Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

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On our special relationship with future generations

In this post, Charlotte Unruh discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the basis of our duties to future generations.


Do you sometimes picture future generations as strangers in a faraway galaxy? Strangers who we know little about, aside from the fact that our actions can affect their lives?  In a recent paper, I argue that there is a crucial difference between (very) remotely living strangers and future generations. There is a special relationship that obtains between present and future people. We bring future generations into existence. I suggest that this gives rise to special responsibilities to embed long-term thinking in politics, business, and society.

Future generations are not like faraway strangers

One important reason not to think about future generations as strangers from other galaxies concerns our responsibilities towards them. Unlike faraway space travellers, we bring future generations into existence. Bringing future generations into existence puts us in a special relationship with them.

To illustrate, we can look at the paradigm case of a special relationship, the relationship towards our children. Children are vulnerable and helpless without protection. Causal accounts of parenthood say that the primary responsibility for providing this protection lies with those who have caused the child to exist.

Future people are vulnerable too. If we destroy the environment, then future people will not be able to enjoy it. I think that the primary responsibility for future generations plausibly lies with those who bring them into existence. We will put future people into this world. This requires us to ensure that future people have a decent standard of living. This requirement arises from our special relationship with future people, and does not arise for space travellers from faraway galaxies.

It is our responsibility to set the right path for the future

Thinking about our relationship to future generations in this way has interesting implications. It means that our ancestors had special duties towards us, and all generations have special duties towards those who come next. Ideally, then, generations share the responsibility for far future people, such that the burden on each individual generation to ensure a decent future is small.

Problems arise when there is urgent need to act. For example, I worry that digital technologies such as surveillance technologies have the potential to undermine elements of our democracy. We need to steer the development and regulation of digital technologies in the right direction, to ensure that these technologies increase the well-being of citizens and strengthen, rather than compromise, democracy and human rights. Failure to set us on the right path might risk a lock-in into an undesirable future, such as a dystopia fuelled by technology-enabled surveillance. Here, we cannot wait for future generations to do their part. The burden is largely on us.

We need to embed long-term thinking in politics, business, and society

My argument supports reforms that aim to incorporate long-term thinking in politics, business, and society. Some recent proposals in this direction have been to create political institutions for the future and (re-)examine the purpose of business. I think it is important that such reforms are inclusive, comprehensive, and balanced.

An inclusive dialogue is important, since we share the responsibility for the future of our society. We should debate different visions of the future and potential reforms. Moreover, our outlook on the future must be comprehensive. It cannot focus only on environmental issues, for example. Our financial debts, our political institutions, and our cultural and social norms will influence the generations yet to come. If we look at only one policy area, there is a risk that side effects and trade-offs become invisible. For example, tracking technology was introduced to help contain COVID-19, but it also poses a threat to privacy. Finally, we also need to respect the interests of present people and the next generations. We need to be especially aware of the effects of future-directed reforms on the poor and disadvantaged, as well as consider carefully how to distribute the burden of reforms.

In sum, future generations are not like strangers. We cannot escape the responsibility that comes with bringing future generations into existence and shaping the lives of future people. Acknowledging the special relationship to our descendants requires us to debate different views on the long-term future, and to ensure that our current practices and policies do not run counter to these views.

Introducing Political Philosophy with Public Policy

What is a good way to learn about political philosophy? Plausibly there is a variety of reasonable answers to this question, depending on what and why one wants to know about the subject, and it is some testament to this that there are excellent introductions that focus on the issues, concepts, and key thinkers in the field.

In our recent book – Introducing Political Philosophy: A Policy-Driven Approach – Will Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and I offer an approach that focuses on introducing the subject through the lens of public policy.

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Political Philosophy in a Pandemic (Book Announcement)

We have some exciting news to share: the first ever Justice Everywhere book is on its way. Entitled Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Routes to a More Just Future, it will be published in  print in September by Bloomsbury Academic (pre-order here). We are hoping that the e-book version will be out in the summer. Edited by Fay Niker and Aveek Bhattacharya, two of the convenors of the blog, the idea for the book developed out of the ‘Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis’ that we published here in April last year.

Political Philosophy in a Pandemic contains 20 essays on the moral and political implications of COVID-19 and the way governments have responded to it, arranged around five themes: social welfare, economic justice, democratic relations, speech and misinformation and the relationship between justice and crisis. Almost all of the contributors have featured on Justice Everywhere in recent years in form or another, either as authors or interviewees.

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The case for an independent environmental agency

In recent decades, Western democracies have seen a trend towards the use of independent agencies (IAs) to insulate certain policy issues from direct political influence. Of course, such delegations can be revoked, but they do put the decisions in question at arm’s length from elected representatives for the time being.

Given the emphasis on the accountability of elected representatives in a democracy, how can one justify such instances of delegation? Advocates of IAs claim that they will do a better job at attaining the policy objectives in question. In particular, this will be the case in policy areas where governments face commitments problems that will prevent them from adopting optimal policies.

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Resistance against climate injustice beyond civil disobedience?

Last year Nikolas Mattheis argued on this blog that climate school strikes are acts of civil disobedience (rather than truancy), that pupils are entitled to this form of protest and that they should not be punished. I agree. Acts of civil disobedience by Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände and similar movements cause substantial public dispute. However, a more radical and troubling question emerge from recent writings in political philosophy: Given the great injustice involved in climate change, are uncivil acts of resistance morally justified? In the following I will argue that most of them are not.

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From the Vault: Journal of Applied Philosophy

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the launch of our collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

In 2019-20, Justice Everywhere began a collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The journal is a unique forum that publishes philosophical analysis of problems of practical concern, and several of its authors post accessible summaries of their work on Justice Everywhere. These posts draw on diverse theoretical viewpoints and bring them to bear on a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from the environment and immigration to economics, parenting, and punishment.

For a full list of these posts, visit the journal’s author page. For a flavour of the range, you might read:

Stay tuned for even more from this collaboration in our 2020-21 season!

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Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

Consultation that silences

In this post, Dina Lupin Townsend discusses her recent article co-authored with Leo Townsend in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the silencing of indigenous communities in consultation processes.


Ten years ago, I was working as an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, an NGO and environmental law clinic in South Africa. My work involved representing impoverished rural communities whose land and livelihoods were threatened by mining activities. With almost no resources, these communities were battling some of the most powerful multinational companies in the world.

Despite this inequality of resources, these communities should have been able to hold mining companies to account under South Africa’s rights-based legal system. The law requires that any development includes those affected within decision-making processes. Communities have a collective right to participation in these processes, and mining companies are obligated to consult with them before undertaking any activities.

On the face of it, the right to consultation should ensure that communities are kept informed and given a say in the decision-making process. In practice, however, consultation with affected communities is often little more than a box-ticking exercise. The clients I represented frequently complained of being unheard and marginalised by the very processes that were meant to empower their voices.

The experience of South African communities is far from unique in this regard. Faced with similar circumstances, Indigenous and rural peoples across the world have demanded that they be consulted and given opportunities to have their say about industrial activities on their land. But while states and companies are increasingly recognizing that they must consult affected communities, the consultation processes that they undertake often fail to give these communities a real say. Indeed, as Leo Townsend and I argue in a recent paper, there are consultation practices that routinely prevent communities from having their say and thereby silence their voices.

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Philosophers’ Rundown on the Coronavirus Crisis

The outbreak of COVID-19 has raised several ethical and political questions. In this special edition, Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker have collected brief thoughts from Justice Everywhere authors on 9 pressing questions.

Topics include: the feasibility of social justice, UBI, imagining a just society, economic precarity, education, climate change, internet access, deciding under uncertainty, and what counts as (un)acceptable risk.   

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How will the coronavirus affect us – as individuals and as a society?

Schools are closed. Flights cancelled. Highways and trains deserted. People are asked to minimise social contact. At first, the coronavirus appeared to be not much different from a normal flu. But then it spread in almost no time across 100 states around the world. Initially, the measures taken by the Italian government seemed extreme, perhaps exaggerated – now several countries are following the Italian example, including Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. The most urgent ethical issue raised by the coronavirus will be the allocation of limited resources, including hospital space. There are also concerns of global justice, given the huge differences between states with regard to their ability to deal with the virus. Despite the fatal effects of this pandemic, we also hear voices that view it as a chance and express the hope that it might bring about some positive changes in society. How will covid-19 affect us – as individuals and as a society? Will it make us more egoistic (“My family first!”) or will it bring us closer together, making us realise how much we depend on each other? Can we expect anything positive from this crisis, and what could that be?

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Climate Change, Family Size, and Upbringing

In this post, Fay Niker interviews Dr Elizabeth Cripps (University of Edinburgh) about her recent work at the intersection of two themes we write about a lot on Justice Everywhere, namely, climate justice and the ethics and politic of children and upbringing.

Fay Niker [FN]: Recently, you’ve been thinking about a particular dimension of the question about the duties to reduce carbon emissions in the era of (impending) “climate crisis”. Can you tell us about this dimension, and how you came to be interested in it?

Elizabeth Cripps [EC]: Having kids is the biggest contribution most of us make to increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, so the question naturally arises of whether, as individuals and couples, we should be having small families, or no children at all. I’ve written on individual climate justice duties and on population and global justice – plus I’m a parent myself – so it was natural for me to be drawn to this area.

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