Do We Have Obligations to Future People?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I would like to attempt to answer one of the most difficult questions in political theory, the question of the extent to which the interests of future people ought to be considered. Why is it so difficult? Because there are many seemingly horrific answers that are unusually easy to get to. That said, I think I have found a workaround.

So to start, let’s look at these really awful answers. There are two ways a theory of obligations to future people can go horrifically awry:

  1. Depeletion
  2. The Repugnant Conclusion

I’d like to introduce each case.

One view is that we cannot have obligations to non-existent people. This produces depletion. In depletion, everyone presently alive consumes all of the resources of the planet in order to derive as much utility as possible from the planet during their lifetimes, leaving nothing left for the future people who do not count. It can be thought of as one ridiculously massive party, a party so big that, in its wake, no one can ever party again. Here’s an example:


Utility of Current People

Utility of Future People

Status Quo






In the depletion case, we have a great time and the lives of future people are comparatively horrible, but if non-existent people don’t matter, then this is the result we are compelled to accept. This strikes many people as extremely unattractive, as evidence that non-existent people do, to some degree, matter.

So what about the inverse? Say that we argue that potential people are just as important as current people. This would give us a moral obligation to bring as many future people into the world as possible so that they can enjoy the benefits of living. This would remain true so long as their lives remained worth living. The result is what’s called “the repugnant conclusion”, in which the population grows until every person’s life is just barely worthwhile. Here’s an example:


Population Utility

Total Population

Total Utility





Repugnant Conclusion




To choose the default society would deny worthwhile lives to an additional 1000 people, so this principle forces us instead to procreate until the capacity of the environment to support worthwhile lives is exhausted.

Many theorists attempt to resolve these problems by introducing hybrid models that give some intermediate status to future people that is neither full consideration nor no consideration. These theories tend to be rather arbitrary and unsatisfying.

So what’s my answer? I’d like to bring in reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a running theme in my theory. A while back, I argued that states have duties exclusively to their citizens and not to foreign people on the basis of reciprocity. If states are required to treat non-citizens the same way they treat citizens, there is no benefit to paying the costs of citizenship, and the incentive for citizens to perform their duties collapses. In order for the moral community to have obligations to you, you must agree to have obligations to it.

In reference to immigration, I argue that rich, developed states are not obliged to let all immigrants in just because denying them access will worsen their lives. Instead, I say that developed states are only obliged to allow immigration that benefits its existing people. An immigrant must be capable of reciprocating the benefits he will receive and willing to do so. For a state to deny access to an immigrant who is willing and capable of reciprocity would be wrong, but denying access to incapable or unwilling immigrants who would consume the state’s resources without reciprocating would be permissible.

Future people are like immigrants. At present, they are not part of the moral community. We have the option of choosing whether or not to bring them into it by creating them. When we make this decision, we should base it on whether these future people are likely to be willing and capable of reciprocating, i.e. providing a net benefit to the moral community they would be joining. It would be wrong to refuse to create future people who would be willing and capable, but completely acceptable to refuse to create future people who would not be. We are not obligated to allow others to take moral advantage of us.

Once we decide to permit a new person, whether an immigrant or a future person, entry into the moral community, we in turn gain duties to that person. We cannot permit immigration or the creation of future people on the presumption that, once admitted, we will enslave them in order to ensure that they generate benefits for us. We must display equal concern for the interests of the members of our moral community.

Typically, the moral community we are talking about is the state, but while the state often makes decisions concerning immigration, it often leaves the choice of whether or not to create future people up to individual prospective parents.

The result of this is that the “moral community” we are often referring to with respect to creating new people is not the state as a whole, but the family unit making the decision. Families should have children when doing so will benefit them in some way, but they must acknowledge that, in choosing to have children, they incur duties to those children in turn.

The reader might point out that, in many cases, what is in the interest of the family is not in the interest of society as a whole and that, in any case, families often make this decision wrongly or poorly. There are many ways families can get this wrong:

  • They can have children they don’t want and will resent, such that it is impossible for those children to reciprocate. Example: a mother wanted an abortion but never got one.
  • They can have children they will benefit from, but will not in turn be able to fulfil their duties to. Example: a poor couple enjoys children but cannot provide for their education.
  • They can have children who will have a reciprocal relationship with them, but not with the state. Example: a family enjoys its children and upholds its duties to them, but the children are disabled/criminals.

It must be acknowledged that we have imperfect knowledge. We do not know the outcomes of the children we bring into the world in advance. Once we accept them into the moral community, we accept a certain communal responsibility for how they turn out. If a child grows up to be a criminal, we do not blame the child but instead accept that we did a poor job preparing this individual to reciprocate. This provides no grounds for killing criminals. It does, however, raise interesting questions about people who are known to be severely disabled before birth or at birth. We do not seem obligated to take on duties to these people, but nonetheless we do not kill them or discard them–typically, we invest substantial resources into their lives. These cases may best be understood by attributing the behaviour to the utility of the parents or to people who empathise with the severely disabled. That is to say that some current people gain utility purely from providing utility to others, in the same way that a person might enjoy providing utility to a pet. Even though the pet cannot reciprocate anything materially, there may still be emotional reciprocity created in the mind of the caregiver such that the relationship is not purely parasitic. The dog does not take advantage of his master if the master enjoys being taken advantage of.

What I find most interesting about this discussion of families and states is the immense potential for families to act in ways that are bad for the rest of us. Despite this, we have an unwillingness to intervene as a community into family affairs, probably because we ourselves wish for the same autonomy in our own affairs. That said, all “autonomy” means here is the opportunity to take advantage of the rest of the community by having children for whom we cannot perform the requisite duties. It is analogous to permitting theft because we ourselves might one day wish to steal something.

A reciprocity view seems to raise new additional topics of debate, but, insofar as it avoids the traditional big problems of depletion, the repugnant conclusion, and arbitrariness, it is a step in the right direction.