Political philosophers’ interest in the family—understood as a unit in which one or more adults discharge a socially and legally recognized role as primary carers of their children—has given rise to a rich and multifaceted body of literature. Some of the questions philosophers address concern justice and the family, specifically, that is, they concern the competing claims of individuals once it is acknowledged that, as well as being citizens, individuals have all been members of families as infants, and may be members of families as parents, and that how the family is structured and run has a profound impact on the prospects and opportunities of infants and of their parents, and on some interests of society as a whole. Two main sets of questions about the family and justice are as follows. The first set of questions concerns what the family owes society as a matter of justice, that is, how the family can and should help realize, or how it may hinder the achievement of, independently formulated demands of justice. One such demand is that of equality of opportunity: philosophers have debated whether the existence of the family necessarily threatens pursuit of equality of opportunity for children, and what may, or should, be done about this. They have offered a variety of diagnoses of the problem and solutions to it, depending on their views about the legitimacy of parental partiality and about the value of the parent–child relationship. Another demand of justice that may be in tension with the family is the demand not to diminish the fair shares of one’s fellow-citizens. Whether prospective parents must constrain their freedom to found and raise a family in light of considerations about the environmental impact that their having and rearing children will have for future generations, for example, is a growing concern among philosophers. The second set of questions about the family and justice concern what society owes families—that is, what citizens owe to one another as a matter of justice, insofar as they are actual or potential members of families. While there is widespread agreement that adults have a right to parent—and to parent their biological children, in particular—and that children have a right to be raised in families and typically by their biological parents, there is a wealth of different views regarding the grounds of these rights. The views differ depending on whether they appeal to people’s interests in freedom, or in well-being, or both, in order to justify access to the family. Whether, besides having the right to access the family, parents also have claims to having society share in the costs of having and raising children, is a further question that political philosophers have examined and on which they have offered diverging answers.
Understanding the complex set of processes collected under the heading of climate change represents a considerable scientific challenge. But it also raises important challenges for our best moral theories. For instance, in assessing the risks that climate change poses, we face profound questions about how to weigh the respective harms it may inflict on current and future generations, as well as on humans and other species. We also face difficult questions about how to act in conditions of uncertainty, in which at least some of the consequences of climate change—and of various human interventions to adapt to or mitigate it—are difficult to predict fully. Even if we agree that mitigating climate change is morally required, there is room for disagreement about the precise extent to which it ought to be mitigated (insofar as there is room for underlying disagreement about the level of temperature rises that are morally permissible). Finally, once we determine which actions to take to reduce or avoid climate change, we face the normative question of who ought to bear the costs of those actions, as well as the costs associated with any climate change that nevertheless comes to pass.
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.