Individualism & Future Generations: Problems & Possibilities

This post is a very short snippet of my much larger political theory comprehensive exam paper presented at the University of Alberta Political SCience Graduate Students’ Conference in March, 2014.



At the beginning of the 21st century, political theory is largely dominated by liberal assumptions about the citizen, state, and society, with a particular conceptualization of the individual at its core (Habermas 1994). While these conceptualizations were developed to respond to some of the most pressing challenges of those times the challenges facing societies in the 21st century are in many ways of a fundamentally different nature. In particular problems such as climate change, nuclear waste, and demographic pressures, all raise important intergenerational concerns. We have an unprecedented ability to negatively affect the living conditions of future generations while simultaneously are gaining an increased ability to know and understand the long-term consequences of our collective decisions.

Questions of intergenerational justice contain a number of unique features with which other theories of justice have not had to contend (De-Shalit 1995, 4–5). Such problems include motivational problems, intergenerational transfers of wealth, unknown preferences of future generations, the one directional relationship of the present with the future, irreversibility of many issues, and the size of the future population being is unknown.

Despite these challenges, numerous scholars have attempted to deal with intergenerational issues within a liberal paradigm, often talking about the question of “rights” for future generations (Dierksmeier 2006; Gosseries 2008; Hiskes 2005; Sólyom 2002). The problem is that by remaining within a individualistic liberal paradigm we encounter numerous theoretical problems. How do we speak of human rights regarding the not-yet-born? How do we adjudicate between the rights of the not-yet-born vis-à-vis the present generation? Is “rights language” even logically coherent in a nonreciprocal relationship such as the one between present and future? This paper makes the argument that in order to act temporally we need to think collectively. In other words, we need to think of ourselves, not primarily as individuals, but as members of a given community with members coming and going over time. 

Individualism in Rawlsian Contractualism

While many are familiar with a Theory of Justice, what is less known is that Rawls presented a new means of conceptualizing intergenerational justice. From Rawls’ thought experiment about actors in an original position behind a veil of ignorance, emerge two principles of justice. The second, the difference principle (the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged) Rawls translates into a form of temporal distributive justice, which he calls the just savings principle. The just savings principle is the foundation of Rawls’ theory of intergenerational justice. Deliberators within the original position are to determine how much is required to maintain the “just institutions within which the basic liberties of all can be realized” (Rawls 1999a, 256). Originally, Rawls suggests those in the original position are contemporaries determining principles of justice for all generations. To do otherwise would treat the original position as an actual (albeit hypothetical) deliberation about the principles of justice. The problem is “earlier generations will have either saved or not; there is nothing the parties can do to affect that” (Rawls 1999a, 255) which presents a motivation problem. It is here that the individualism inherent in Rawls’ account presents a problem. Actors in the original position are assumed to be self-interested or ‘rational’ and so have no reason to act for the benefit of others. Rawls’ initial solution is to propose that each member of the original position “represent family lines, say, who care at least about their more immediate descendants” (Rawls 1999a, 255). This then situates the individual within a particular kind of community – an extended family unit. This initial solution, however, is one which Rawls has been critiqued most heavily, primarily because it compromised the very impartiality that his framework sought to establish (English 1977; MacClellan 2013).

Later, Rawls drops this familial solution and posits that the just savings principle “is one the members of any generation (and so all generations) would adopt as the principle they would want preceding generations to have followed, no matter how far back in time” (Rawls 2001, 160, 2005, 274) or what others refer to as the “universalizability principle” (MacClellan 2013). This principle goes the farthest in creating the basis for the just savings principle particularly because it forces those behind the veil of ignorance to think of themselves as part of a larger, historical community of humanity broadly speaking.

The problem is that the decision by Rawls to limit his account to a political conception of justice (Rawls 1985, 1995) undermines the plausibility of this truly being applicable intergenerationally. By presupposing reasonableness and rationality, Rawls is forced to limit his account to a political conception of justice because it cannot provide a more comprehensive basis for these principles that would be plausible for all existing societies. If it cannot be deemed acceptable for existing societies, why would one expect this conception to be deemed acceptable for societies that have come or are yet to come? In order for Rawls’ Political Liberalism to be universal, the way his ‘universalizability principle’ seems to desire, Rawls would need to assume reasonableness and rationality for ALL generations. Without having a means of adequately coping with different ‘comprehensive moral doctrines’ Rawls restricts himself to a conception of justice that is limited geographically as well as temporally.

Communitarianism and Deliberative approaches: De-Shalit, and Habermas

I now turn to two approaches which try to address this over emphasis on the individual: Communitarianism and Deliberative Democracy. Communitarianism emerged in direct response to the work of John Rawls. Communitarians argued for more attentiveness to communal particularities contra Rawls’ pursuit of universal principles of justice. In addition, they argued for a more nuanced understanding of the way in which the self is embedded within a community that is continually shaping and being shaped by its members. Community, they argued, played a greater role, as both the source of justice as well as defining the content of justice, than liberal theorists allowed (Kymlicka 2002, 210).

Avner de-Shalit takes the communitarian approach to develop a notion of a “transgenerational community”. He writes: “among all the conceptions of a community, those that are acceptable must be compatible with the notion of free and rational agency [in which he defines rational as] subject[ing] their membership in the community to a critical examination” (De-Shalit 1995, 16). In this way, de-Shalit creates a reflexive conception of community where the community and the self constitute each other and each other’s identity. If there is no critical examination of membership, the choice to be part of that community is not intentionally shaping one’s identity. This debate leads to continued and sustained reflection on the values that shape the community. Thus it is not only shared background, but shared commitment to working out different ideas that shape the identity of the community.

 Furthermore, the commitment to working out issues with the community is what creates the bridge with future generations. “The reason I care about the future is not that there are many future selves and some of them will belong to the same organism as my present self, but rather it is the relationship between my future selves and my present self that causes me to care about the future” (De-Shalit 1995, 36). This creates a future oriented self, one that connects with future generations through our ideas and our legacies. There is a means by which our vision of what we want the future to be like, including what we hope our future selves to be, that is a constitutive feature of the present self. My understanding and thoughts of the future shape the person I am and become, thus this is part of what constitutes the self. We can then extend this process to include the future in a more communal sense, a move from “I want this to be my legacy” to “I want this to be the legacy of my community”.

Yet there is an important way in which this theoretical approach falls short. The primary impetus behind the rational process de-Shalit identifies as constitutive of the present self is to identify and maintain this communal identity. The question that arises is whether or not we might have obligations that extend beyond one’s sense of community. I believe we do, but it is insufficiently clear whether this is the case in de-Shalit’s account. Political theorist Brian Barry, for example, argues that as “a cross generational form of communitarianism, [de-Shalit’s account] cannot offer any reason for people in rich countries to cut back so as to improve the prospects of future people in other communities” (Barry 1999, 99 emphasis added). De-Shalit gives an account of intergenerational justice that leaves questions of international justice unanswered.

Jürgen Habermas makes a similar critique. He argues that the problem with the communitarian approach is an “ethical constriction of political discourse” (Habermas 1994, 4). The communitarian requires ‘moral similarity’ before one can begin to answer questions of intergenerational justice; the ethical precedes the political.

As part of his theoretical project, Habermas develops a concept of intersubjective reason which he calls communicative action. Using Chomsky’s structural linguistics (Edgar 2005, 140), allows Habermas to develop his universal pragmatics and discourse ethics with reference to the “ideal speech situation” which looks at the structural conditions necessary to allow for free and equal communicative action to occur. Habermas then uses the “ideal speech situation” as a point from which to leverage a critical assessment of modern society.

Habermas thus outlines a purely procedural understanding of justice that provides the rules by which agents deliberate over the substantive issues with which they are faced. Rawls sees his theory of justice as procedural as well, however because the original position strips the agents of any distinctiveness this makes the whole process monological rather than dialogical, with a notion of consensus that is so thin as to be utterly meaningless (Habermas 1995, 2000; Rawls 1995). Rawls arrives at principles of justice which lauds a liberal democratic political system by presuming agents that operate according to liberal democratic assumptions (reasonable and rational). Rawls, himself, recognizes this cannot be applied internationally, yet somehow does not see that it is equally problematic intergenerationally.

Habermas’ work has the potential to deal with questions of intergenerational justice because his approach develops a means of responding to the demands of intergenerational justice that is attentive to difference and changing conditions, while pursuant a universal vision. Habermas achieves this through the principle of universalization and the discourse principle. The principle of universalization (U) states that: “all affected can accept the consequences and the side effects that [a norm’s] general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests, and the consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.” While the discourse principle (D) states “only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse” (Habermas 1992, 65–66, see also 1996, 107). These two principles allow Habermas to articulate a way in which a moral viewpoint might be achieved (U) and how it is justified (D). In contrast to Rawls, who develops his moral viewpoint through the original position by stripping the individual of any particularities, Habermas argues that the moral viewpoint can only occur through free and equal argumentation. Moral norms and the content of justice are something that must be worked out in deliberation among all those who are affected.

Unfortunately, Habermas still runs against a problem: a lack of interaction between subjects. While his discourse principle argues for moral norms to be actually deliberated upon, the question is whether this is necessary for his theory to remain cohesive. In the practical application of Habermas’ theory, notably in the expanding literature of deliberative democracy, actual deliberation by ALL is an impractical demand. The ideal speech situation is unlikely to ever be actually realized; nevertheless it serves an important critical role. It forces the arguments that are made to be articulated as if they were to be deliberated by others. These generalizable arguments can thus serve to incorporate future interests as arguments are made to which we might imagine future citizens agreeable. In this way, deliberative democracy has been able to propose the inclusion of environmental interests into the political decision making process (Baber and Bartlett 2005; Dryzek 2002; Smith 2003). By better balancing the particular with the universal, Habermas has the potential to navigate simultaneously the torturous waters of international as well as intergenerational justice.


Any approach to intergenerational justice needs to be flexible enough to respond to changing conditions. The issues facing society at the beginning of the 21st century are different than those facing societies at the beginning of the 20th century, or 10th century. Each generation of political theorists applied their talents to solve seemingly intractable problems facing their particular society. To treat those solutions as universal and ahistorical undermines the contextual distinctiveness which made those theories so persuasive in the first place.

Conceptualizing the self communally helps re-orient oneself to thinking about the needs and interests of future generations. This isn’t to say that the self is subsumed into the community, or required to sacrifice for the sake of community, but is a way to temper the self-interest that marks our late capitalist society. This connects with other debates within contemporary political theory about how to include those without a voice into our collective decision making processes such as different species, or the disabled, as identified by Martha Nussbaum, as examples of different communities affected by our collective decisions but unable to speak to those decisions with which they are affected. To this, one could easily add future generations.


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2 Responses to Individualism & Future Generations: Problems & Possibilities

  1. Pingback: Continuing Inspiration and Connections | Activism, the Arts, and Academia: Beyond the Ivory Tower

  2. Elaine Foulkes says:

    Thoughtful analysis, Geoff! Thank you. Reading from an interdisciplinary stance, your thoughts brought to mind two seemingly similar lines of inquiry: the conversation in psychology between Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg regarding the developmental trajectory of moral reasoning and the theological writings of Desmond Tutu on umbuntu. Keep up the good work!

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