resources. I only have so much time in my life to make the sort of adjustments that I might hope to benefit my kids, or my grandkids, or whatever. I also only have so many resources at my disposal. And with that in mind, I think that governments – which after all are only collections of persons – have only fixed resources and time at their disposal too, and that there are major tradeoffs to be considered in stifling a technology A to benefit a technology B. Simply repeating that we “owe it to our children” does not take us very far. All too often, in fact, the line about protecting future generations can easily descend into a form of argument by intimidation, a sort of moral bullying.
When it comes to bad arguments used in conversations on topics like this, Jamie Whyte’s gem of a book repays a lot of reading for avoiding pitfalls.
Of course, as a final point, the “Do it for the kids” argument frequently comes from those advocates of greater state controls who are blind to the damage that the state does, sometimes deliberately, to the institution of the family. The ironies abound.