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Intergenerational justice: a useful perspective for heritage conservation

Joel Taylor


This contribution discusses the emergent field of Intergenerational Justice (IJ) with an aim to drawing new light upon issues in conservation. Several key issues in IJ are discussed that allow heritage conservation to be contextualised. Methods and debates from IJ are described and related to conservation practice. The paper is not an exhaustive review, but identifies links to pertinent issues in conservation.

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Gratitude goes to Fabian Schuppert (Queen’s University Belfast, UK), Dominic Roser (Oxford University, UK), Carina Fourie (University of Zurich, Switzerland), Christina Spaarschuh (NIKU), and Jonathan Ashley-Smith for advice and communications regarding this paper.


1Intergenerational issues sit at the heart of conservation. Every act of conservation is connected to intergenerational issues, or has intergenerational consequences. The ICOM-CC definition of conservation begins, “All measures and actions aimed at safeguarding tangible cultural heritage while ensuring its accessibility to present and future generations” (ICOM-CC 2008, author’s italics). Consequently, it is something that conservators are involved with, but the discussion of what is meant by present and future generations – and how we define our duties to them – is often missing.  This can have important implications for conservation policy and practice. The aim of this paper is to consider how conservators deal with these issues, and what can be learned from this field that can be useful for conservators through a non-exhaustive review of some concepts in this field.

2The principle of intergenerational equity is acknowledged in terms of the influence of public policy (Baer and Snickars 2001), economic valuation of heritage (Throsby 2002), sustainability (Cassar 2003), needs of present and future museums users (Lindsay 2005) and guidance about expected object lifetime (Dillon et al. 2013), and implicitly through  social discounting (Ashley-Smith 1999; Dillon et al. 2013). Throsby defines it thus: “The intergenerational equity dilemma is a classic inter-temporal allocation problem – that is, a choice between present and future consumption” (2002: 107).

3The conservation community has also responded to climate change issues and developed research agendas and projects (e.g. Cassar and Pender 2003; Sabbioni et al. 2010). This important work has contributed to technical discussion on the impact to physical heritage and built on the seminal document Our Common Future (WCED 1987), known as the Brundtland Report. Consequently, there is no claim to introduce a novel concept to conservation in this paper. Concern for past and future generations is, after all, the very focus of heritage conservation.

4However, there has been less focus on the philosophical and ethical considerations connected to future preservation. Intergenerational justice, concerned with the social relations and long-term consequences that stem from intergenerational considerations, is a discipline in its own right never directly called upon in conservation literature. Intergenerational Justice was formalised by John Rawls (1921-2002), whose work was a key influence on the Brundtland report (Gosseries 2008a), and this branch of philosophy continued to be developed after the influential Brundtland report applied these issues to sustainable development. It can elucidate on some of the thinking that has deeply influenced conservation in recent years and offer fresh perspectives on conservation. It holds fruitful parallels with conservation, and may even help tie together existing ideas within conservation. Consideration of transgenerational approaches might even provide insight into why we conserve.

Intergenerational justice

5Rawls was the first person to discuss intergenerational justice systematically (Meyer 2012). It is the respect for the rights and duties with regard to future and past generations, so ‘transgenerational’. Where intergenerational equity is the allegorical application of inter-temporal distribution, intergenerational justice deals with how these issues are managed and defined, and their consequences. Like heritage, it is very political. It offers a broad idea of justice based on the ‘fairness’ promoted by John Stuart Mill (1969, 1861). Future or past generations can be viewed as holding legitimate claims or rights against present generations, who in turn have correlative duties to future or past generations (Meyer 2012). It mainly refers to generations whose lifetimes do not overlap, so decisions affect people who are not presently alive, which has parallels with heritage conservation.

6The concept of concern for future generations, and respect for past ones, has a history of its own. It has been found explicitly in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), depicting a partnership between those living, dead and to be born (Burke 1790), correspondence from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (influencing Madison’s Bill of Rights), in which Jefferson states that, “the Earth belongs usufruct to the living” (Jefferson 1789), usufruct meaning to benefit from something without harming its substance. Henry Sidgwick stated that temporal position was not relevant to the moral evaluation of an act (1907: 381). So, the extended notion of universal principles of justice has been applied to temporal situations for some time.

7Rawls’ work was originally developed to consider the accumulation of capital (economic and social) in order to offer an alternative to the unsustainable paradigm of economic growth for its own sake. A clear idea of fair equality of opportunity (through ‘just savings’) helps to define the obligations of current generations to future ones and to provide an overarching framework from which actions to can be derived and assessed (Rawls 1971).

8Intergenerational justice focusses on broad ideas of what is necessary for society to prosper – just institutions, health, a functioning ecosystem. Rawls acknowledged the difficulty of predicting the future, and accepted that future generations will be moral agents in their own right with (possibly) different values to our own, as ours differ from previous generations.

9 The idea was quickly appropriated to consider the issues of sustainability. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development - “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future” (WCED 1987: 2.1) - is based on intergenerational equity. The field of intergenerational justice considers climate change, but also social issues such as pensions, legislation, and compensation for historical grievances, acknowledging the impact of leaving future generations with unwanted debt, capital, and legislation (Gosseries and Meyer 2009).

10Rawls (1971) argues for just savings that would include;

  • Preserving the gains of culture and civilisation.

  • Maintain established ‘just institutions’. An institution that enhances life prospects.

  • Putting aside a suitable amount of ‘real capital accumulation’ over time, eg investment in machinery or education.

11In Rawls’ terms, the gains of culture are large entities such as the democratic state. There is no explicit reference to heritage (nor environmental sustainability) in his work, but Meyer and Roser (2009) define justice considerations as those relevant to decisions likely to affect the existence, number and identity of future generations. This includes preservation of cultural capital, such as knowledge and skills (Rawls 1971).

12Intergenerational justice has taken various forms with different emphases. Much of this goes to acknowledge the tension connected to the relationships between contemporary societies and how duties towards future generations are defined. The three principle strands are 1) Equitarian – where everyone is equally well off at a given time and over time (closest to Rawls), 2) Sufficientarian - where everyone is sufficiently well off, but not necessarily equal (closest to the Brundtland Report), and 3) Prioritarian – where benefit matters more to the worse off people for whom the benefits accrue than those better off.

13Gosseries points out that no single exposition of intergenerational justice guarantees complete equity (2008a) and there are practical implications. Should people who are faring poorly now have to sacrifice for the benefit of well off people in the future? For example, a common argument against egalitarian principles is that a simple version considers it better for everyone to be in an undesirable situation than for some to be better off than others (Meyer and Roser 2009). Consequently, things are not as simple they may seem when stating that heritage should be preserved for future generations.  Norton points out the “problem of what we owe the future is not a monolithic, single problem, but rather an inter-related cluster of problems” (Norton 1999: 422). It could be argued that heritage preservation is part of that inter-related cluster.

Connection to heritage conservation

14Coremans (1969) suggested that conservation was first articulated as a discipline in the late nineteenth century, through the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris. Their principles were appropriated for object conservation, along with understanding of chemical deterioration (Caple 2000). Ruskin gave direct reference to future generations by acknowledging, indeed privileging, past and future generations influencing contemporary architecture and the ethical stance of conservation. Regarding historic buildings, Ruskin stated that, “We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.” (Ruskin 1849: 245). This moral stance articulates a relationship with past and future generations that expresses rights and duties of care and informed the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) that famously discouraged restoration or alteration. It also held the logical flaw that future generations never arrive, only become redefined as present, known as ‘infinite saving’ in intergenerational justice. As recently as 1994, Frost (1994) offered a theoretical ideal for storing collections as a design specification, the Black Box – a hypothetical museum store that provides absolute protection from all risks. The ideal was a completely sealed space, equitable in the sense that no-one uses or derives value from it. However, Ruskin’s comments do recognise the peculiar position of heritage. Many intergenerational issues concern the relationship between present generations and future or past generations. Heritage preservation holds a relationship with all three.

15On the whole, approaches to conservation ethics have changed since Ruskin’s writings, but still present challenges. Objectives for conservation have not always considered the future in great detail, and those that account for material change are relatively recent. For example, Appelbaum modified her statement, “the fundamental reason we do our work is to insure that the pieces we treat will last forever” (1987: 72), to note that such an endeavour is “noble but, practically speaking, unrealistic” (Appelbaum 2007: 271) and that slowing rates of change so objects would last “as long as possible” (Appelbaum 2007: 271) was more feasible.  Even so, the concept of preservation is still very open-ended.

16Risk assessment developed considerations for how far one can reasonably predict the future and collections’ lifetimes (Waller 1994; 2003; Ashley-Smith 1999). In a questionnaire on time preference, Lindsay noted that heritage professionals felt “the needs of present and future users of collections should have equal influence in decisions on the use and treatment of collections” (2005: 57). He also included questions of when they considered ‘the future’ to be, showed some variation with most responses at around 100 years. However, it is difficult to know the extent to which responses were influenced by risk assessment literature mentioned (and most respondents worked at Waller and Ashley-Smith’s institutions). A more recent survey of museum visitors asked about how long objects should last, clustering responses at 50, 100, 200 and 500 years, with about 14% suggesting 1,000 years or more (Dillon et al. 2013). Lithgow notes recent shifts away from arresting decay to a consideration towards “the careful management of change” (Lithgow 2011: 128). This greater understanding of how long objects might last, and how far into the future we can consider planning, can help us shape how we define our duties to future generations.

Just savings

17A key element of defining our duties to future generations is that of ‘just savings’, the extent to which the present generation should forgo its own rights to uphold the rights of future generations. Equally distributing shares to an infinite future raises questions about the extent to which we can plan for posterity. When has a generation saved enough? Three stages that one might consider (Schuppert 2012) are;

  • Why is the object considered a resource? This may seem obvious, but can often benefit from clarification of its properties and socio-cultural construction, the way it is understood. Every culture has deliberate non-resources (or rather partial resources), meaning only for certain non-consumptive practices, such as cows in India (Schuppert 2012). Distinguishing between resources through their socio-cultural construction allows us to think beyond preserving things for their own sake.

  • Why is it valuable in general? This holds several parallels with the poly-vocality that has arisen within heritage studies and conservation. The notion of inherent value is regularly (and rightly) questioned, so the different ways an object is valuable, to whom, and what that permits will all affect how we consider its relationship to future generations.

  • Why is it worth preserving for the future? This is connected to its value, but also how duties to future generations are defined. This affects the desired outcomes. An outcome may be that as many people as possible have physical access to an object, the longevity of its material or that the values it represents are still embodied. A parallel in conservation is the different kinds of authenticities recognised by the Nara document (ICOMOS 1994).

Speaking for the future

18A problem that presents itself in any intergenerational consideration is whether an action or resource will be valued by future generations. How do we understand the needs of, and reach reciprocal agreements with, future generations that are not concurrent with our own? The difference between Ruskin’s approach and present day ideas on conservation illustrate the disparity that can even exist amongst professionals in the same field.

19Techniques aimed to quantify the value of cultural heritage and of proposed conservation interventions have been developed. Contingent Valuation, Revealed Preference and Travel Cost methods (eg Navrud and Ready 2002; de la Torre and Mason 1999; Throsby 2002) ask the public questions such as, “how much would you pay to conserve this object?” and derive an economic quote for valuation. However, they are all based on questions about value posed at a particular point in time – temporally biased – and possess problems connected to reducing questions about value to monetary terms. There are valid reasons to compromise if practical application is to be achieved, but an acknowledgement of what is lost is also required. Rawls (1971) developed a different approach that was aimed at moving away from a time-specific view.

Rawls’ hypothetical contract – the ‘original position’

20A concept of how justice can be perceived in a trans-generational context is Rawls’ hypothetical contract for considering how different resources could be distributed temporally (1971).  He referred to it as the ‘original position’. The original position is a thought experiment developed as a way to achieve an impartial point of view in considerations about fundamental principles of justice. It reflects upon what could be considered as ‘just saving’ in a trans-generational context. Participants imagine they are people other than themselves in the position of equality, jointly in agreement with, and committed to, principles of social and political justice - the ‘original position’. The exercise does not ask people what they think of a situation at a particular point in time, but tries to create an environment that allows people to conceptually unify different issues in an egalitarian fashion so as to consider basic rights Rawls called primary social goods.

21This collective deliberation is carried out behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. This means participants know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order nor individuals' ideas of values such as ‘good’ and ‘leading a good life’. However, they do know of certain fundamental interests and general facts about economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.

22Rawls also assumed that the representatives in the original position would make choices that produced the highest payoff for the least advantaged position (Rawls 1971; 2001), as people were more risk averse to avoid any group becoming particularly disadvantaged in any outcome, engendering a kind of social equality. Consequently, an idea of what constituted a ‘just saving’ could be derived.

23This description doesn’t do justice to the whole system, but depicts a process designed to consider different needs and value systems in a wide context and accommodate difference. The process is fair and thought-provoking, but not without problems.

Problems associated with the original position

24Rawls’ work was written around the same time that the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 1972) was being drawn up. Some parallel problems can be seen in terms of who decides what the gains of civilisation are, and the representativeness of the group of experts speaking for the many, diverse societies. The Original Position came before researchers clearly understood the importance of how questions were worded and concepts described (but such problems can be addressed).

25The original position is chiefly a means “to help us work out what we now think” (Rawls 1999: 402), and “to make room for the actions of agents whose moral reference points and needs are not yet known” (Rawls 1971: 587) and was designed for “the purpose of public- and self-clarification” (Rawls 2001: 17). Its point rather is to enable us to draw out the consequences of considering certain moral convictions in a transparent way. Focussing on the consequences, rather than the stated preference of people at a fixed point in time, provides an alternative perspective to valuation methods currently recommended which transcends the immediate socio-economic climate. It is still used, in an evolved form, for social deliberation such as social welfare (eg Benhenda 2011).

Temporal distribution

26How many people will live in the future? There is a historical precedent for future generations being larger than their forebears, so Heyd (1992) points out that equality between present and future generations may not be enough. This issue gets even more problematic when dealing with finite, non-renewable (including very slowly renewable) resources. Cassar (2003) pointed out a pertinent distinction - an ecosystem is a living entity that will be sustained if treated properly, but historic material does not renew itself.

27‘Just savings’ require only that current generations save a percentage of its output for future generations. This implies that future generations can be compensated adequately for the destruction of natural capital used in production by saving man-made capital. Ecological perspectives have similar problems (paying for carbon off-setting will not stop glaciers melting). This is a reason to focus on social discounting, since material preservation is a matter of distributing a finite resource.

28This matter also speaks to the inherently political nature of heritage, and the issues of sustainable access that are currently negotiated in practice. Use of and access to historic material is not harmful per se, as with carbon emissions (in fact, both are actually necessary). It is when they are used in excess that problems arise. In fact, it could be argued that negotiations within both carbon emissions and long-term heritage access hold similarities to the political scientist Harold Lasswell’s (1902-1978) classic definition of politics: a matter of who gets what, when and how (Lasswell 1935).


29This shines a light on recent debate on what heritage actually is, and issues that arise from how cultural capital is used (Bourdieu 1986). The focus of conservation on historic material alone has been questioned in many quarters of the heritage field. The idea that “heritage becomes… the values and meanings that are constructed at and around [the object or place] – heritage is what is done and not what is conserved, preserved or managed” (Smith and Waterton 2009: 15-16) promotes the idea that materiality is not always a key issue for heritage. Such matters are accommodated in intergenerational justice in discussion of levels of ‘substitutability’ – something does not have to take the same form in order to meet the needs of the future. Intergenerational distribution of non-renewable resource like oil may be very difficult, but it is distribution of a source of energy that is really important (Schuppert 2012). Different kinds of heritage will vary in terms of extent of substitutability, but it is important to consider the forms of use that can be to the detriment of what is passed on in any given case. This connects with fundamental aspects of conservation. As Avrami states, “the ultimate aim of conservation is not to preserve material for its own sake, but rather to maintain (and shape) the values embodied by the heritage” (Avrami et al. 2000: 7).

30This relates back to the Nara document, and the relatively recent recognition that objects embody more than one value. It also allows us to consider what rights are being promoted and infringed – in other words, how we define our duties to future generations. This moves away from existing classifications, such as moveable and immoveable, to how heritage values and uses can be passed on to future generations. Intergenerational justice considers ‘opportunity cost’ – what present costs are likely to lead to the most benefit. If a chosen action yields benefit over time, it does not mean that it would yield greater benefit that another possible action. The net result is a gain, but there was opportunity for greater gain.

31This raises questions for heritage and conservation, especially when we have acknowledged as a profession that no material can last forever. What is substitutable? What will be handed on to future generations if nothing is considered substitutable? What will inevitably be lost? What should be chosen for conservation?

What is a ‘generation’?

32‘Conserving things for future generations’ is such a vague term, that it is understandable to question why the concept of ‘generation’ is used at all. However, there are still many documents that simply state that heritage institutions aim to preserve things for future generations without any qualification.

33The concept of a ‘generation’ is clearly a construct since “individuals do not come into and out of existence as temporally discreet classes” (Gardiner 2003: 482). Considering what a ‘generation’ is, and the implications of this, can be far-reaching in moral and management terms (Gosseries 2008b). The notion of generations has historically been defined by events that affect one or more societies, such as World wars. However, there is no moral relevance to such distinctions (Gardiner 2003). Furthermore, depending on the definition, some people will live for one generation and some through several.

34Generation is most pertinent to express relationships over time in terms of decision-making, in particular the matter of ‘causal asymmetry’, that is the power of the older group to impose costs on the later group. It is the feature that controls defining something as intergenerational (and makes talk of generations meaningful). Parents may make decisions that affect their children, but they may receive care in their old age. There is reciprocation and motivation for equity between generations. The idea of reciprocity grows weaker as temporal distance increases, and decisions are made that can cause benefit or harm with no expectation or hope of reciprocation.

35How a generation is defined has a lot of impact on how long a generation might be (Fig. 1). Defining generations in terms of excluding mutual interaction (no-one alive today will interact with anyone of the next generation) may emphasise causal asymmetry, but means that generations could last up to 200 years (Gardiner 2003). The length of time in which the rights and responsibilities of adulthood are assumed (as voters or as parents) is often used because this defines ‘causal parity’ (as opposed to asymmetry). Consequently, talk of generations is useful, “even if asymmetries cannot be assigned to rigidly separated groups” (Gardiner 2003: 486). Decision-making in heritage conservation can be affected by cycles that are both longer (institutional) and shorter (career) than generations of people. However, the notion of causal asymmetry may be worth considering in its own right for the conservation of heritage collections.

Fig.1 A graphical representation of different conceptions of generation, based on Gardiner’s (2003) definitions and author’s family.

Fig.1 A graphical representation of different conceptions of generation, based on Gardiner’s (2003) definitions and author’s family.

Thick black horizontal lines: Lifetimes (with uncertainty after ‘now’). Blue striped columns: Generation defining events in time, such as the Baby Boomers. Thin Red Lines: Causal asymmetry, where peoples’ lifetimes do not meet (up to 200 years). Blue dashed lines: ‘Replacement’ time required for children to take on parents’ responsibilities, which varies but achieves some ‘causal parity’.

36The concept of a generation has been addressed in heritage conservation, but very rarely. Ito (1995) explained that the rationale behind the systematic replacement of material every twenty years at the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan was a combination of religious, human and material concerns. “Twenty years means the life cycle of the deities, just the same as a human generation, and also indicates the time limit by which the bottom of columns, whose diameter can be up to thirty centimeters, will decay” (Ito 1995: 40). In the Shinto religion, the deities are said to be embodied by the plant life which also have a life cycle of about twenty years (Ito 1995).

37The Victoria and Albert museum considered the matter of generations when developing a practical lighting policy, designed to determine a rate for objects’ fading. “The choice of 1 PC [Perceptible Change] in 50 years equals noticeable damage occurring over a minimum of two generations, and satisfies current government demands for access to be ‘not only for the present but future generations’… This policy is acknowledged to be a practical approach for the collection at the V&A” (Ashley-Smith et al. 2002: 6). This approach pragmatically aligned vague government policy with evidence about fading rates, based on the notion that one generation lasted 25 years (Ashley-Smith 2012). Consequently, both accounts of generation comprise a meeting point of causal parity, material properties and external, socio-cultural context (government or religion), which goes some way to expressing how we address future generations as conservators.

Uncertainties in considering future generations

38There are moral problems that are peculiar to acts like preservation and resource allocation, not least the facelessness of those generations with whom we will not come in direct contact. There is uncertainty of what future generations will value, uncertainty that present action will indeed benefit future generations (and ‘mistakes’ that may benefit), even uncertainty that these efforts will be continued or wasted by future generations. The applications of these cautious principles involve a good deal of caution themselves in terms of justice.

The Non-Identity problem

39A seemingly intractable problem in intergenerational justice is referred to as the non-identity problem, which relates to the moral obligations we have to future generations. Parfit (1984) notes that our individual identities are formed by a number of different circumstances. If we were born at a different time, under different circumstances, we would be someone else (in other words, we wouldn’t exist). Consequently, we all owe our existence to those that shaped those circumstances, whether good or bad. Future generations owe their existence to whatever choices we make. If this is the case, there is no moral obligation to sacrifice for future generations.

40So why do it? Since there is no contact between distant generations, love, friendship, solidarity and sympathy are limited. Gosseries (2008b) suggests that reciprocity between generations forms a ‘chain of obligation’ extending motivations and actions beyond the lifetime expected by an individual or group. Birnbacher (2009) suggests other contributing factors, such as group loyalties, ideals for their own sake, and the satisfaction of embedding oneself is a larger, longer project or entity than oneself. De-Shalit (1995) suggests that through this last point, an abstract form of reciprocity takes place as future generations will carry on projects that are important to us, providing meaning and depth to our lives. Perhaps this is worth considering when we define our duties to future generations.


41As stated, the idea of futurity, and the idea of fairness that stems from conserving heritage for future generations, is not novel to conservation. However, consideration of the field of intergenerational justice offers the opportunity to see separately identified issues in conservation to be put in a wider ethical context. Conservation is deeply engaged in these issues, but not in their ethical or philosophical expression. Through intergenerational justice, we have the opportunities to consider the implications of our work in a new light, and concepts such as causal asymmetry and substitutability.

42Viewing intergenerational justice broadly has the further advantage of considering influences and interests outside one’s own domain when the future generations’ rights and needs are being discussed (Gosseries 2008a). Policy makers are unlikely to view heritage in isolation, and will be interested in ensuring the impact of their actions, and the opportunity costs they may forfeit.

43This is not an exhaustive review, and each of these issues is discussed in much more detail within the field. However, how we do (or do not) define our duties to future generations, and the implications of what we chose, affects policy and practice. Conservators cannot directly influence all of these issues, but need to be aware of them and aware of how they are connected to conservation.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 A graphical representation of different conceptions of generation, based on Gardiner’s (2003) definitions and author’s family.
Caption Thick black horizontal lines: Lifetimes (with uncertainty after ‘now’). Blue striped columns: Generation defining events in time, such as the Baby Boomers. Thin Red Lines: Causal asymmetry, where peoples’ lifetimes do not meet (up to 200 years). Blue dashed lines: ‘Replacement’ time required for children to take on parents’ responsibilities, which varies but achieves some ‘causal parity’.
File image/jpeg, 66k
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Electronic reference

Joel Taylor, “Intergenerational justice: a useful perspective for heritage conservation”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 30 October 2013, connection on 02 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Joel Taylor

 Joel Taylor is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). He has a BSc in Archaeological Conservation, and PhD on condition surveying and risk assessment (Cardiff University 1996; 2009). He was the first environmental management intern at English Heritage and continued to become Senior Collections Conservator (1999-2002). He then joined the University College London Centre for Sustainable Heritage as a researcher, then director of the Sustainable Heritage MSc course (2002-2011). He moved to Norway in 2011, working with the University of Oslo as senior lecturer before his current position. Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), Postboks 736, Sentrum, N-0105, Oslo, Norway,

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The text only may be used under licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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