Short-term planning of politicians
A democracy with short legislation periods lends itself to the basic problem that those who are politically responsible tend to think and plan only for periods of a few years, but not for decades or centuries. Usually, politicians act to address the current pressing needs and interests of living citizens, who are their primary voters, while the interests of future generations remain unconsidered.
However, the effects of technological progress, for example nuclear power, will be sustained far into the future or even permanently. They have substantial influence on the quality of life of future generations. To the great detriment of future generations, the historical record of long-term planning by decision makers has not kept up with technological developments. Today’s decisions are often made without taking responsibility for incurring their future devastating consequences. After their term of service, decision makers can leave their positions of power free from the responsibility of the effects their decisions produced—decisions whose effects may not emerge until some fifty years later.
New future ethics
It is said that the freedom of the individual ends where the freedom of the next one begins, and so the freedom of every generation is limited by the freedom of future generations. Dieter Birnbacher, a moral philosopher of future ethics, summarises: “The promise to prolong the bliss of the present leads to neglecting the future”. Massive violations of generational justice occur because our society has been constructed to benefit from short-term profits and immediate advantages. The costs of this system are transferred into the future.
The “futurisation” of ecological problems poses an existential threat for the next generations. The happiness of present generations is bought at the expense of misery for future generations. In the face of present and future problems, we can no longer afford this short-sighted policy. We need a new future ethics that will preserve the opportunities and potential of future generations.
Theory of Generational Justice
In the past decades, systematic concepts and theories on justice between non-overlapping generations have been developed for the first time ever—2600 years after the first theories on justice between contemporaries had been articulated. This delay can be explained by the different impact of mankind’s scope of action, then and now.
In the last few years the number of scientific magazines and articles referring to justice between generations and to the ethics of the future (in the broadest sense) has soared. The concept of ‘intergenerational justice’ may very well become an intellectual leitmotif of the new century. Not only does it deal with the future, it is also set to influence the future direction of philosophy and politics.
FRGF discusses definitions and concepts of intergenerational justice. Scarcely any scientist denies that scientific terms must be well-defined and precise. The possibility to criticize theories in a constructive way becomes more difficult, if theories contain terms which are imprecise and ambiguous. FRFG therefore aims to achieve a clear understanding and definition of key terms such as ‘justice’, ‘future generations’, ‘intergenerational equity’ and ‘intergenerational justice’. How do we distinguish ‘intergenerational justice’ from ‘social justice’ or ‘gender justice’? Do we see a generation of people as something static? What do we mean when we talk about overlapping generations? Can we really draw a dividing line between different generations? Is ‘sustainability’ synonymous to ‘generational justice’?
For further reading:
FRFG has done a lot to clarify the term „intergenerational justice“ and to compare it with the concept of sustainability. An important resource is the Handbook of Intergenerational Justice, issued by the FRFG. Also several issues of our English/German Journal Intergenerational Justice are devoted to the theoretical foundations.