How does Intergenerational Justice relate to Social Justice?

David Kingman explores the interactions between Intergenerational Justice and Social Justice

Most people are more familiar with the concept of Social Justice than they are with Intergenerational Justice. The former expression appears much more frequently in the media, and is often used by politicians, while the latter has yet to obtain the same degree of currency.

However, Intergenerational Justice is clearly gaining ground, even if it is not yet on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Disputes over pensions and retirement ages, the protests against higher university tuition fees, the massive escalation of government debt, environmental policy: all of these issues revolve around disputes over which generation should pay for things – between the present younger and older generations, and between people who are alive now and those who will live in the future.

IF was established to argue for Intergenerational Justice, but this does not mean it ignores the need for Social Justice. In fact, the two concepts have much in common, as this blog will argue.

Crucial differences

There are several key differences between Social Justice and Intergenerational Justice; perhaps the most important is the two different “frameworks” the two approaches see as underpinning society.

Social Justice tends to view society as having a class-based (or wealth-based) framework, where people are stratified according to the level of resources they possess. The relationship between resources and the ages of the people among whom they are concentrated is only a secondary concern.

By contrast, Intergenerational Justice sees a “generational” framework underpinning society, in which people are classified by the different generations to which they belong. Much of its current critical analysis is centred on the view that resources (both public and private) are unfairly concentrated among – and consumed by – members of the older generation at present; and that this situation is worse than it used to be, and will deteriorate even further in the coming decades. Resources do not seem to be transferring down through the generations as easily as they used to.

There is also a second, more long-term, strand of Intergenerational Justice which considers there to be an imbalance not just between the current older and younger generations, but between those who are living and those who are yet to be born. Governments often take decisions that will have a negative impact on those who are not yet alive, without taking any account of their perspectives. Proponents of this view argue that the government should be forced to consider the rights of the people who will end up paying the price of their spending – on the national debt, or unfunded pension liabilities, for example.

A long timescale is not a primary consideration for most proponents of Social Justice. This is not to say they are uninterested by time; merely that social inequality is seen as a constant problem.

Similarly, class is not the primary concern of Intergenerational Justice – not because it is unimportant, but because the injustice they are focusing on is seen to lie in people being disadvantaged purely because of when they were born, rather than because of their social background.

A Theory of Justice

Despite their different perspectives, Intergenerational Justice and Social Justice share a considerable amount of common ground, much of which is mapped out by the work of the American philosopher John Rawls in his influential book A Theory of Justice (1971).

This contains his famous thought-experiment about the “veil of ignorance”. Essentially, Rawls argued that an egalitarian society was desirable for everyone because, if a group of people are trying to create a new society while their perceptions of their personal qualities are obscured by a “veil of ignorance”, they would create one that was as egalitarian as possible because it would give each individual the best chance of being happy and prosperous, whatever their abilities and their social status turn out to be. This argument has since been used extensively to argue in favour of Social Justice.

Yet it also makes a case for Intergenerational Justice as well. At the heart of Rawls’ theory is the idea that all the people who are in this society are equal; no individual has a superior claim to happiness or success than any of the others. Brett Frischman, an American professor of Law who writes on Intergenerational Justice, has argued that this concept of equality can be easily transferred across from the individual level to encompass whole generations: that concept, from a Rawlsian perspective, dictates that no particular generation has a superior claim to the Earth’s resources, and thus each generation accepts the dual role of beneficiary and trustee.”

So Rawlsian justice suggests that no single generation has the right to limit the opportunities of another, or transfer a burden to them; rather, each generation should act as “beneficiary and trustee”, handing on a society to subsequent generations that is just as fair and prosperous as the one they inherited themselves.

More similarities than differences

The important point to take away from this discussion is that Intergenerational Justice and Social Justice have more similarities than differences when providing an analysis of society.

They are both concerned with addressing an economic injustice in society, although they analyse the primary cause of that injustice differently. One identifies this as being social class, the other as being time; but, importantly, they are both rooted in the same theoretical conception of fairness.