VENI Project: Who owes what to future generations?

Running Time: 2017-2024. 

This project is made possible by a VENI grant from the NWO, and the groundwork was made possible by  a combined grant from the Gratama Foundation and the Leiden University Foundation (LUF). 

Who owes what to future generations? Realising justice in an unequal world. 

Our ability to influence – positively or negatively – the conditions under which future people live has greatly increased. We can improve their conditions by transferring knowledge, technology or things of beauty, or make the world a less pleasant place to live, for example by failing to stop climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation to the point where human rights come under threat. Unlike most past generations, we are aware of our influence on how future people live (although the exact consequences are hard to predict). This increased power and knowledge makes questions of justice between generations particularly pertinent: what do we owe to future people? Answering this question involves four clear sub-questions:

First, we need to ask whether theories of justice apply to future generations. These questions of justice between generations are relatively new in political philosophy. Theories of justice face a double challenge: first, it is unclear whether future and possible people can be objects of moral concern. But even if one could show that future people can be included under the scope of morality, it is not clear that the kind of obligations we have to them are obligations of justice: if justice only applies to those who cooperate, share laws or share a culture, future generations may not be included. Regarding the first question, I argue that this double challenge can be met, in a way that remains true to the fundamental commitments of liberal egalitarian theories of justice.

Second, we need to ask how much we owe to future generations (the ‘pattern’ of justice). Should future people have as much as we have, do we owe them more than we have, or are they owed a world in which their lives are merely good enough? Second, we need to ask what we owe to future generations (i.e. the content of the basket of goods we transfer). It is improbable that we owe future generations exactly the same kind of things as we owe our contemporaries.

Third, we need to ask which future generations we have obligations to. Do Dutch people merely have obligations of justice to future Dutch people, or are intergenerational duties of justice global in nature? This connects with debates between cosmopolitan (global) theories of justice and nationalist theories. This question is particularly important because many challenges to intergenerational justice are global challenges (e.g. climate change).

Fourth, we need to ask how to fairly divide the cost for acting on this duty among contemporaries. A good example is the fair allocation of emission rights: can developing countries be asked not to increase their emissions, or should the rich (post-)industrial societies solve the problem their development has largely caused? But wouldn’t it be unfair to ask those who already have very little and, moreover, make a negligible contribution to environmental challenges such as climate change to make sacrifices for the benefit of future generations?

Questions of intergenerational justice, climate change, migration and (international) distribution are philosophically challenging, socially pressing and politically complicated. What is needed, and currently lacking, is a nuanced account of the fair distribution of the costs of intergenerational justice in an unjust and unequal world like ours. In order to evaluate and inform policies aimed at acting on our duties towards future generations, we need the right normative tools to do so.