background image

Rawlsian intergenerational justice

author image

By Minco van der Weide

· 10 min read

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 such 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.


Altman, Matthew C. “Individual Maxims and Social Justice From.” Kant and Applied Ethics: The Uses and Limits of Kant’s Practical Philosophy, Wiley, 2011, pp. 362–99.

“Kant’s Strategic Importance for Environmental Ethics.” Kant and Applied Ethics: The Uses and Limits of Kant’s Practical Philosophy, Wiley, 2011, pp. 101–47.

“Why Kant Now.” Kant and Applied Ethics: The Uses and Limits of Kant’s Practical Philosophy, Wiley, 2011, pp. 25–39.

Arrhenius, Gustaf, et al. Egalitarianism and Population Change. 2009.

Birnbacher, Dieter. “What Motivates Us to Care for the (Distant) Future?” Intergenerational Justice, 2009.

Budde, Kerstin. “Rawls on Kant: Is Rawls a Kantian or Kant a Rawlsian?” European Journal of Political Theory, vol. 6, 2007, pp. 339–358.

Chen, Xunwu.“Beyond Kant’s Political Cosmopolitanism: Thinking a World Constitution without a World State.” Philosophy Today, vol. 63, 2019, pp. 363–382.

Comba, Pietro, et al. “Comparison of Bayesian-Utilitarian and Maximin Principle Approaches.” International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, vol. 17, 2004, pp. 193– 196.

Gardiner, Stephen M. “A Contract on Future Generations?” Intergenerational Justice, 2009.

Guyer, Paul, et al. “Principles of Justice, Primary Goods and Categories of Right: Rawls and Kant.” Kantian Review, vol. 23, 2018, pp. 581–613.

Hegel, G. W. F., et al. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press, 1977, p. §431.

Heyd, David. “A Value or an Obligation? Rawls on Justice to Future Generations.” Intergenerational Justice, 2009.

John Archibald Wheeler. Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links. Princeton University Press, 1990.

Kant, Immanuel. Kant’s Political Writings. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

MacClellan, Joel. “How (Not) to Defend a Rawlsian Approach to Intergenerational Ethics.” Ethics and the Environment, vol. 18, 2013, pp. 67–85.

Mathis, Klaus. “Future Generations in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.” Archives for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, vol. 95, 2009, pp. 49–61.

Mongin, Philippe, and Marcus Pivato. “Rawls’s Difference Principle and Maximin Rule of Allocation: A New Analysis.” Economic Theory, vol. 71, 2021, pp. 1499–1525.

O’Neill, Onora. “Liberal Justice: Kant, Rawls and Human Rights.” Kantian Review, vol. 23, 2018, pp. 641–659.

Pontin, Ben. “The Role of “Previous Generations” in the Just Savings Principle of John Rawls.” Kantian Review, vol. 24, 2019, pp. 555–571.

“The Role of “Previous Generations” in the Just Savings Principle of John Rawls.” Kantian Review, vol. 24, 2019, pp. 555–571.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, 1971.

Justice as Fairness. Edited by Erin Kelly, Havard University Press, 2001.

Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press, 2005.

The Law of Peoples. Harvard University Press, 1999.

Shaw, Brian J. “Rawls, Kant’s Doctrine of Right, and Global Distributive Justice.” Journal of Politics, vol. 67, 2005, pp. 220–249.

Stoner, Samuel A, and Paul T Wilford. “Modernity and Postmodernity: Our Temporal Orientation.” 2021.

Trejo-Mathys, Jonathan. “Towards a Critical Theory of the World Trade Organization: Thinking with Rawls beyond Rawls.” Constellations, vol. 20, 2013, pp. 459–482.

Voorthuis, Jacob, and Cyrille Gijbels. “A Fair Accord: Cradle to Cradle as a Design Theory Measured against John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative.” Sustainability, vol. 2, 2010, pp. 371–382.

Watene, Krushil. “Nussbaum’s Capability Approach and Future Generations.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, vol. 14, 2013, pp. 21–39.

Weiss, Edith Brown. “Our Rights and Obligations to Future Generations for the Environment.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 84, 1990, pp. 198–207.

Wolf, Clark. Intergenerational Justice, Human Needs, and Climate Policy. 2009

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Minco van der Weide runs the impact-based production company Platonic and he currently pursues a postgraduate degree in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)