Gregory Alexander, ‘Unborn Communities’

Do property owners owe obligations to members of future generations? Although the question can be reframed in rights-terms so that it faces rights-oriented theories of property, it seems to pose a greater challenge to those theories of property that directly focus on the obligations that property owners owe to others rather than (or, better, along with the rights of owner). The challenge is compounded where such theories emphasize the relationships between individual property owners and the various communities to which they belong. Do those communities include members of future generations? This paper addresses these questions as they apply to a property theory that I have developed in recent work, a theory that we can call the human-flourishing theory of property.

The conclusion drawn here is that property owners do indeed owe moral obligations to future generations. But the scope of those obligations is restricted, certainly more so than some theorists, such as Jeremy Waldron, have claimed. Unlike Waldron, for whom such obligations are a matter of rights, I argue that the obligations that property owners owe to past generations are grounded on dependence. Specifically, I argue that if we expect fellow members of our communities in future generations to continue what I call the life-transcending projects that we began, then it is incumbent on us to provide that same background conditions that we enjoyed to those future generation community members to whom we transfer the responsibility of continuing or fulfilling our life-transcending projects. Moreover, as the distance between the living and the unborn increases, our obligations to future generational communities generally weaken. Our obligations to them are limited to the background conditions that enable them to continue the life-transcending projects transferred to them. These conclusions place me in an intermediate position between those who take a robust view of the obligations that the living owe to future generations and those who think that the living owe no such obligations at all.

Alexander, Gregory S., Unborn Communities (March 29, 2013). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-83.

First posted 2013-04-16 08:26:43

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