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Fairness to the Future: Generations, Sustainability and Procreation


Admission requirements

Admission of bachelor students from other departments on request only; decision on individual basis depending on availability and profile (background in ethics and political philosophy).


More than in the past, the things we do and the decisions we take today affect the lives of the generations that come after us. Population growth, climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation, pollution and the like will determine the conditions in which future people live their lives. There are reasons to think that the effects won’t be positive, and this worries many: there is a widely shared intuition that there is something wrong with the way we are managing our planet. We are confronted with a question that is both philosophically puzzling as well as of major practical relevance: what – if anything – are our responsibilities and obligations to future generations? This is the central question of this seminar.

The questions in the course play at three levels. First, at the most fundamental level, we will inquire about the possibility of having obligations to future generations at all. Do future – or even merely potential – people belong to our moral community? Most theories of justice and other ethical systems are designed to deal with rights and obligations of existing people. Can our moral theories be applied to future people? This is the non-existence challenge. The question becomes even more difficult when we realize that future people only exist because of the decisions we take: they are merely potential people. This more complicated puzzle is the non-identity problem (Parfit, 1984).

Second, if an argument can be made that we can have obligations to future people, we need to ask what it is we owe them. Do we need to leave them as much as we have – or as much as we inherited? Perhaps we owe them merely enough? Or perhaps, we need to maximize their levels of wellbeing? Third and finally, we can ask move the practical level: what should we do? How do we distribute the burden of the obligations we have to future people? Think for example of climate change. One could claim that we owe future people a stable and reliable climate, and that we need to cut back emissions. But how do we distribute the emission rights among contemporaries in a fair way? Examples are the Kyoto protocol, tradable quota’s, or carbon offsetting. The contemporary discussion in political philosophy started with the publication of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons and since then a lively debate has emerged. There is a myriad of challenging questions that are still undecided. We will study the most important ethical and moral theories as well as challenging practical proposals. Topics include sustainability, overpopulation, reproductive rights, climate change, emission rights, international justice, anti-natalism and many others.

Course objectives

Course objectives will be posted on Blackboard by the start of the course.


See Collegeroosters Wijsbegeerte 2013-2014 , BA Wijsbegeerte (BA Plus-traject of Standaardtraject), 3e jaar.
See Collegeroosters Wijsbegeerte 2013-2014, minor Ethiek, politiek en cultuur: filosofie van het menselijk handelen
See Timetables Philosophy 2013-2014 , Timetable Undergraduate Courses in English.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

Total course load (10 EC): 280 hrs
Attending classes: 40 hrs
Course reading: 120 hrs
Course preparation: 60 hrs
Final paper: 60 hrs

Assessment method

  • Class participation (active participation is required for succesfull completion of the course. Grades will be rounded based on participation);

  • Short assignments (20%);

  • Paper proposal (10%);

  • Final paper (70%).


Blackboard will be used for posting course information and texts, and discussion.

Reading list

  • Reader with key articles and capita selecta. (Authors: Derek Parfit, John Rawls, Jane English, Axel Gosseries, Brian Barry, Paula Casal, David Benatar, among others.)


Please register for this course on uSis.
See Inschrijven voor cursussen en tentamens

Exchange students and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply. See also Registration for courses and examinations

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Contractonderwijs

Contact details

Dhr. T. Meijers, MA, MSc