Those who practice foresight understand why it is ethically important to think about and plan for the future. They also understand how foresight provides a way to do this. It is often challenging, however, to communicate this to people outside of the foresight community. Even when there is an understanding of the importance of foresight, it is usually focused on the benefit to the organization employing it. For example, businesses may see foresight as important because it allows them to gain an advantage over their competitors due to a better ability to prepare for and navigate uncertainty.
This reasoning is incomplete because it fails to consider what we owe, ethically speaking, to future generations and why being able to think about and plan for the future is such a unique capability of humans. Foresight practitioners must be able to clearly and concisely communicate this. What follows are four perspectives derived from philosophical ethics that can help with this.
One way to explain the ethical importance of foresight work can be found in Alexander Joy’s “Ethics of the Future.” Joy first considers whether it even makes sense to discuss the ethics of the future given that future generations do not exist. However, he concludes that because humans will most likely exist in the future, they are worthy of ethical consideration. Joy then determines that consequentialism, which judges the morality of an action based solely on its consequences, is best suited for the ethics of the future because consequences are by nature focused on the future whereas other ethical perspectives are not.
Joy considers two of the many consequentialist perspectives available: painism and utilitarianism. Painism is the idea that the right action is the one that minimizes pain. It focuses on the intensity of pain in individuals. Utilitarianism is the idea that the right action is the one that produces the most happiness. It focuses on collective happiness. Joy chooses painism over utilitarianism because it avoids some of the criticisms that utilitarianism faces and focuses on minimizing pain rather than promoting happiness. Joy believes that what makes people happy changes from generation to generation while what causes pain is less subject to change. An example of an application of this approach is his view that, “We must leave future generations with an intact planet, because if we don’t, they’ll suffer badly” (Joy, 2019). With this perspective, we can propose that because future people will most likely exist, we have an obligation to minimize the pain we cause them. Foresight can help us depict possible futures, use them to determine which futures fulfill our obligations to minimize pain to future generations, and identify what we can do today to realize preferred futures that minimize pain.
The ethics of care - most often associated with Carol Gilligan who wrote In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development - is another perspective that provides ethical reasons for using foresight. The ethics of care was developed to address a gap in ethical reasoning as most theoretical approaches embraced the idea that people are rational individuals who operate independently from one another. These approaches fail to recognize the ethical value of relationships, compassion, kindness, and love. They also do not recognize our dependency on one another and the interconnectedness of people. The ethics of care acknowledges these dimensions of our lives as morally significant and incorporates them into a coherent ethical perspective.
Because people are dependent on one another, the ethics of care proposes that we have an obligation to care about and help one another. There are various descriptions of what care entails, but most scholars describe it as “as a practice, value, disposition, or virtue” that reflects a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021). The scope of care can be limited to familial relations, but many theorists extend it to strangers and even to other species and the environment. The scope of care could also expand its temporal scope to include future generations. Thomas Randall, who is the first to write about the connection between the ethics of care and future generations, proposes that future generations are dependent on current generations because our actions and inactions will impact them. Employing foresight to describe what could and should happen in the future helps ensure that individual, organizational, and governmental planning and actions reflect care for future generations and provides them what is needed to live good lives.
The third perspective is by John Rawls, one of the few philosophers who specifically addresses obligations to future generations. One way he does this is through the just savings principle that he references in many of his works. The value of the just savings principle can be articulated as follows: The “principle of just savings can be understood to provide us with a substantive understanding of intergenerational sufficientarianism” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021). Instead of requiring progress, sufficientarianism views justice as ensuring that everyone, including future generations, has enough to live a good life in a society with just institutions. To support intergenerational sufficientarianism, Rawls, argues in Political Liberalism that, “the correct principle is that which the members of any generation (and so all generations) would adopt as the one their generation would follow and as the principle they would want preceding generations to have followed (and later generations to follow), no matter how far back (or forward) in time” (Rawls, 1996, p. 274). We should act as if we do not know which generation we belong to when determining the savings principle that guides our generation.
With the just savings principle as a starting point, foresight practitioners can explain the ethical importance of using foresight. By helping us describe possible futures, foresight enables people to determine which futures do not leave future generations with sufficient resources to live a good life and sustain just institutions. We should consider whether we would be satisfied and would possess sufficient resources if we lived in those futures. This will rule out certain futures as candidates for preferred futures and will help people identify the savings principle we should follow today.
Another perspective that illustrates the ethical importance of foresight relates to what Aristotle calls the human function. Aristotle addresses this in the Nicomachean Ethics when he considers what the function of humans might be. He writes, “just as eye, hand, foot, and, in general, every [bodily] part apparently has its function, may we likewise ascribe to a human being some function apart from all of these” (Aristotle, 1999, 8). He considers living as the unique human function, but because plants and animals live, living cannot be the unique human function. He then considers sense perception, but he writes that “this too is apparently shared with horse, ox, and every animal” (Aristotle, 1999, 9). This leaves reasoning. According to Aristotle, one must reason well to be a good human.
Related to Aristotle’s view of the human function, Patricia Lustig writes in Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future, based on an idea from Daniel Dennett’s Kinds of Minds: An Understanding of Consciousness, that, “The human brain is an anticipation machine and thinking about the future is arguably the most important thing it does for our survival and flourishing” (Lustig, 2015). The human ability to think about the future, imagine different possibilities, and plan are essential to the survival and flourishing of our species. She references Daniel Gilbert, who notes in Stumbling on Happiness that, “no animal has a frontal lobe quite like ours, which is why we are the only animal that thinks about the future as we do” (Lustig, 2015). Our ability to think about the future could be considered as the human function, or at least part of our function that derives from our ability to reason. And while there have been many challenges to Aristotle’s conception of a human function, it does offer one way to identify what we do well as a species that helps us survive and thrive. Foresight helps us employ and leverage this unique human ability.
The four approaches described above are just some of the ways to communicate why it is ethically important to think about and plan for the future. Those who practice foresight should be able to share these reasons with others. We can hope that doing this will convince greater numbers of people to adopt long-term perspectives and think more rigorously about and plan for the future.
Aristotle (1999). Nicomachean Ethics (T. Irwin, Trans.). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Dennett, D. (1996). Kinds Of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness. New York, New York: Basic Books.
Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Gilligan, C. (1983). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Joy, A. (2019). “Ethics of the Future.” Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas. https://philosophynow.org/issues/130/Ethics_of_the_Future
Lustig, P. (2015). Strategic Foresight: Learning from the Future. Axminster, England: Triarchy Press Ltd.
Meyer, L. (2021). “Intergenerational Justice.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-intergenerational/#RawlJustSaviPrin
Randall, T. (2019). “Care Ethics and Obligations to Future Generations.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 34(3), 527-545.
Rawls, J. (1996). Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sander-Staudt, Maureen (2021). “Care Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/care-eth/#H2
© Chris Mayer 2021