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Giving Future Generations a Voice in the 21st Century
Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni
Editors’ Note: In today’s world, intergroup conflict transcends time and space as we face problems that affect multiple generations. Wade-Benzoni discusses how intergenerational contexts push the boundaries of more traditional conceptions of negotiations to include the reconciliation of conflicting interests between parties who may not exist contemporaneously. Furthermore, research on intergenerational conflict challenges the dichotomy between “self” and “other” interest. This chapter should be read in conjunction with Welsh on Fairness.
For most of history, we did not have the capacity to bankrupt or obliterate the future. But in the day and age of the atomic bomb, deficit financing, dramatic global-scale environmental change, and genetic engineering, we have unprecedented power to shape the future and, consequently, responsibility to take into account how our actions might affect future generations. Intergenerational contexts push the boundaries of more traditional conceptions of negotiations to include the reconciliation of conflicting interests between parties who may not exist contemporaneously.
Different generations have profound effects on one another—even in the absence of the opportunity for explicit interaction. The decisions and behaviors of earlier generations shape the options for those in the future, and the mere fact that future generations will exist changes the experience of the present generation. One of the most important aspects of intergenerational relations is the fact that the interests of present and future generations are not always aligned. Cutting taxes while increasing spending, relaxing controls on greenhouse emissions (creating cheaper energy in the short term, but higher costs in the future), and unlimited consumption of non-replenishable resources are examples of behaviors that benefit the present generation while burdening future generations. In such situations, the consequences associated with a decision or action are at least partially decoupled, in that benefits accrue immediately to the present generation while associated burdens are deferred to a later point in time. Intergenerational justice may require a reversal of that pattern, such that it may be necessary for the present generation to make a sacrifice in order to protect the interests of future generations.
In most societies, there is a presumption of a moral obligation toward future generations. People generally value the outcomes to future generations (Kempton, Boster and Hartley 1995) and we tend to agree that fairness in the distribution of resources across generations should be upheld to some degree if societies are to persist and flourish over time. In this chapter, I will discuss some of the psychological barriers to implementing well-intended fairness to future generations, as well as some unexpected social-psychologically based motivators to promoting intergenerational beneficence in situations where it may seem unlikely based on traditional economic thought.
At the heart of intergenerational conflict is the need for trade-offs among the interests of different generations. The present generation is faced with a dilemma of whether to incur costs themselves for the benefit of future generations. Intergenerational conflict is further escalated, and decisions further complicated, when the consequences to future generations (whether they are positive or negative) increase over time. In these situations, intergenerational beneficence involves deferring benefits so that they can grow, or addressing burdens to prevent them from mounting in the future. In the case of long-term investments, for example, future generations are expected to experience greater monetary benefits relative to those foregone by earlier generations. Similarly, future generations can experience more serious negative consequences as a result of the present generation leaving burdens for them (such as toxic waste that is buried where it poisons drinking water decades later) than would be experienced by the present generation had they handled the burdens themselves.
In intergenerational contexts where consequences increase over time, the nature of the decision is critically different from more traditional negotiations in that it is not possible for decision-makers to max...
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