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Reply to Nigel Dower

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Nigel Dower has contributed greatly over a long period to the ethics of development and of the environment. Largely I agree with the various points made in his chapter, and in particular the point that individuals have responsibilities in environmental matters. In several places he has taken my thinking forward to a further stage. Some minor qualifications, however, are in place.

I am not sure that Parfit's point about some actions being wrong because of the set they belong to had already been made by Mill. Mill's point was about classes of action, such as acts of linguistic deception, and the difference made to society if people's confidence in not being deceived were to be undermined (Mill, 1910, 21). Parfit's point was about sets of related actions with imperceptibly small impacts that cumulatively make a large difference (Parfit, 1984, 70, 78–82) such as (we might say, although he did not) acts of emitting carbon dioxide through air journeys, which jointly change the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There are certainly parallels, since Mill's point is about impacts on the cultural atmosphere, which might be thought analogous to impacts on the physical atmosphere. Yet Mill was surely writing rather about how the shared trust of members of society can be eroded by a number of acts of deception that would otherwise do little harm; whereas Parfit's point, or at least the way in which I was using it in the ‘Mediated Responsibilities’ paper (Attfield, 2009), concerned sets of acts each of which cumulatively contributes to the same serious atmospheric change. Mill's point supplies a ground for rule-consequentialism, while Parfit's works in a different way, urging that the consequences of token acts and omissions must be considered in the light of wide (and often world-wide) contexts, including the actions of others (what we might call a consequentialist version of Kantian ethics). To this extent, Parfit was, I suggest, saying something new and original, although I can see that there was much in common between Mill's move and his.

While I agree that alliances are needed with people whose ethics are based on rights, and there again with those who derive everything in ethics from contractarianism, and while I try to practice this kind of alliance-building in practical debates (including some that are ongoing), I am less sanguine than Dower about rights theorists having something coherent to say about the rights of future people. I fully agree that we should be concerned about the quality of life of future people, but do not regard the relevant obligations as owed to those people, or as corresponding to rights that they have (or even will have) against us.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2010

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