A Theory of Intergenerational Justice

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Rio must reiterate that sustainable development based on social, equity, economic growth and environmental preservation is in contradiction with development based purely on economic growth and bring governments back into action. Sustainable development must get a political endorsement that can be achieved only through transparent governance and regulation — and not through a free market regime. The search for justice is as old as human civilization itself.

This search has been becoming more inclusive over the centuries. Moving from the struggle for rights of underdogs like slaves, it has progressed to include all sections of humanity irrespective of caste, gender, race, religion and age.

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The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child UNCRC of is the latest human rights convention oriented towards guaranteeing just and fair treatment to all children and is now ratified by almost all countries to include the future generations as well. In the process of operationalizing the UNCRC the global community has asserted its commitment to the future generations.

This commitment however is still far from being adequate. Their task in managing the endowment is to preserve equity among generations. Perceiving ourselves as a collective whole, it is easy to argue that we are obliged to be concerned about the fate of people in future generations. But the question is how and to what extent our present actions and decisions must be oriented to the future.

Theoretical discussions on these aspects have been mainly a concern of the post human rights declaration era, as political philosopher John Rawls made clear. Rawls considered political constitutions and the principles of economic and social arrangements as major institutions and defined justice as the way in which these institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and regulate the sharing of advantages from social cooperation. Having accepted the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, he combined them with the principles of justice.

Equality then becomes equality of fair opportunity and fraternity the principle of difference. Does this principle extend to the future generations? Each generation must put aside a suitable amount of capital in return for what it received from previous generations, that enables the latter to enjoy a better life in a more just society. We can do something for posterity but it can do nothing for us. The only reciprocal exchanges between generations are virtual ones. Is this intergenerational reciprocity practical or real?

Since only posterity can bring to fruition our projects or our contributions, this cannot be done on the basis of contractual relationships.


While the present generation can bind itself to do something for the future, the future is not yet there to be party to the contract. This is where the idea of community becomes useful. Hence justice considerations apply to relations which are beyond the present one. This is particularly true in the case of distributive justice. In some sense the present generation exercises power over the future ones, and has the possibility of using up resources in such a way that it negates the rights of the future ones.

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The future has no way of controlling the present. Moreover the present generation even has power over the very existence of the future ones. This could be an even greater influence than that on the current generation, where the influencewould at most affect the survival of the people. This is enough ground for asserting rights to future persons, though there could be contrary arguments.

We are linked with both boundaries of this moment by the people among us whose lives began or will end at one of those boundaries, three and a half generations each way in time. This theory is intended to serve as the basis for the design and operation of social institutions in liberal nati on-states. In other words, an equal share of resources is not the same as equal quality of life.

For example, two people eating the same diet might experience better or worse health outcomes depending on their nutritional needs. He stresses the relevance of variation in i personal conversion factors, personal characteristics such as gender and disability; ii social conversion factors, which influence the availability of options; and iii environmental conversion factors, such as climate, geography, and epidemiology Piachaud ; Robeyns Functionings are different aspects of human experience that people have reason to value, such as being well nourished, participating in community life, and having particular skills.

Capabilities are the opportunities that people have to lead a good life, derived from the sum of all the functionings they are able to achieve if they so choose. For Sen, it is the capability to achieve valuable functionings that should be the key concern of distributive justice. Distributive justice, thus, requires differential distributions of resources. This shifts the focus of policy from income and resource measures such as GDP, to concepts like multiple deprivation a nd social exclusion Burchardt This is his grounding for the capability approach, with its focus on human doings and beings and the enhancement of choice.

Sen also differs from Rawls in his view on the scope of justice. However, he does acknowledge the over-simplicity of presuming such a thing as a global society. Rather, the capability approach is of global relevance as it reflects basic human needs, but how these are met depends on different domestic contexts Piachaud It is not based on the assumption of a social contract in a clearly defined society, which allows for greater flexibility in considering questions of scope and scale.

He distinguishes between freedom as the opportunity to pursue particular objectives that people have reason to value and freedom as the process of choice itself. Sen argues that the process of choice — freedom of thought, association, and so on — is vital to the capability approach. Life : Living to the end of a human life of normal length. Bodily health : Living in good health with adequate nourishment and shelter.

Bodily integrity : Freedom of movement, freedom from assault, and reproductive rights. Senses, imagination, and thought : Freedom of thought, reason, and expression. Emotions : Being able to have attachments and fully experience feelings without fear. Practical reason : Being able to form a conception of good and reflect on your life. Affiliation : Being able to associate, interact, and empathize and being treated as an equal. Other species : Living with concern for and i n relation to animals, plants, and nature. Play : Being able to laugh, play, and enjoy recreational activities.

Nussbaum acknowledges that this account is political, intended to direct social policy change for the benefit of women, and she also anticipates that it will be contested and remade. But, she argues, some definite account is needed to realize the capability approach as a vision of, and concrete demand for, social justice.

Thus capability justice focuses on the worthwhile end of justice, rather than on the means to this end. These are inherently intergenerational questions, bringing focus to the relationship between the past, present, and future of human societies. How can these considerations be factored into existing theories of justice? Where models of justice support ethical first principles, intergenerational questions ought not to substantively alter them, yet moral problems that transcend time and space, such as climate change, often present a considerable challenge to the theory Pichaud et al.

Barry , p. Parfit , p. Yet the implications of this assertion are testing, both in thinking through culpability and reparation for historical injustice and in imagining obligations to future people and societies about whom nothing is known. This is perhaps the most debated aspect of intergenerational justice, and there are no easy answers. There are a number of challenges posed by thinking intergenerationally, particularly if intergenerational justice is taken in its broadest sense to refer not only to the different generations alive today but to chronological generations in the past and distant future.

This raises important questions about how far obligations to future people reach, what can be done for their benefit without imposing excessive economizing on the generations alive today, and where the motivation comes from if there is no basis in social cooperation and practical accountability. When thinking about the currency of justice, there is considerable guesswork involved in acting in the best interests of future generations when it is unknowable what societies and natural systems they will live in, what technologies they will have access to, and what they will value Gutwald et al.

It is possible to make some predictions, such as modeling the impact of climate change, but threshold effects and nonlinearities mean that people are always faced with planning for an uncertain future Leach et al. There is also the nonidentity problem , a philosophical dilemma that results from the decisions that are made today influencing the very existence of future people Parfit It is difficult to determine an ethical principle for choosing between, for example, welfare-maximizing and resource-conserving policy options that have different implications for future population size and quality of life.

The Rawlsian and capability approaches to social justice offer two different perspectives, both helpful, on how we might address some of these challenges. This suggests that under a veil of ignorance, people would choose principles of justice that benefit all generations. Rawls recognized however that the principles he proposes for justice among contemporaries, in particular the difference principle and the maximin rule, make less sense when applied across generations.

He also notes that there is no proviso in the maximin rule to take account of the needs of future generations. To address this problem, Rawls suggests an additional just savings principle. This is the idea that people in the original position would agree to a principle of justice that improves the long-term prospects of the least advantaged in society ove r future generations, i.

The priority of equal liberty is the basis for the just savings principle, as Rawls believes it is this resource accumulation that enables development to reach a stage where institutions of justice can be established and maintained. Rawls does not stipulate a just rate of saving but does state that more should be expected of wealthier societies at times when the burden of saving is less.

He originally stipulates that people in the original position i represent family lines, who care about their immediate descendants, and ii adopt principles that they would wish their predecessors to have followed p. Rawls also argues that people will consider that their choices must seem reasonable to their immediate descendants and the next generation as a whole. Later, in response to criticism that his argument about caring for descendants is inconsistent with the disinterested logic of the original position Barry ; Daniels ; Heath ; Okin , Rawls removes the stipulation about family lines.

His revised and simplified justification for ju st savings in Political Liberalism a , p. As Gauthier , p. In other words, intergenerational justice is about a duty to establish and maintain just institutions. This idea is of fundamental importance because it envisages a limit to the utility of resource accumulation, beyond which excessive wealth does not serve the demands of justice.

In this point he again rejects the utilitarian principle that justice means maximizing welfare over time. He also cautions against high rates of saving that impose excessive hardships on present generations, where the first principles of justice have not yet been met. Arguing from a communitarian perspective, Thom pson suggests that a stronger foundation for preserving wealth, resources, and sound institutions for future people can be found by considering what she calls the lifetime-transcending interests of current people i.

This is a very real social policy concern in many Minority World nations, where the impact of consumer lifestyles on climate change and low rates of savings are perceived as an intergenerational injustice. Gosseries argues Rawls is proposing two distinct phases of human development in which different principles determine the demands of justice. In the accumulation phase, intergenerational justice necessitates some present sacrifice in the service of a better minimum standard of living in future generations and achie ving basic liberties for all.

Gaspart and Gosseries modify the jus t savings principle to stipulate that in this phase, savings should be prohibited and instead used for the benefit of the least well-off members of the present generation. Otherwise, the surplus will only continue to benefit the most advantaged members of society and their offspring. This is a departure from Rawls, as it extends the demands of intergenerational justice beyond the establishment of social institutions and the removal of extreme poverty, toward an egalitarian distribution of primary goods. They are permissible in the service of advancing development, to support the establishment and maintenance of just institutions and secure basic liberties.

They must enable each generation to produce and to save resources for the benefit of the next generation, without imposing excessive hardship. They must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. They must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. Where basic liberties have been realized, productive surplus should be redistributed for the benefit of the least advantaged members of the generations alive today, in a manner consistent with the conservation of resources for future generations.

Although the just savings principle is about an aggregate saving across the whole of a society, Rawls explicitly states that savings should not impose an excessive b urden and that he would expect more of wealthier societies: a logical extension of this argument therefore is to expect a higher rate of saving from the wealthiest members of current generations, consistent with the difference principle.

Sen , p. As Barry , pp. The idea of sustainable development can be broadened from the formulations proposed by Bruntland… to encompass the preservation and expansion of the substantive freedoms and capabilities of people today without compromising the ability of future generations to have similar or more freedoms. Sen This capability approach to sustainable development is about sustaining freedoms — the opportunities to choose a valuable life — for both current and future generations Lessmann and Rauschmayer Gutwald et al.

Page considers the capability approach specifically in relation to intergenerational justice and climate change. Neuberger and Fraser suggest that life, bodily health, and civil liberties are of special significance, while Page ibid. Yet Watene argues that this is inconsistent with how she has identified her ten central human capabilities in the first place.

The capability approach to development, for Scholtes, promises the accessibility and reflectiveness of reasons for dealing with nature and makes the valuational reference of these reasons and the formulation of environmental problems acceptable in the space of public deliberation and social value formation. How available resources and conversion factors contribute to individual capabilities. How achieved functionings affect the ecological, economic, and social systems.


How these changes will impact on the capabilities of future generations, via resources and conversion factors. This model can be used to better u nderstand the conditions of un sustainable development. However, because the model is multidimensional and dynamic and depends on individuals, it is difficult to operate in practice. Lessmann and Rauschmayar suggest that it might be used to focus on capabilities and the natural environment and by institutions responsible for sustainable development.

In a more recent theoretical study, the capability approach is combined with a transition management and practice approach by Rauschmayer et al.

They point out that although the capability approach is able to differentiate between self- and other-regarding motivations, and the latter are important to any move toward intergenerational justice, it cannot identify causal relations between individual and societal changes. When combined with transition management, which is developed to infer societal transitions, and a practice approach which is able to describe how practices come about and change at the societal level, this heuristic assemblage can be of use to describe, explain, assess, and interrelate sustainable development at multiple levels.

To summarize, the capability approach seems to have particular appeal to scholars interested in the links between ideal theory and policies for sustainable development. The basis of its appeal is its non-prescriptive focus on the conservation of options, which comfortably extends the scope of justice to future generations. However, the incompleteness of this theory also gives rise to difficulty and differences of interpretation with regard to the relative importance of ecological and social resources, the primacy of nature, and the order of our obligations to future generations in preserving their opportunities to lead good lives.

Yet without the capability approach, how do we realize the conservation of options? Criticizing the Rawlsian difference principle, Norton , pp. Diverse options: A responsibility to ensure that future generations have the ability to make choices about how they live in the world they inherit. Preserving diversity of choice, and not diminishing the range of natural and cultural resources available, is the only way to give future generations the flexibility they deserve. Environmental quality: A responsibility to pass on a world that has not been damaged by our actions and a related responsibility to repair the actions of the past.

Equal access: A responsibility to give equal access to public resources — both to our neighbors today and our children tomorrow. Although sometimes still operating at a high level of abstraction, debates over how intergenerational justice is theorized matter beyond the walls of academia. Skip to main content Skip to sections. Substantial inequalities exist, however, between different generations, with older generations experiencing lower living standards in real terms at particular ages than younger generations.

At one extreme, people born in achieved this level of consumption when they were roughly 50 years of age, on average. At the other extreme, Millennials born in had achieved this level of consumption by the time they were around 10 years of age. Considerations such as this have led some scholars to argue that standards of living have tended to increase generation over generation in most countries, as development and technology have progressed.

When taking this into account, younger generations may have inherent privileges over older generations, which may offset the redistribution of wealth towards older generations. Some scholars consider the changing cultural trends that move society away from the norm of adult children caring for elderly parents to be an intergenerational equity issue. The older generation had to care for their parents, as well as their own children, while the younger generation must only care for their children.

This is especially true in countries with weak social security systems. Professor Sang-Hyop Lee describes the presence of this phenomenon in South Korea, explaining that the current elderly now have the highest poverty rate among any developed country. He notes that it is particularly frustrating because the elderly usually invest a lot in their children's education, and they now feel betrayed.

Contrasting Theories of Intergenerational Justice: Just Savings or Capabilities | SpringerLink

Other scholars express different opinions on which generation is truly disadvantaged by elderly care. Professor Steven Wisensale describes the burden on current working age adults in developed economies, who must care for more elderly parents and relatives for a longer period of time. This problem is exacerbated by the increasing involvement of women in the workforce, and by the dropping fertility rate, leaving the burden for caring for parents, as well as aunts, uncles, and grandparents, on fewer children. Conversations about intergenerational equity are also relevant to social justice arenas as well, where issues such as health care [30] are equal in importance to youth rights and youth voice are pressing and urgent.

There is a strong interest within the legal community towards the application of intergenerational equity in law. Generation Squeeze is a Canadian not-for-profit organization that advocates for intergenerational equity. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. Dagenhart History of youth rights in the United States Morse v. Adam Fletcher activist David J. Males Neil Postman Sonia Yaco.

See also: National debt of the United States. See also: Social Security United States. Herald Scotland. August 5, Social Policy Group for the Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 14 April Retrieved 14 April — via online. Retrieved February 2, Retrieved 14 April — via NYTimes. Tax law Rewiew. Gonzalez eds. New York Times. Retrieved April 28, Asia Experts Forum. Not, 'Is it Irreparable?