Comprehensives – Intergenerational Justice

So I haven’t blogged in a bit. Part of it is just trying to find inspiration in order to post quality blogs and not simply the mindless ramblings that happen to pass through my brain. But I’ve also been quite busy this summer. I’ve got lots of RA work with the Alberta Climate Dialogue project that I am an RA for AND I’m in the middle of Comps.

The UofA political science comps process is actually a really cool way of getting students read up on their sub fields. Rather than handing you an obscene reading list and sending you on your merry way to read, remember, and regurgitate, the UofA process asks us to compile our own lists and write a 40 page paper on the state of the field and produce a syllabus for that respective subfield. In case you were wondering, my two subfields are political theory and comparative politics.

As I am interested in long-term policy problems I get to use this comps opportunity to really dig into some of the intergenerational justice literature. Part of my argument is that the current dominance of liberal political theory, with its assumptions about the priority of individuals and individual rights and interests, lacks to theoretical resources to effectively respond to problems like climate change with regard to how they will affect future generations of not-yet-born individuals. We need to think generationally (that is collectively) in order to act temporally.

One of the most central problems that any text on intergenerational justice is likely to highlight is the Non-Identity Problem that was proposed by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons in 1984. The non-identity problem challenges general assumptions about what it means to “affect” the future, following the general democratic principle known as the all-affected principle whereby those who are affected by a decision have a right to have a say in it. Parfit suggests that decisions to address problems or to make the future better will alter who will come to exist. Consider two alternative scenarios: person A exists in a world ravaged by climate change or because actors addressed climate change the person B comes to exist in place of person A but in a world where climate change has been mitigated. In such a case, you cannot say that person A is affected because the alternative would be for that individual to not exist at all. Existence in a deleterious environment is assumed to be better than no existence at all. Essentially Parfit suggests that we should take any context as an assumed given – something which flies in the face of basic common sense with regard to future issues.

This problem has never sat well with me but often for reasons I could never really put my finger on. On the one hand, it seems to be a ludicrous conclusion that results in the over emphasis on individuals within liberal theory. If we think collectively for example, of course we are affecting future generations taken as a whole. The issue is about collective responsibility, and less about individual responsibility or individual (future) rights. My comprehensive paper is currently designed to address this particular facet – thinking about the common good and extending that to future generations. The common good takes as a given a particular community. Often this is defined as a nation-state, other times it can be particular subsets such as ethnic communities, religious communities, etc. Other approaches, like basic utilitarian approaches, view the common good merely as an aggregation of individual interests. The key is that these are all existing communities. My question is what theoretical resources exist that might allow us to extend our conception of the common good to future generations.

Another take on the non-identity problem, one that I just came across yesterday and really like, is to take issue with its sense of causality. Basically the problem treats as monocausal something that is multi-causal. The example used was a discussion between a father and a daughter, the daughter says

Dad, why did you drive all your life when you could have biked? Now you leave me with a world that is polluted because of all the exhaust from your driving.

To which the father replies:

But if I hadn’t been driving then I would have arrived home later than I did on the day you were conceived and you would not have been born so you can’t say that you have been affected by my driving.

That is the classic non-identity problem to which the daughter responds:

If you are trying to say that your driving made it possible for me to be conceived at such and such precise day and time (down to the second) there were other issues that came to play as well. You went golfing after work which delayed your getting home, there was heavier than usual traffic which also delayed you, when you got home you got yourself a drink of whiskey rather than come straight to bed with my mother….

…and you can imagine a whole host of other reasons why the father and mother conceived their child at precisely that time.

The result is that the question of who will come to exist is no longer as relevant as the non-identity problem suggests. This actually allows for one to take a more liberal approach to future generations thinking about the potential for all of us collectively to affect, and thereby be responsible for, the quality of life of future generations. Needless to say, this has been a fascinating week in the life of comps.

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