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Duties to Future Generations, Proxy Consent, Intra- and Intergenerational Equity: The Case of Nuclear Waste

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How does one deal with problems of risk transfer if it is the case that increasing risks to future generations decreases the risks to present generations, and increasing the risks to present generations decreases the risks to future generations? In the case of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel, for example, should billions of dollars be spent to secure the wastes and protect future generations, or should the same monies be spent on present-day needs, under the assumption that future generations will be better able to deal with the waste than we are at present? Although these questions may appear insoluble, they become less so when one recognizes several common ethical and logical errors that beset many discussions of technological risk and duties to future generations. After briefly explaining the grounds for inter- and intragenerational equity, this analysis argues for three propositions about many treatments of inter- and intragenerational ethics: (1) these discussions often err because they frame policy arguments in terms that ignore rights and focus on maximizing welfare or utility, (2) they err because they frequently frame policy arguments in ways that set inter- and intragenerational welfare at odds, when they are not, because they ignore ameliorating practices and the conditions for proxy consent, and (3) they also err because they engage in risk practices that do not match their risk rhetoric.

Keywords: Consent; equity; framing; future generations; nuclear waste; rights; utility; welfare

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556

Publication date: 2000-12-01

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