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date: 16 January 2018

Intergenerational Justice: The Scope, Pattern, and Currency of Justice Between Generations

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

A wide range of issues in moral, political, and legal philosophy fall under the heading of Intergenerational Justice, like questions of justice between young and old, obligations towards 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 concern issues that are relevant to our practical lives. Solving the challenges raised by ageing, stable funding for pensions, 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, the intergenerational puzzles forces 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 having equal shares over their whole lives? This has implausible implications. Can existing accounts be modified to avoid such problematic consequences?

Justice between non-overlapping 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? Yet other issues arise in population ethics, with a series of paradoxes and impossibility theorems that challenge the possibility of a satisfactory view of intergenerational justice. 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 non-identity problem, which results from the fact that future people are mostly possible people: because of the of the identity of future people, it is often impossible to harm them in the comparative sense.

Some have concluded that, for this reason, future people cannot fall under the scope of justice. However, several proposals have been made to deal with this issue either by proposing a sufficiency threshold notion of harm or by disconnecting harm at wronging and stretching the notion of person-affectingness. Another strategy, less popular among theorists of justice, is to give up person-affectingness altogether.