Each week my neighbors and I engage in a curious ethical ritual. On Wednesday morning before we leave for work we set outside our doors an artifact that expresses our obligation to the welfare of future generations. We call these objects recycling bins.
Recycling is one example of an action that we take in the present to benefit a group in the future. The earth has enough space and resources that all current generations could be extremely wasteful without having a noticeably detrimental effect on the global population. Future generations, however, would likely suffer if we were wantonly careless in our use of resources. For this reason the recycling of waste products is viewed as an important, albeit minor, act of personal virtue.
Although most people probably do not need to be persuaded that we have moral obligations to future generations, it would be useful to examine what form such an argument would take. Philosopher Jim Nolt outlines it as follows:
1. We have obligations to all currently living people.
2. Future people are in no morally relevant respect different from currently living people.
3. We have obligations to all future people.
To the argument Nolt adds:
The moral irrelevance of time of birth is perhaps best understood by the realization that we are future people-to our predecessors. The distinction between past and future is, after all, not ultimate and absolute, but relative to temporal perspective. In that respect, it is like the designation, "foreigner," which is relative to geographical perspective. Who counts as a foreigner depends on the country we inhabit. Likewise, who counts as a future person depends on the time we inhabit. All people are foreigners to people of countries other than their own. Likewise, all people belong to the future generations of their predecessors. [emphasis in original]
If this argument is true, then we have generic obligations (e.g., don’t despoil the planet) to future generic groups (e.g., people living in a.d. 2056). But could it be the case that we also have specific obligations to specific individuals in the future? For example, I believe that Christian men and women who are unmarried (and are not called to a life of chastity) have certain present obligations to the person who will be their future spouse.
Shouldn’t this be obvious? After all, regardless of whether they come from a secular or religious worldview, people in the West generally share the idea that there is one specific person—a true love, soul mate, etc.—for each of us. Whether chosen by God or fate, this is the person we are supposed to share our lives with in a state of marital commitment.
Setting aside the matters of providence and romance, we can take as a brute fact that for most people, that person currently exists somewhere in the world. When we meet them and begin to recognize that they are the one we plan to spend the rest of our lives with, our obligations become clear. But what about before this recognition occurs—or even before they come into our lives? There is at least one obligation, I would argue, that is recognized after we marry that should be binding on us even before we meet our future spouse: the duty to be sexually faithful.
Although we may be separated, as Nolt might say, “relative to temporal perspective,” this person exists now and is not in any morally relevant respect different from the person we will wed. The duties of a husband to be sexually faithful, therefore, would extend not just from the present (when we cleave together in a one-flesh union) and future (throughout our marriage) but also backward into the past (the time prior to our marriage, or even before we meet).
Obviously, not all duties are of this type. Some obligations that spouses owe to each other are previously required of other people, namely parents, while a smaller range of commitments are unique and exclusive to the matrimonial relationship. For example, a husband has an obligation both to provide financial support and to remain sexually faithful to his wife. The financial obligation is one that is initially born by her parents, and perhaps later in her life, by the woman herself. Naturally, the future husband is not expected to provide for her materially before they have even met. That is not a role or duty that is exclusive to marriage. The sexual fidelity obligation, however, is a unique duty that is not shared by any other person. The requirement for lifelong monogamy is specific to the marital relationship and should therefore be binding even before the spouses have committed themselves to each other.
Consider the case of a man who is scheduled to be married on February 14th and has sexual relations with a woman who is not his fiancé on:
(a) The night before his wedding.
(b) The day of his wedding.
(c) The day after his wedding.
The action in each instance is the same but the term we’d use to describe the man would depend on when the event occurred: (a) would make the man a cheating cad, (c) and adulterer, and (b) either a cheating cad or an adulterer, depending on the time of day. Regardless of what we choose to call it, the consequence of the action is the same—the man has been unfaithful to his betrothed. Notice that though the “temporal perspective” changes the semantics, it doesn’t change the fact that the action is immoral.
Under this view, pre-marital sexual relations become a form of pre-marital infidelity, for we are being unfaithful to the one we will eventually pledge emotional and sexual allegiance.
Why then do we not honor this obligation? As with most things in life, what we claim to believe is betrayed by our actions. Although unmarried people often claim to believe that they are waiting for their "true love" their actions show that they don’t really believe that claim—or that future love—to be true. If they seriously believed that their true love existed then how could they be sexually unfaithful to the one person who God has chosen for them?
My recycling bin is a symbol of the obligation I feel I owe future generations. Unfortunately, I had no such token to give my wife that showed the obligation I owed her before we met. Instead, I had only a string of sexual sins that showed that before we met I treated the concept of "marital fidelity" as a useful fiction.
I offer this confession to young people who have not yet lost one of the most valuable gifts God gives man or woman: the ability to give oneself completely to the person you love. If you want to show true love to your future spouse, then start now by keeping the Seventh Commandment.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
John Nolt, Arguments for and against Obligations to Future Generations