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Published in George Washington Law Review, Vol. 77, no. 5/6 (September 2009).


Challenges raised by the subject of intergenerational justice seem often to be thought almost uniquely intractable. In particular, apparent conflicts between the core values of impartiality and efficiency raised by a large and still growing number of intertemporal impossibility results derived by Koopmans, Diamond, Basu & Mitra, and others have been taken to foreclose fruitful policy assessment done with a view to the distant future.

This Essay aims to dispel the sense of bewilderment, pessimism and attendant paralysis that afflicts intertemporal justice assessment. It works toward that end by demonstrating that the most vexing puzzles raised by questions of intergenerational justice afflict only one family of justice theories, a family whose members never were coherent to begin with. By contrast, it argues, the correct approach to justice is no more challenged by transtemporal puzzles than is any other exercise in future planning.

The Essay proceeds first by showing that puzzles concerning intergenerational - or what it also calls "intertemporal," "transtemporal," or "diachronic" - justice can be helpfully divided into two classes. One such class the Essay calls "epistemic." The other it calls "analytic." The epistemic puzzles are those occasioned by uncertainties endemic to all contemplation of future contingencies, not simply our justice assessments thereof.

The analytic puzzles, by contrast, afflict only one family of justice conceptions -those that erroneously take maximizing ("efficiency") imperatives to be logically independent of distributive imperatives. The analytic puzzles afflict these conceptions, moreover, irrespective of whether the latter be applied synchronically or diachronically. The supposed intractability of intergenerational justice, that is to say, is in fact nothing more than an incoherence afflicting that mistaken understanding of justice which currently predominates in intertemporal distributive-ethical inquiry.

The Essay next shows that all of the notorious intertemporal impossibility results from Koopmans' on down afflict only the erroneous justice conceptions just mentioned. Indeed, like all of the other best known impossibility results from Arrow's on down, the intertemporal results are no more than instances of a more general incoherence - an incoherence the Author has shown elsewhere to afflict all putatively independent maximizing imperatives mistaken for justice conceptions.

The Essay concludes by showing that the correct, analytically coherent take on justice faces little more challenge from the diachronic than from the synchronic case. In both cases, it demonstrates, the correct account of justice offers straightforward guidance to all who would act in a pragmatic spirit to work justice among persons across space and through time.

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intergenerational justice

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