Note: This is part four of our review of Tyler Cowen’s new book “Stubborn Attachments.”
We now find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma! On the one hand, we have resolutely dismissed utilitarian theories of population ethics. (To sum up, consequentialism is always going to be a non-starter until population utilitarians like Tyler Cower or Derek Parfit discover a crystal ball that allows us to predict the long-term effects of our decisions, or until they are able to at least provide us with a non-circular definition of “utility” or “welfare” or whatever else we are supposed to be maximizing.) But at the same time we wish to accept the truth of Cowen’s Axiom: the idea that we may owe moral duties to future generations. How can we reconcile this difficult dilemma? Why not formulate a Kantian theory of population ethics: an “intertemporal categorical imperative” or, better yet, an “intertemporal golden rule”?
Perhaps the most famous formulation of the golden rule appears in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus says, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you …” (Matt. 7:12). [See also below (left) for another famous formulation of this moral principle by Hillel the Elder, pictured below (right).] However this maxim is worded, the golden rule, the idea that you should treat others as you yourself wish to be treated, is a familiar and common sense moral principle. It not only appears in many religions and cultures; it also satisfies the two main criteria of Kantian morality: universality and reversibility. My suggestion, then, is this: an intertemporal golden rule. After all, if the traditional golden rule can be extended spatially across borders and cultures, why can’t we also extend it temporally across generations?
Now then, regardless of which moral precept you prefer (Kantian duties or Humean consequences), Tyler Cowen identifies “six critical issues” that any theory of population ethics must contend with, including such conundrums as intertemporal discounting (i.e. how should we weight the interests of the present against the more distant future) and intertemporal social choice (i.e. how should we aggregate the conflicting preferences of different generations). We will restate these important issues and evaluate our proposed intertemporal golden rule in light of them in our next two posts.