Contrasting Theories of Intergenerational Justice: Just Savings or Capabilities

Publication authors

Kristina Diprose, Chen Liu, Robert M. Vanderbeck, Gill Valentine, Lily Chen, Katie McQuaid, Mei Zhang


A wide range of theoretical and philosophical arguments have been made about what constitutes intergenerational justice and how it should be achieved. Theories of intergenerational justice can help stimulate the imagination about possible futures and ways of being, and they can also (depending on which approach or approaches one finds influential) serve as a locus for shaping political demands or forms of advocacy/activism. This chapter considers two key contributions to the field of intergenerational justice – the work of John Rawls and Amartya Sen – and their implications for present and future generations. Rawls’ particular ideas about equality of liberty and opportunity are singularly influential in modern political thought and debates about social justice. Sen’s work on human freedom, functionings and capabilities has been more prominent in recent years among policy makers and economists. His ideas have had a significant impact on how development is understood and measured around the world, most notably through the United Nations Human Development Index. The high profile of both theories subjects them to considerable critique and interpretation, not least in relation to the prominence of contemporary social policy challenges such as globalisation, sustainable development and debates about fairness between generations. It is this idea of intergenerational justice that is our chief interest. To grapple with this concept, however, it is first important to understand what a theory of justice is and what it means for people alive today. In this chapter we outline the basic components of a theory of justice and consider both Rawls’ and Sen’s ideas about justice among contemporaries. The chapter also looks at the challenges posed by thinking intergenerationally, and how Rawls, Sen and others have applied their theories to make a case for principles of intergenerational justice.