On Being Green

Toward a sustainable future

Who Counts?

Responsibilities to future generations

In his second inaugural address, President Obama caught the attention of the media and raised the hopes of environmentalists when he said “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

In making this statement, he challenges us to consider our moral responsibilities. More particularly, for whom are we responsible? In other words, who deserves moral consideration?

Usually, this is a question that we don’t have to ask. We know that we are morally and often legally bound to care for our children and to refrain from harming others for our own benefit. But the question of “moral inclusion” – what psychologist Susan Opotow has described as including others within our “scope of justice” – becomes salient when we have to reconsider it. Do we have a responsibility to look out for future generations, or are they on their own? What about natural entities: species and ecosystems. Do we owe them consideration? Do they have a right to survive?

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Many consider the march of human progress to be reflected in an expanding scope of justice. First we include only people like us; then people from other ethnicities, nationalities, or religious backgrounds; then animals; growing increasingly remote in space, similarity, and time. Thus, it is appropriate that Obama used Martin Luther King day to encourage us to think more broadly about justice for all.

Natural scientists provide increasing evidence that we, with our actions today, can influence the well-being of generations far in the future. Have we made enough progress as a society to consider the obligations that entails? Or do we continue to act as though future generations don’t count?


Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is the Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster.


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