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Rawlsian Intergenerational Justice
Rawlsian Intergenerational Justice
Minco van der Weide
By Minco van der Weide
May 24 2022 · 11 min read

Illuminem Voices
Sustainability · Climate Change · Adaptation

​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ Editor's Note:

John Rawls (b. 1921-2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. His theory of justice as fairness describes a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. His theory of political liberalism explores the legitimate use of political power in a democracy, and envisions how civic unity might endure despite the diversity of worldviews that free institutions allow.


Due to the impact of current policy and legislation on future generations (Heyd, 2009), intergenerational justice has become an integral part of environmental policy and law (Pontin, 2019). The problem is that cooperation typically occurs between people living on the same territory and at the same time, which gives rise to theories of justice that are typically specific to one generation (Ibid.). Whilst Rawls has made significant contributions to intergenerational justice through a Kantian framework (Wolf, 2009), environmental ethicists have widely criticised his conclusions regarding obligations to future generations (MacClellan, 2013).

In this article, I will discuss Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness, explore its Kantian roots and divergence, and examine its main challenges in an intergenerational context. Following that, I will discuss Rawls' Universalisability Principle, which I conclude offers a limited but promising pathway to intergenerational justice.

Rawls’ Account of Justice

According to contractarian theories such as Rawls’, justice is governed by formal instead of metaphysical or normative considerations (Heyd, 2009).

In line with Hume, Rawls refers to conditions of just cooperation as conditions of justice. Yet, despite the common interest of cooperation to promote human welfare, people are caught in an inherent conflict as each seeks a larger share of the product of the cooperative effort. To resolve this, Rawls (1971) proposes that principles of distributive justice should be agreed upon.

In Rawls’ theory of justice, principles are chosen while blinded from facts about oneself that could introduce bias: a “veil of ignorance”.

Facts about one’s particular situation are ignored, whilst general facts about the circumstances of justice get underlined—a situation Rawls (1999) names the “original position”. He argues that agents in the original position will prefer a conception of “justice as fairness”, which comprises the following principles (Rawls, 2001: 42-43):

  • (I) The “equal liberty principle” states that each individual has equal rights to the most comprehensive total system of equal basic liberties that is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.
  • (II) The “distribution principle”, itself composed of two sub-principles:
  • (IIa) Rawls’ “open offices” principle stipulates that social and economic inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all—operating under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
  • (IIb) The “difference principle” specifies that social and economic inequalities must be organised so that they are maximally advantageous to the leastadvantaged citizens—allocation of resources is ranked by the maximin criterion.

In short, the equal liberty principle would allow one to freely pursue what one values, whilst the distribution principle would provide one with the means to pursue it.

Rawls (1971) holds that the (I) must be lexically prior to (IIa), which is itself prior to (IIb)—successful application of this system ought to support the impartial choice of universal principles that result in just institutions (Mathis, 2009). However, the equal liberty principle’s priority implies that one’s good cannot be considered a good if it forms an obstacle to another one’s pursuit of their good—even if that person lives several generations later (Voorthuis & Gijbels, 2010). This predicament causes several motivation problems, which I will now elucidate.

Kant’s and Rawls’ Divergence

Rawls based his theory of justice on a “Kantian interpretation” of the status of human beings as free and equal (Guyer et al., 2018).

This interpretation sought to construct a general theory of justice around an egalitarian notion of justice as reciprocity. However, Rawls did not initially consider justice as reciprocity possible in the context of intergenerational justice (Pontin, 2019). This matter draws attention to a fundamental construction problem in Rawls’ veil of ignorance: it attempts to combine the Kantian idea of justice as a universal, hypothetical consensus with the Humean concept of justice as rational cooperation. Fusing these theories leads to significant problems, as they are strongly conflicting in nature (Mathis, 2009).

Kant and Rawls are at one in parting justice and ethics: justice concerns states and the public domain (O’Neill, 2018).

Both philosophers consider organised public spheres that enforce order as prerequisites for actions by organisations or individuals being just or unjust (Ibid.). Rawls furthermore draws from Kant’s understanding of society through the metaphor of a massive construction project, the ultimate benefits of which are not enjoyed by the “labouring generations” (Rawls, 1971: 291, quoting Kant 1970: 44).

The intergenerational consequences of the divergence

Following this reasoning, the relationship between generations is instrumental: preceding generations are the means to succeeding generations’ ends (Pontin, 2019). The paradox is that—from the Kantian rationality vantage Rawls seeks, particularly the idea of justice as reciprocity—the dead, living and unborn cannot engage reciprocally as contemporaries can, which creates a severe difficulty for intergenerational justice (Gardiner, 2009).

Suppose the generation represented in Rawls’ original position is self-interested. In that case, it has (1) no reason to save for future generations, as it does not directly benefit from doing, nor does it (2) have any power to alter whether earlier generations have saved or not (Mathis, 2009). Rawls acknowledges this motivation problem: “in the course of history no generation gives to predecessor generations, the benefits whose saving it has received” (Rawls, 1971: 290). Considering this, he conceived that one is motivated to save for the future out of a sentiment of care for one’s children’s children—Rawls’ “Heads of Families” strategy (Pontin, 2019).

This view is strongly reminiscent of Kant’s argumentation on obligations towards animals. Whilst he denies this obligation exists, he nevertheless does not dismiss such obligations. Instead, he interprets them as duties to oneself with regard to other beings (Kant, 2017). This strategy creates a “motivation assumption”: valuing the family presupposes a particular conception of the good, which is inconsistent with Rawls’ characterisation of the original position and his prioritisation of the right over the good (MacClellan, 2013).

Rawls responded to criticism through a backwards reorientation of the concept of intergenerational justice. This “Universalisability Principle” forms a compelling way to overcome the aforementioned Motivation Problem, which I will now cover.

A Shift Backwards through Rawls’ Universalisability Principle

The basic premise of the Universalisability Principle is present in Rawls’ original position, where he states that parties are constrained by their wish that:

“all preceding generations to have followed the same principles” (Rawls, 1999, 111).

Thus, the right principle is that which the members of any generation would want preceding generations to have followed and succeeding ones to follow

no matter how far back or forward in time (Rawls, 2005, 274). This is a profound transformation with historical generations being transformed from a matter of complete indifference to the very condition of the principle of just savings; a shift that represents reengagement with Kantian rationality, as the just savings principle is now understood as a principle which can be universally willed within Kant’s idea of the “permanent state” (Pontin, 2019).

Another attraction of the revised principle beyond its fit with the Kantian social contract tradition is that it holds out the prospect of avoiding problems of application associated with futurity.

These problems centre on the uncertain identity or existence of “future persons”. Past persons, and their generations, are inherently more tangible than those of the not-yet future. Hence, intergenerational justice in this setting is framed to a “positive” past with which a substantial degree of continuity is sought in the future, rather than presumed future needs of imagined future generations (Ibid.).

With regard to future generations, Rawls proposes two general requirements: (1) future generations must not be left worse off than ourselves, and (2) we must put aside a just amount of resources for future generations’ further benefit and progress (Watene, 2013).

This leads to an important question in the context of the contemporary intergenerational justice landscape: how important are natural primary goods with regards to environmental preservation? Rawls’ answer seems to be not very important: the minimum necessary to maintain just institutions (Rawls 1999, 153). The reason stems from his commitment to liberalism, which aims at protecting individual freedoms from the state (MacClellan, 2013). Rawls employs a political conception of justice that starts from the reality of reasonable pluralism; there is a plurality of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines (Ibid.). It rules out intergenerational environmental ethics from playing any substantive role in formulating or complementing a political conception of justice. That becomes, for Rawls, akin to a “natural religion…much the same as those who reject abortion on theological grounds” (Rawls 2005, 245–46).

Rawls’s approach to the justification of principles of justice is explicitly premised on the context of bounded, liberal, democratic societies that defend their boundaries (O’Neill, 2018).

Whilst the global nature of intergenerational challenges such as climate change does pose a challenge to Rawls’ general framework, his Universalisability Principle still offers members of a society pondering what aspects of the material environment to save for the benefit of future generations an alternative starting point to that which asks us to imagine what future generations want or need (Pontin, 2019).


In this article, I discussed Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness. Whilst his veil of ignorance formed the bridging element between the conflicting theories of Hume and Kant, it creates challenges in an intergenerational context. Rawls' Universalisability Principle offers a promising pathway to intergenerational justice, but due to Rawls’ commitment to liberalism, this theory is limited in the extent of responding to pressing contemporary issues as climate change.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


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Minco van der Weide
About the author

Minco van der Weide's work crosses the boundaries between philosophy, film, politics, and environmentalism. In addition to founding three film production companies and running the impact-based production company Platonic, he is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

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