The previous section outlined three important limitations of discounting for kinship. However, these limitations are not all that they appear to be. Contrary to the argument made in Sect. 4.3, in some contexts where economists have been especially concerned about the justifiability of pure time discounting, the question of what utility discount factor should be applied to future generations as a whole is appropriate under discounting for kinship. In these contexts, the assumed perspective is not that of some particular individual or nation, nor the wholly impartial point of view. It is something in-between. It is something like the point of view of all of currently existing humanity.
Section 5.1 introduces this idea, which I call global collectivism. Section 5.2 notes a series of important questions about the concrete interpretation of global collectivism in this context. Sections 5.3–5.5 discuss what we should make of the three observations noted in Sect. 4 in light of global collectivism, identifying ways in which the limitations on agent-relative pure time discounting previously noted drop away when viewed in this perspective.
Shared reasons of partiality
I suggested above that in some contexts where economists have been especially concerned about the rate of pure time preference, the assumed perspective may be that of the world as a whole. The analysis of optimal climate policy represents a clear example of this. As Stern (2008, 16) conceives of the issue, it concerns “social decisions by the world community now, bearing in mind consequences for future generations.” Although he chides Stern for adopting “the lofty vantage point of the world social planner,” (Nordhaus 2007, 691), Nordhaus (2008) adopts a similar approach. The social welfare function adopted in the DICE model is assumed to represent the collective preferences of the world as a whole. The optimal carbon tax recommended on the basis of the model is an internationally harmonized carbon price “imposed in order to put the globe on the economically optimal path” (Nordhaus 2008, 196).
In this debate, therefore, the key question under discussion is what ‘the world community now’ should do, as opposed to what you or I should do, or what some particular country or bloc of countries should do (compare Nussbaum 2006, 279–81; Wringe 2005, 2014). Thus, insofar as there are reasons of partiality in play, those reasons may belong not to some particular individual, nor some particular country, but to this much greater collection of agents.
An analogy helps to clarify what I have in mind. Suppose that Kasei is Hiroko’s son and Nikki is Nadezhda’s daughter. Suppose these people are otherwise strangers to one another. Imagine that Kasei and Nikki are drowning, and so is a third person, Zoya. Zoya is a stranger to all of them. We stipulate that neither Hiroko nor Nadezhda can save any person on their own, but together they can save exactly two of the people who are drowning.
Intuitively, Hiroko and Nadezhda together have most reason to save Kasei and Nikki. Note, however, that Nadezhda has no reason to prefer that Kasei and Nikki are saved, as opposed to Nikki and Zoya. Kasei and Zoya are both equally strangers to Nadezhda. Similarly, Hiroko has no reason to prefer that Kasei and Nikki are saved, rather than Kasei and Zoya, since Nikki and Zoya are both equally strangers to Hiroko. Nonetheless, we think that Hiroko and Nadezhda together have most reason to save Kasei and Nikki. In this sense, there are reasons of partiality that they together have, which pick out the pair of Kasei and Nikki as uniquely important, but which no individual among them has.Footnote 15
The suggestion I want us to consider, then, is that just as we intuitively describe Hiroko and Nadezhda as together having most reason to save Kasei and Nikki, so, in the same way, ‘the world community now,’ when engaged in internationally coordinated action in response to global climate change or other similar challenges, may be said to have reasons of partiality that belong to us collectively and which pick out the next generation as uniquely important, and subsequent generations as less so. We together may have greater reason to care about the next generation than about later generations, because those who are born into the next generation are our children, whereas succeeding generations will be more and more distantly related to those of us living now.
Details to be decided
Call this way of understanding what discounting for kinship means in the context of problems requiring internationally coordinated action global collectivism. I have only given us a sketch of the idea. Many important details remain to be filled in.
Firstly, who exactly are the members of the ‘the world community now’? Are we to think of this as the collection of all individual human beings currently living? Or should it instead be understood as a collection of states? In the context of global climate change, should it be thought of as the collection of all UNFCCC signatories?
Secondly, in asserting the existence of reasons that are not the reasons of some particular individual, but of a group of individuals, should we think of global collectivism as committing us to a view on which ‘the world community now’ is a collective agent who has these reasons? This might seem implausible if ‘the world community now’ is supposed to represent the collection of all currently existing individual human beings. This collection may seem to represent a so-called ‘unstructured group,’ lacking any shared procedure for collective decision-making, without which collective agency seems impossible (Collins 2019; French 1979, 1984, 1995; List and Pettit 2011, 158–159; Sheehy 2006). The attribution of collective agency is a lot more plausible if ‘the world community now’ is taken to refer to the UNFCCC signatories, since the High-Level Segment of the annual Conference of Parties may be thought to represent a procedure for collective decision-making of the kind we expect group agents to have.
Perhaps we need not suppose that collective reasons require collective agents. We could instead suppose that when we speak of reasons that are not the reasons of some particular individual, but of ‘the world community now’, this involves so-called non-distributive plural predication (McKay 2007; Oliver and Smiley 2013). In other words, we should think of ourselves as predicating something of a group of people that cannot be correctly predicated of any one among them, nor of a fusion of the group members (Björnson 2014; Pinkert 2014). Consider an analogy (McKay 2007, 24). It may be correct to say that the students in my class are seventeen in number. Clearly, no student in my class is seventeen in number. Nor is it plausible that an individual entity corresponding to a fusion of the students has the property of being seventeen in number. Any individual entity is only one in number. Thus, collectives can have properties had neither by their members nor by the collective considered as a supra-individual entity. Similarly, we may suppose that when we say that Hiroko and Nadezhda together have most reason to save Kasei and Nikki or that we together have greater reason to care about the next generation than about later generations, this involves non-distributive plural predication: attributing reasons of partiality to a group of people that we do not attribute to any one among them considered individually, nor to a supra-individual group agent constituted by those people.
For the present time, I elect to leave these issues of detail unanswered. In the remainder of this paper, I simply want to make the case for taking global collectivism seriously. To that end, I want us to consider what global collectivism tells us about the nature and significance of the three observations about the limitations of discounting for kinship noted in Sect. 4. Relying on the partial grasp that we currently have on the core idea, we are nonetheless able to see that there is a strong case for thinking of these limitations as being generally much less serious—or even non-existent—when viewed in light of global collectivism.
Third limitation revisited
I will work in reverse order, beginning with the third observation discussed in Sect. 4: namely, that if reasons for pure intergenerational time preference are agent-relative, then we cannot ask whether and to what extent it may be justifiable to discount the interests of future people in general, contrary to the practice of economists concerned with long-term policy setting like Nordhaus and Stern.
Global collectivism allows us to straightforwardly dismiss this concern. Under global collectivism, our reasons for caring differentially about the welfare of some people as opposed to others in virtue of their location in time are not understood as the reasons of some particular currently existing person or country. They are the reasons of the ‘world community now’. More exactly, they are the reasons of the current generation, considered as a whole, to care about the welfare of each future generation, considered as a whole. Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing problematic about the standard assumption that there is a shared utility discount factor that may be applied to each future generation considered en masse, albeit one whose value declines as a function of time.
Second limitation revisited
Continuing our way back through Sect. 4, let’s now consider the observation discussed in Sect. 4.2: namely, that discounting for kinship may justify us in caring more about those of our descendants who are nearer to us in time, but provides no justification for caring more about the welfare of unrelated strangers on the basis of their location in time. This limitation was suggested as being especially significant in the context of climate policy assessment.
Once again, this concern seems inapplicable in the context of global collectivism. From the perspective of ‘the world community now,’ there are no strangers, present or future. Speaking for the current generation as a whole, there are no human beings who will come to exist but who will not be our descendants. Therefore, under global collectivism, we need not worry that there exist certain groups of people relative to which we have no justification for caring more about those of its members who are nearer to us in time. The practice of pure time discounting will not be tightly circumscribed in the way suggested in Sect. 4.2.
First limitation revisited
Last but not least, consider the observation discussed in Sect. 4.1. There it was noted that if the application of a declining utility discount factor to the well-being of our descendants is justified in terms of discounting for kinship, this should never leave us in a position where we value the utility of one of us existing now over those of n distantly related descendants existing at time t unless we also value a current family member more than n currently existing strangers. It was suggested that this methodological prescription would call into question what might otherwise seem to be relatively modest suggestions for selecting a time schedule of utility discount factors.
When discounting for kinship is understood according to global collectivism, this prescription loses its bite. From the perspective of the world community as a whole, there presumably are no currently existing strangers. There is no one now living who is not a member of this community. Therefore, the constraint noted in Sect. 4.1 can be trivially satisfied by any schedule of discount factors.
However, we arguably should not read too much into this.Footnote 16 Even if there are no currently existing people who are not members of ‘the world community now,’ there presumably could have been. Exactly what this would mean will depend on exactly how we understand ‘the world community now’. But however exactly we interpret this idea, it seems possible that there could now have existed human beings who aren’t among its members: people whom we discovered living on other planets, say. Moreover, the fact that there are no such people is presumably morally arbitrary and should not change how steeply we are permitted to discount the welfare of future people.
We might, therefore, re-interpret our original constraint so that it now constrains how we trade off our own welfare against the welfare of our descendants in terms of how we would trade off our own welfare against the welfare of currently existing human beings whom we discovered living on other planets. Since it is morally arbitrary that no such people exist, this constraint should not be any easier to satisfy than the methodological constraint discussed in Sect. 4.1. We should therefore conclude that global collectivism does not, after all, permit the choice of a more extreme schedule of discount factors. As I see it, this is not a bug, but a feature.
This section has outlined the idea of global collectivism as a framework for thinking about discounting for kinship in the context of assessing optimal climate policy or other similar problems requiring internationally coordinated action, such as the regulation of dangerous biotechnologies or risks from artificial intelligence. I have noted a number of important questions about how best to interpret global collectivism that are as yet unanswered. Even without resolving these questions, we are able to see that there is a strong case for thinking that global collectivism should lead us to think of the limitations on discounting for kinship highlighted in Sect. 4 as fading into insignificance in two out of three cases. Thinking of discounting for kinship in light of global collectivism allows us to answer the concerns noted in Sect. 4.2 and 4.3 in ways both straightforward and convincing. The story is more complicated for the observation made in Sect. 4.1. It may be true that there is no one now living who falls outside the scope of ‘the world community now,’ and so we can trivially satisfy the constraint that we should never end up in a position where we value the utility of one of us existing now over those of n distantly related descendants existing at time t unless we also value one of us existing now more than n currently existing strangers. However, since the absence of currently existing strangers is morally arbitrary, we are able to re-state the aforementioned methodological constraint in terms of counterfactual currently existing strangers so as to derive a no less restrictive constraint on the scheduling of discount factors.