Our Responsibility to the Future

Kathryn Tanner

This article is adapted from her remarks at the final session of the Trinity Institute conference on “Building an Ethical Economy,” held at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City in January 2010.

The first important thing to say is that we have a responsibility to the future. That fact of responsibility is not a simple matter: it is not to be taken for granted under present market conditions, especially if one means by “responsibility” a concern for the well-being of future generations. 

Long-term thinking itself cannot be taken for granted. If behavioral economists are right, the self-interested actors who organize markets do not take into account future costs and benefits in the same way they do present costs and benefits, even when those actors themselves are the ones likely to bear those future costs. The present is always a more pressing motivator of action than the future – especially when that future is far off, hard to imagine, and not entirely predictable.

Rather than stemming this natural human tendency toward short-term thinking, the present organization of global capitalism has only fomented it. Although the air has recently gone out of them, financial markets since the 1970s have offered much greater returns in the short term than productive investments have in the long term. With the development of a host of new financial instruments and technical means for trading them, a great deal of money can be made in financial markets nearly instantaneously. Now that the value of different currencies floats and is no longer pegged to gold or the dollar, high-volume trading in currencies means fortunes can literally be made overnight.

Sinking capital into equipment for the long term in hopes the future production of goods will meet fickle consumer demand hardly seems worth the effort in such an economic climate. Why sock money away like that? The time frame of companies producing real goods and services has accordingly been shortened to compete with financial markets. Why invest in technical innovations with long-term payoffs in efficiency and cost savings, when one can improve the bottom line of one’s company immediately by downsizing the work force?

When the issue is the consequences of our behavior on future generations, the matter only be- comes more complicated from a market viewpoint. How is it in my interest to invest in the future if I am not going to be around to reap my share of the benefits? How is it in my interest to act now to prevent future environmental harm if I am not going to be around to suffer that harm? These considerations seem “external” to the usual market-driven ones. How can the circumstances of future generations be of economic interest to me when I’ll be dead?

The Ironies of Self-Interest

Yet viewing such considerations as mere externalities paradoxically leads to actual market failure precisely because individual self-interest fails to produce an optimal social good extending into the future. Indeed, the disinclination of self-interested actors to factor in the consequences of their actions on future generations may mean not simply benign neglect but active harm to them. According to the logic of self-interest, it is in the best interest of the living to use up natural resources now if those resources will run out only after they are dead; better to pollute the atmosphere to an unhealthy level now and simply force the next generation to clean up the mess. Thus the capacity of human societies to meet their needs would likely decline over time, since no one would want to take the costly environmental measures necessary now to ensure that future generations can meet their own needs on an inhabitable earth.

Ultimate Destinies

An obvious solution here is also an ethical one: get people interested in what happens to future generations for humane and religious reasons, to feel both solidarity with future generations and a sense of social responsibility for their well-being on ethical and religious grounds. My own personal self- interest would in that case be enlarged to include the goal of promoting the good of those who come after me. Or at least part of my own agenda would be not to harm them unduly by what I do to secure my own well-being and that of the people I presently care about.

Religions such as Christianity are a main instrument indeed for shaping people’s value preferences in this way – at least they make it their business to try to. Christianity, for example, promotes practices of long-term thinking, efforts to assess and direct the whole of one’s life with attention to what one believes God wants from human beings. It asks a person to think not just about the moment but about ultimate destiny, about how what one does now will shape one’s ultimate identity, about how one’s whole life will come to be summed up and judged by God at the resurrection of the dead and final judgment. And it asks a person to consider that ultimate destiny in community with others: who an individual finally is cannot be separated from who that person has been with and for others. What serves one person’s self-interest – what demeans or elevates that individual – cannot be considered apart from the good of the community she or he has helped or harmed, apart from the well-being of that one body of Christ of which she or he is a contributing member. And that Christian com- munity is explained in the widest possible terms. It includes the whole community of saints extending into the past and into the future. It includes indeed the whole world – the entirety of humanity along with the planet – that God blesses by creating and looking after, from its beginning until its end. As the lover of God, one is called to love all that God loves, to include within the purview of one’s own concern the whole that God in God’s great beneficence is concerned for.

Justice, or Just Us?

But it also seems to me that there is no point in preaching social responsibility for future generations without taking into account the real-world pressures that work against it. If considering the long-term consequences of one’s behavior is gener- ally difficult for people, and the present economic circumstances do nothing but encourage short-term thinking, then religious people need to turn their attention to those economic circumstances. If the financial markets are a big culprit here, perhaps that is just another reason, among the many that are piling up in the present crisis, to support policies to decrease their attractiveness. The short-term profitability of financial transactions could be lessened, for instance, by taxing them, or by regulations that make people hold financial instruments for longer periods of time, or by lowering the degree of allow- able leverage when purchasing them; and so on.

Many of the real-world pressures that make it very difficult for people to value the needs of future generations involve issues of present-day injustice, to which I think religious people should be especially sensitive. Religious lip service to “responsibility to the future” without attention to these justice issues does a disservice to both religious concerns and the real difficulties that people face. The question of responsibility to future generations is one of inter-generational fairness, as we noted. But the discussion cannot be restricted to possible trade- offs between now and then. It bears on the present: the question about fairness to future generations is also the question about whether being fair to them will come at the expense of the poor now.1

Poor people in desperate straits cannot afford to invest in the future; they need to consume what they have now, to get whatever they can get now, in order to survive.2 Poor families, for example, no matter how much they love their children, are unlikely to send them to school if the school’s expense and the sudden reduction in the number of family breadwinners mean near-starvation. These families need subsidized education for their children and sources of income that do not involve child labor. Similarly, when poor countries have only carbon- intensive production and raw-material extraction as their feeble means of economic sustenance, they are unlikely to consent to international agreements that restrict both without compensatory aid and real help in diversifying their economies.

The Eyes of the Powerless

To see the connections between inter-generational equity and equity right now is indeed to see things from the vantage point of the poor. If being poor and powerless means feeling no more able to better one’s present circumstances than influence future outcomes, why expend effort or incur the costs of trying to improve the lot of those who will come after? Hopelessness about the real possibility of gaining justice, given the array of forces stacked against efforts to bring it about in the present, is as much an impediment to concern for the well-being of future generations as anything. Why expect anything to change?

Equity issues like these – about how to be fair not just to future generations but to presently disadvantaged peoples, and about who should pay the most now for the sake of future generations – are at the root of the mistrust and breakdown in co- operation at recent climate negotiations. Should poorer nations, which may go on to be the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, pay the most now, or should the burden be borne by wealthier nations, which were unknowingly in the past and are presently the greatest offenders? International agreement is unlikely without some shared belief that what is proposed is going to be fair. Given what they perceive as a long history of economic injustices perpetrated against them by more powerful nations, many poorer nations have a shortage of such trust; they will require a great deal to be convinced that proposals made by wealthier nations are likely to produce outcomes fair to them.3

On the issue of climate change and what to do about it, as on so many other issues with economic underpinnings, Christianity at its best can contribute here a realism about human motivations to match any economist’s view of limited self-interest, but a realism that is also capable of holding narrow- minded and short-sighted human inclinations to the highest standards – of an ultimately divine justice. 


1 See Robert M. Solow, “Sustainability: An Economist’s Appraisal,” in Robert Dorfman and Nancy S. Dorfman (eds.), Economics of the Environment: Selected Readings (Norton, 1993).

2 See Arthur M. Okun, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (Brookings Institution, 1975), 80.

3 See J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks, A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy (MIT Press, 2007). 

Kathryn Tanner ’79 B.A., ’85 Ph.D. teaches theology at the University of Chicago. Her books include Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity (Fortress 2001), Economy of Grace (Fortress 2005), and Christ the Key (Cambridge, 2010).