Justice, Democracy, and Future Generations

35 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 7 May 2015

See all articles by Michael Kates

Michael Kates

New York University (NYU) - Wilf Family Department of Politics

Date Written: 2011


This paper explores one aspect of the problem of intergenerational justice that has largely been overlooked in the philosophical literature, namely, the fact that securing a just distribution of benefits and burdens between generations is a problem of transition: that is, a problem of how to realize the move from a world marked by intertemporal injustice to one in which the demands of justice between generations have finally been realized. More precisely, the difficulty is to identify a normatively defensible and institutionally accessible trajectory of social change from here to there. And that, in turn, requires us to combine considerations of justice and of fairness with those of democracy and institutional design. My question is thus whether there is a conflict or tension between justice and democracy in this regard and if so how, if at all, it can be overcome. To answer this question, I consider a number of proposals for how democracy can be redesigned so as to mediate such a conflict and thereby better secure the demands of intergenerational justice. As against their defenders, my central claim is that all of the proposals to address this problem themselves suffer from a fundamental weakness, namely, that they all assume that despite the fact that democracy is by its very nature ill-equipped to secure intergenerational justice, it is possible to nevertheless rely on democracy to solve this problem in the first place. But that, to put it colloquially, is like thinking that one can pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. Finally, I conclude by sketching the shape and contours of a solution to this problem that is better able than the alternatives to escape this objection.

Suggested Citation

Kates, Michael, Justice, Democracy, and Future Generations (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1902452

Michael Kates (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) - Wilf Family Department of Politics ( email )

715 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
United States

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