Justice Between Generations
- Tim MeijersTim MeijersDepartment of Philosophy, Leiden University
A wide range of issues in moral, political, and legal philosophy fall under the heading of “intergenerational justice,” such as questions of justice between the young and the old, obligations to more-or-less distant past and future generations, generational sovereignty, and the boundaries of democratic decision-making.
These issues deserve our attention first because they are of great social importance. Solving the challenges raised by aging, stable pension funding, and increasing healthcare costs, for example, requires a view on what justice between age groups demands. Climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation, population growth, and the like, raise serious concerns about the conditions under which future people will have to live. What kind of world should we bequest to future generations?
Second, this debate has theoretical significance. Questions of intergenerational justice force reconsideration of the fundamental commitments (on scope, pattern, site, and currency) of existing moral and political theories. The age-group debate has led to fundamental questions about the pattern of distributive justice: Should we care about people’s lives considered as whole being equally good? This has implausible implications. Can existing accounts be modified to avoid such problematic consequences?
Justice between nonoverlapping generations raises a different set of questions. One important worry is about the pattern of intergenerational justice—are future generations owed equality, or should intergenerational justice be cast in terms of sufficiency? Another issue is the currency of intergenerational justice: what kind of goods should be transferred? Perhaps the most puzzling worry resulting from this debate translates into a worry about scope: do obligations of justice extend to future people? Most conventional views on the scope of justice—those that focus on shared coercive institutions, a common culture, a cooperative scheme for mutual advantage—cannot easily be extended to include future generations. Even humanity-based views, which seem most hospitable to the inclusion of future generations, are confronted with what Parfit called the nonidentity problem, which results from the fact that future people are mostly possible people: because of the lack of a fixed identity of future people, it is often impossible to harm them in the comparative sense.