School of Theology and Seminary Faculty Publications

Valuing the Future: On the Ethics and Economics of Discounting Future Events in Public Policy

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Arts and Humanities | Economics | Ethics in Religion | Religion | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Public policy analysis employs a discounting to translate future costs or benefits of alternative policies into a "present value" by reducing them, based on a discount rate and the number of years in the future when these outcomes will occur. In recent years, many professional ethicists, from both philosophical and religious perspectives, have criticized discounting as morally inadequate, particularly when assessing potential long-term environmental damage, such as that arising from global warming. This essay reviews the ethical objections to discounting and concludes that discounting is a necessary dimension of the moral assessment made in public policy analysis, ultimately helpful provided that policy makers also respect two constraints to ensure sustainability and equity.


Author is listed in this article as “Daniel Rush Finn.”