Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

We Do Not Hold the Earth in Trust

May 2003

Citation: 33 ELR 10325

Issue: 5

Author: Jeffrey M. Gaba

One of the central concerns of environmental ethics is to clarify the moral relationship between present and future generations. How should we think about our ethical responsibilities to a continuing stream of unknown humanity? Virtually all commentators recognize that the future is entitled to moral consideration in evaluating our present actions.1 We owe the future something; the questions are what and why. On these questions there is no consensus.

The debate is subtle, far-reaching, and even contentious.2 Should our relationship be one that is analyzed in terms of rights and duties, and if so what rights and what duties? Should the interests of the future be included in a utilitarian assessment of present actions, and if so how can we evaluate the impact of present actions on the welfare of future humans? Should a goal of present virtue, grounded in a tradition of "virtue ethics," shape the actions of the present generation, and if so, are there limits on present actions if constrained only by concerns for virtue? The debate is significant; it has the potential to alter the actions we now take that affect future humanity.

Jeffrey Gaba is Professor of Law, Dedman School of Law, at Southern Methodist University. He received his M.P.H. at Harvard University in 1989: his J.D. from Columbia University in 1976; and his B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1972. He is also Of Counsel at Gardere & Wynne in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached by e-mail at jgaba@mail.smu.edu. The author would like to thank T.J., Zafer, and Martha at CiCi's Coffee Shop for their help in preparation of this Article.

Download Article >>>