Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Introducing my research

In the following I will give a short introduction to the research that I am currently undertaking as part of my doctoral dissertation.

In everyday conversations on politics I have a somewhat pathological inclination to always return to John Rawls. Even outside academia I have found his idea of justice as fairness to be both communicable and persuasive. In its simplest form, it is about being asked to choose the society you would like to live in without knowing your own place in that society. Rawls labelled such a decision procedure "the original position" and situated it behind a "veil of ignorance" which prevents us from knowing not only our particular place in society but also our natural abilities, assets, or liabilities. Knowing that any potentially unjust social order may backfire on ourselves, we are likely to seek out impartial principles which treat everyone as an equal irrespectively of their gender, nationality or other arbitrary categories.

Though it is possible to criticize this idea of Rawls (and, among others, Robert Nozick certainly did), I regard it as highly useful, especially when discussing contested contemporary political issues as how to construct a welfare scheme which at the same time is "ambition-sensitive" and "endowment-insensitive" (to borrow the vocabulary of Ronald Dworkin).

Thinking about the future and what responsibilities we may have for our remote descendants, I believe that Rawls’s theory, maybe with a few modifications as suggested by Brian Barry and Ernest Partridge, can be equally applied to matters of intergenerational justice. Just as we can determine what is a fair scheme of social cooperation by asking ourselves if we are ready to walk in the shoes of our fellow citizens, an extended original position (which includes all generations, both now living and future) can be used to determine to what extent we are currently taking unfair advantage of our privileged temporal position.

However, long conversations at the local euro-latte coffee bar as well as the opportunity of meeting Wilfred Beckerman at Balliol College in Oxford this summer have made me painfully aware of some procedural objections that can be raised against the use of contractual conceptions beyond the present. 1) The choices made at an hypothetical intergenerational meeting would influence how long the human tenure of the planet will be and consequently how many people will come into existence and when. Thus the results of the deliberation would already be instantiated in the composition of the group of people doing the choosing, clearly turning the whole enterprise into what Barry has called "a curious sort of choice". 2) Not only would the choices made at the meeting influence how many people will live in the future but also their very identity. This would give rise to a problem often referred to as the Non-Identity Problem (NIP) or the Future Persons Paradox (FPP). In short, the problem comes down to that any substantial changes in public policy will affect who gets to have children with whom and at what time, thus altering the genetic endowment and identity of future people. Since the people who do come into being in the future owe their very existence to the choices we make, it is thought that, as long as they lead a life worth living, they cannot rightfully complain. 3) The decision to include future generations in the original position is an expression of the belief that future individuals are our moral equals and possess the same unalienable rights as present individuals do. However, following Beckerman, it has been argued that existence is a in fact a prerequisite for having rights (or anything else for that matter). Having a right is then a property that a subject can predicate only as far as he or she exists, making the inclusion of future people behind a veil of ignorance problematic at best.

Devastating as these three challenges may seem, I am still optimistic that they all can be answered in satisfying ways. And if these procedural or technical difficulties can be overcome, I believe there is an entire substantial or political dimension of this issue that remains virtually unexplored. By making, what I have called, the move from procedure to substance, we turn our focus to what different policies that an intergenerational meeting are to chose between. By doing so, we create an ethical framework in which political reasoning on issues like sustainable development can be substantiated.

Let me give a practical illustration. We can imagine a future in which the climate has gone berserk, nearly all finite resources have been used up and the small remaining human population is left with nothing but a metaphorical landfill of no longer working consumer electronics. Participating in an intergenerational meeting with these our descendents, the meeting would strongly favour political action which prevents that such an impoverished future ever comes into being. In more general terms, it seems as if the notion of an intergenerational meeting can be used to evaluate the fairness of different paths to the future.

This insight makes up the theoretical engine behind my doctoral dissertation. My idea is to model the issue space, that is the range of possible normative positions, at such an intergenerational meeting and then make an empirical survey of how actual political parties and their strategies for environmental sustainability relate to the resulting theoretical yardsticks. The intergenerational meeting would then serve as an expository device or "scorecard" for our civilization.

Further reading:

Beckerman, W., & Pasek, J. (2001). Justice, posterity and the environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Karlsson, R. (2006). Reducing Asymmetries in Intergenerational Justice: Descent from Modernity or Space Industrialization? Organization & Environment, 19(2), 233-250.

Page, E. (2006). Climate Change, Justice and Future Generations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Tremmel, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). Handbook of Intergenerational Justice Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing



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