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Intergenerational justice

Page history last edited by John McMahon 4 years, 7 months ago


Justice is often thought of as something in the here and now, but in reality justice takes on a much grander scope than the present and even the past. Health and well being are incredibly important on both the individual level as well as the broader societal level. It is of such importance that it is upheld through the spending of money on a plethora of social programs such as welfare and Medicare to name a few. This is how we promote the health and well being of current generations but what about those who will come after us? Intergenerational Justice helps us look to these future generations and understand just what do we owe those who will inhabit this planet after we are gone. This idea of justice is discussed in an original way by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. There are many flaws in his theory as you will see later on down the page, but nonetheless his work serves as an excellent starting point to comprehend how we can pave the way for a better and more just future. Intergenerational justice is very closely related to and impacted by climate change, though it also provides a field of view in which we can look at climate change as a responsibility and duty that must be dealt with in our generation. Ensuring there is a planet for future generations is perhaps the biggest concern associated with intergenerational justice right now, but it is not the only one. A significant portion of Rawls writing focuses on the original position in which a number of  just institutions are established (Finneron-Burns, 2017). Maintaining these establishments is also a key component of Intergenerational Justice. What makes intergenerational similar to some other aspects of justice is that it requires a kind of sacrifice in part by those here now to ensure that those in the future have conditions to realize justice. The unique part of intergenerational justice is the inability to plan and know how much needs to be saved and or sacrificed. The future is uncertain and intergenerational justice can be seen as an insurance policy of the future. Of all the forms and conceptions justice may take on, I argue this is one of the most important ones.


The Big Ideas & Questions:


1. A Brief History

   It was not until recently that we have begun to think about intergenerational justice in terms of people that do not coexist with us. The goal of intergenerational justice is to ensure that those who come after us have just as good a life, and chances as those before them had, on terms of equality with those who come before future generations. The way we currently conceptualize intergenerational justice is significantly due to one thinker, John Rawls, who wrote a lot about intergenerational justice in his book A Theory of JusticeFor Rawls a goal of intergenerational justice is to establish and maintain a series of just institutions across generations. Compared to other types of justice, intergenerational justice is a particularly difficult one to think about. This is because it pertains to both people that exist now and to those who will exist at a later time. Because we are dealing with the future in intergenerational justice it has a unique set of problems associated with it. It is also largely abstract in nature (Tremmel, 2013).


2. The Original Position

    The argument that there are obligations to future generations takes the form of what the obligations are and how we determine them. This is where the idea of the original position comes in. One goal of the original position as used by philosophers is to establish a just method for creating just outcomes. Rawls' original position is very abstract and is also essential to the rest of his theory of intergenerational justice (Finneron-Burns, 2017). The original position is a group of people from the same generation under the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance essentially deprives all members of knowledge pertaining to their identity.  No one knows in the original position which generation they belong to nor do they know their religion, nationality, etc.. This group is then tasked with establishing principles of justice that are fair for all. Rawls argues that it will be fair for all because they do not know where they fall within society. Those in the original position can also be tasked with setting up a principle of saving for future generations. The conditions laid out by those in the original position are to go relatively unchanged in this process (Finneron-Burns, 2017).

     Rawls and his idea of the original position are not without flaws. First we know mostly what those in the original position have no knowledge of, not what they do know. Whether or not they know about issues such as climate change would greatly impact the principles of justice they establish. The original position itself also provides little to no incentive for those in the original position to adopt a policy of saving for the future at all without prescriptions to do, as they would not benefit from it. Rawls also makes the principles set in the original position difficult to change. The veil of ignorance is also a sound theory on paper, but everyone experiences culture and life, from the second they are born. Biases develop as a result of this and that is not something that can just magically go away (Brandstedt, 2017).


3. The Non-Identity Problem

     The non-identity problem is another issue found within theories of intergenerational justice. This issue arises in part because of the abstract thought one has to take in order to comprehend someone in the future. Rawls argues that actions we take now may harm another person in the future. This is in a way an idea that can contradict itself. Elizabeth Finneron-Burns offers a great example in her writing of the non-identity problem, (2016). She has us picture a city in which a bomb is dropped and some people are killed while others survive. The survivors are forced to flee to safety because the bomb has irradiated their home. Some of those survivors make it to safety and eventually have kids. These kids are then born with life altering illnesses as a result of the radiation. The bomb and radiation harmed them, but it is also the very thing that caused them to come into existence. Were it not for the blast many of these hypothetical children would have been born to different parents or not been born at all. This leads us to the conclusion that in many ways it is impossible to harm someone that does not exist as the harm indirectly done to them is often part of a series of events that lead to their existence. The only way to harm someone who is not yet existent is if that harm has no relation to their coming into existence. 

     The non identity problem should be looked at in terms of wrongdoing as opposed to harming. You cannot say that the bomb harmed these children, but you can say that it wronged them. You can also wrong someone without harming them. This idea is rooted in contractarianism, whereby we can all be understood to be essentially contracting with people who have yet to be born. This idea avoids the non- identity problem by wiping out the possibility that any action resulting in someone’s existence can be called a harm (Finneron-Burns, 2016).

     One solution also offered by contractarianism, to the non-identity problem as a whole is to remove identity from the equation. Instead of looking at each person who may exist in the future as an individual being we can take a step back and categorize them. Every person would belong categories, such as mother, father, employee, employer, Christian etc.. Everyone would fall into several categories which overall constitutes their identity. We could furthermore easily set principles for every person in a particular category. This way all mothers for example would have the same rights and rules and principles of justice cast upon them. Individuals will still be affected but we are making the rules for individuals based on person types as opposed to the individuals that may or may not come into existence. This is similar to a boss setting up rules for his/her employees. They are not focused on individual workers they are focused on workers in general, even though the workforce is comprised of individuals who may have lives outside of their jobs. Through this contractarian way of viewing future generations the non-identity problem is non existent, (Finneron-Burns, 2016).


4. The Threshold Problem

     The future is yet to happen, and predicting what will happen is just that, a prediction. This creates a problem within the framework of intergenerational justice. This problem is known as the threshold problem. Among philosophers of intergenerational justice it is a common theme to set a fixed threshold of amounts to save for the future. Many set a minimum threshold, the lowest amount possible to give those coming after them the same life chances they were given. This is designed to give current generations the maximum amount of resources whilst still saving for the future.

     This can be a flawed method of securing a decent future for upcoming generations (Hale Hendlin, 2014). For starters, the future is unpredictable, and setting the minimum amount to save can leave no room for anything but an ideal or perfect future. It does not take into account the possibility of accidents, natural disasters, climate change, economic recessions or any other possible catastrophe that may occur. It is also impossible to tell how many people will be born into any given generation. Not knowing this makes it virtually impossible to even predict the minimum amount a particular generation would need to save for the next anyways. This method of saving would also be set by those in the original position and it would be relatively difficult to change. The difficulty to change how much is being saved by each generation would likely mean that some generations would be better benefited by the saving than others. This is because some generations may need more saved, while others need less saved. Some sort of adaptability is needed in the policies of saving for future generations, to ensure an equilateral distribution of justice across all generations (Hale Hendlin, 2014).


5. Population & Age Differences

     One frequently overlooked issue within the scope of intergenerational justice is population and how it pertains to coexisting generations. In England during the 1930’s there was a population scare. Not as many people were having kids, with flyers posted everywhere telling of abandoned factories and overcrowded retirement complexes. There was a large number of old people in comparison to young people. This brought to light the question is if it is the job of the younger generation to support the older generation that coexists with them (MacNicol, 1990).

     The lack of births at this time was likely a consequence of the world wide recession of the times, as well as World War I. A lot of people that would have been of childbearing age at the time died during the war. If this does not show the effect our actions have on future generations, than I do not know what does. This population filled with older people and not as many young people severely impacted how that particular generation of young people grew up. Anytime this becomes the case within a particular population there is bound to be clashing views and political discourse. In fact we see this within our own society to an extent and age differences alongside race are the leading causes of political discourse (MacNicol, 1990). There is actually a great organization called Encore that helps with this particular issue. 


Organization Pertaining to Intergenerational Justice: Encore

     Political discourse is arguably at an all time high of polarization within our nation, and often a division on political and social issues driven by age and generational impact. Changing views across generations can make it difficult for coexisting generations to get along. Encore’s mission is to bring these two groups together. Encore has over a million members and has been serving to bring together elderly people and young people for some time now. The bringing of these groups together is beneficial for everyone. For example, it allows for the youth to help the elderly with technology and it allows for a new source of meaning for the elderly. It helps the generation between the young and old because by older people helping the young it takes much of the pressure off of parents.  It also helps young people who often struggle to find their identity in this phase of life understand history and how we have come to be where we are at. Not having the chance to accurately reflect on the past is perhaps one of the biggest injustices that can be bestowed upon a young person. One should not only be able to learn from their mistakes but also be able to learn from the mistakes of others that have come before you.

     I think Encore conceptualizes justice in the sense of generational equity. They seem to be trying to develop a system in which every generation concurrently existing is benefited by their interactions and relations with one another. They also are trying to make each generation happy. It is important to think about the future generations that are yet to come but it is just as important to ensure that their is justice among concurrent generations. This is a very just movement that promotes the wellbeing of all.  


Connection to broader Theories of Justice:

     As you have seen throughout this wiki page there are many definitions and categories that just can take on, or be a part of. While more narrowly focused on certain issues over others many of these conceptions of justice share things in common and even overlap with one another. Intergenerational justice may have connections with conservatism's emphasis on inheritance and slow change, and it also has similarities with distributive justice. It also shares many of the same goals and concerns as climate justice.


     The original position as defined by Rawls is the original set of people who set the standards and implications of justice within a society. This group in the original position also is tasked with ensuring that a series of just institutions are established. It is the job of future generations to maintain and build upon these just institutions and make sure that they preserve them for generations to come. Uncertainty, though, raises problems for intergenerational justice (Finneron-Burns, 2017). We don’t know how many people will be born in any given generation nor do we know when and where they will be born. We do know however that resources must be saved for these future generations , and that sacrifices must be made in the current generations to make it happen. We are able to estimate based on history and current populations approximately how many will be in the next generation. This allows us to be able to allocate resources accordingly in a manner similar to distributive justice. This is different in the sense that nothing is actually being distributed or redistributed directly to someone now, it is being held onto (Hale Hendlin, 2014). The way one determines the big questions like how much do we save and for whom do we save it for is done much like the way we do distributive justice now. One of the biggest concerns with this though is that we can not prepare for everything, such as natural disasters. More and more of them have been taking place as a result of climate change. Intergenerational justice is on common ground with climate justice because it aims to be an insurance policy for the generations of the future. It aims to perpetuate the cycle of justice for the future but also the environment. The most important thing for future generations is having a planet. This leads us to questions  that are really hard to answer. Much like other theories of justice, there is still a lot of questions within intergenerational justice. There are some that have yet to even be asked. I think that theorizing about justice requires at least in part some level of abstraction and that such questions simply come with the territory.  



      Intergenerational justice and the way we think about it today is not perfect, but it is a solid foundation for an ongoing just society. It is not a question of if we owe something to the future but a question of what and how much. Intergenerational justice really makes you think about your place in time, and your place in this world. It makes you think about how your actions will affect the people of tomorrow. If everyone could think in this manner justice may said to be served. The biggest thing that intergenerational justice forces one to do is answer the question “Are we doing enough now to ensure that future generations will have not only a planet to live on but a just one in which they can thrive?” Ultimately it is not my job to answer this question, it is the job of my entire generation to do so. Only then will we realize that we now are essentially at a turning point in history, an original position of our own if you will. How can we ensurethe future is just? 




Works Cited:


Brandstedt, Eric. 2107. “The Savings Problem in the Original Position: Assessing & Revising A Model.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol 47(Issue 213) pp. 269-289. DOI: 10.1080/00455091.2016.1250202 (Accessed December 7th). 


Finneron-Burns, Elizabeth. 2017. “The Intergenerational Original Position.” Social Theory & Practice Vol 43 (Issue 4) pp. 805-823. DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract201711123 ( Accessed October 16th 2019). 


Finneron-Burns, Elizabeth. 2016. “Contractualism and the Non-Identity Problem.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice Vol 19 (Issue 5)  pp.1151-1163. DOI: 10.1007/s10677-016-9723-8 ( Accessed October 16th 2019).


Hale Hendlin,Yogi. 2014. “The Threshold Problem In Intergenerational Justice.” Ethics and the Environment Vol 19 (Issue 2)  pp.1-38. DOI: 10.2979/ethicsenviro. (Accessed October 16th 2019)


MacNicol, John. 1990. “Ageing and Justice.” Labour History Review Vol 55 (Issue 1) pp.75-80. URL: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.webdb.plattsburgh.edu:2048/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=33&sid=461bfb8e-649c-4397-a486-1867dae5d028%40sessionmgr101 ( Accessed October 16th 2019). 


Tremmel, Joerg Chet. 2013. “The Convention of Representatives of All Generations Under The Veil Of Ignorance.” Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory Vol 20 (Issue 3) pp. 483-502. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8675.12049 (Accessed December 8th).  







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