On Stewardship

This post responds to Mike’s Stewarship post:

Yep. Stewardship is a very nice way to think about intellectual systems generally. In a sense, this ties back to earlier posts on intergenerational equity and other principles from environmental law that seem to make sense in the IP context. The stewardship concept along with complementary concepts of intergenerational equity and sustainable development seem pretty well established with respect to our natural environment. But they remain incomplete and open for exploration and refinement in other areas. Below the fold is an excerpt (without footnotes) from an essay in which I try to get at some of these issues:

[N]atural resources might seem like the “easy” case because we do not create such resources; we only inherit them. It seems quite reasonable to postulate that the present generation does not have a superior claim to the Earth’s resources and consequently that each and every generation “is . . . both trustee for the planet with obligations to care for it and a beneficiary with rights to use it.” [Brown Weiss 1995]

[But] The world we live in is comprised of multiple, complex, overlapping, and interdependent systems with which we interact and that ultimately
constitute our environments—the natural environment is one and the socially constructed environment is another. What about valuable
human-made resources that affect the welfare of past, present and future generations? Are we not stewards of much more than the natural
resources of the planet, of our heritage defined broadly? What about culture? Knowledge? Infrastructure? Social, economic, and political
institutions? And so on. Generally speaking, valuable human-made resources present a more difficult case because the creators of a
particular resource may have a superior moral claim to the resource as a product of their labor.

In his Lyceum Address of 1838, Abraham Lincoln recognized that the “fundamental blessings” passed on from generation to generation
extend beyond the blessings of the Earth to include the blessings of society—the communal heritage of law, political institutions, and
fundamental rights of liberty and equality.
. . .
Lincoln’s Lyceum speech, like the Gettysburg Address, offers a powerful vision of a transgenerational social contract firmly rooted in
equity. Each generation inherits a wealth of natural and communal resources. In return for this boon, it is obligated to transmit these
resources “to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know.” This moral obligation is not rooted strictly in the conception
of fairness, which was noted earlier with respect to natural resources. That concept, from a Rawlsian perspective, dictates that no particular
generation has a superior claim to the Earth’s resources, and thus each generation accepts the dual role of beneficiary and trustee. Rather,
this moral obligation is rooted in a more traditional conception of equity, akin to the repudiation of unjust enrichment: the present
generation is morally bound to perform its duty to transmit because its own welfare has been enriched by access to and use of the resources
passed on to it; to accept the benefits without satisfying the attendant duty would constitute enrichment at the expense of future generations.

Obviously, this attempt does not come close to ironing out the details. There is much to be done. But rooting an intergenerational stewardship obligation in equity seems like a first step.

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