Do we have a moral obligation towards future generations to combat climate change? That is the central question that Fei Teng (Ethics Institute) explores in her PhD thesis. Teng looks for reasons, from different moral traditions, which may explain why we should accept the idea of moral responsibilities to future generations and what do we owe to them.
According to human rights theory we are intended to protect the necessary conditions for normative agency, namely the capacity of agents to choose and act upon their own choices. Climate change will jeopardize the necessary conditions for normative agency for future generations. An adequate natural environment has distinctive meanings for their human rights. Thus, we should accept ecological responsibilities to future generations to respect their human rights.
For Confucianism, the concept of moral responsibility fundamentally stems from the cultivation of one's inner virtue. That responsibility can be extended beyond current human life. The intergenerational moral relationships can be made sense from the virtue of ShengSheng (ceaseless life-generation). For Confucianism, the ceaseless life-generating future world and future humanity have moral significances for our present life. Thus, we are responsible for protecting the vitality of the world, and to protect and enable future generations to actualize their nature.
Human rights theory and Confucianism share important similarities in their understanding of moral responsibilities: they both justify moral responsibilities by appealing to the idea of personhood. They share the belief that every person should have the opportunity to actualize the distinctive capacities of personhood which define the special moral status of human beings. However, due to the different meanings of the concept of personhood, these two approaches justify responsibility and the enforceability of responsibility in decidedly different ways.