Keywords: discounting, economic growth, efficiency, intergenerational equity, problem-solving capacity, sustainability
The capacity to solve problems as a rationale for intertemporal discounting
The discussion on discounting has reached a more refined stage by now so that some earlier objections made by ethicists as to the moral implications have become obsolete. The standard approach, as suggested in the economic part of the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, remains none the less questionable. This approach implicitly maximises the present value of all future benefits in a Ramseyan way, which presupposes the existence of one single infinitely long-living pseudoindividual. For an ethicist interested both in efficient resource-use and justice among real humans, this individuomorphic procedure is pointless. In this contribution, it is suggested to use the capacity to solve problems as a yardstick for intertemporal discounting. It is legitimate to discount future events if and only if there is a well-founded expectation that these events will be weighted less important by those who will experience them in the future. In practice, problems have to be divided into two classes. 'Vital problems' are those which, according to the best possible forecast, will not decrease in importance in the future. They demand not to be discounted in any outlook committed to sustainability. For 'normal problems', it can be expected that their impact will decrease due to an increasing technical, economic and social problem-solving capacity in the future. Currently, the best available proxy for a rate of discount to be applied here might be the overall growth rate of the economy.