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Heritage, community and future generations: the transgenerational quest for justice

Davide Grasso
p. 103-121


A theory of transgenerational justice ought to be grounded on intuitions shared in the human community. One is parental responsibility, postulating duties between the generating and the generated in a realm of proximity. To achieve greater political abstraction, it is necessary to deny self-sufficiency to such primary transgenerational level, arguing for its structural need to rely on external sources distant in space and time. A critical cross-examining of concepts relevant to justify the leap from proximity to distance follows (community and society, equity and equality, singularity and repetition). The outcome is a notion of ius as object of transgenerational quest, including future generations only at the price of avoiding contractualist understandings of bonds between living and non-living entities.

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Wessen Morgen ist der Morgen, wessen Welt ist die Welt?
(Bertold Brecht, Solidaritätslied)

1. Introduction

1Philosophical discussions on the concept of justice have often centered around the two poles of equity and equality. The former states that everyone is owed what they are entitled to, the latter that everyone should be treated equally. A political discussion of these or other forms of justice cannot, however, avoid the question of the criterion for just actions. Such a criterion, in order to be politically effective, must prove, furthermore, to be applicable. An idea of justice can be politically successful the more it manages to penetrate common sense or, at least, to take it into account. It is therefore essential to attempt an evaluation of values considering the difficulties or limitations that social adherence to them may encounter. This concerns, among others, two fundamental ethical questions of our time: cosmopolitanism and future generations. Whether declined from the angle of equity or from that of equality, both require a certain capacity for abstraction: the first in relation to space, the second in relation to time. Such an abstraction should enable individuals to go beyond an idea of justice linked to proximity, whether spatial or temporal.

2. Basic intuitions of intergenerational obligations

2The problem of justice between generations is related to proximity and distance in time, and is both promising and complex. Promising, because the idea of a duty to be just towards one’s posterity has always been at work in the human race. Complex, since this posterity is mostly thought of as intimate and close in spatial and temporal terms. The thesis I develop in this article is that an idea of transgenerational justice cannot politically succeed if it pretends to break into history as completely unrelated to attitudes developed by human beings in term of close and intimate relations. At the same time, it needs to demand a further effort, extending social intuitions at work in the field of intergenerational proximity. My hypothesis is that there is no effective idea of transgenerational justice putting aside the intuition that no one should abjure their biological duties towards descendants and children. On the other side, this intuition is not sufficient alone, and ought to be worked on and extended through speculative analysis.

3The ground on which the social intuition of parents’ duties towards children is based is that of primary transgenerationality (Andina 2022: 16 ff.). In order to understand what this is, we need to define both the concept of generation and that of transgenerationality. As Karl Mannheim pointed out (1952: 288-291), a generation is neither (a) a concrete social group nor (b) a social formation. Its members, that is to say, do not qualify either (a) as sharing a particular space or ties, or (b) as having objectives in common, if taken as a statistical whole. Nevertheless, its members “share elements in some sense accidental, but also quite robust. In this sense, people who are part of the same generation share certain things” (Andina 2022: 94, italics mine). This commonality of “things” (properties) is metaphysical and apt to ground, as we shall see, a broader understanding of the concept of community.

4Attempts to positively define generations, coming from scholars of many disciplines, have so far not led to an agreement in principle on the meaning and semantic scope of this term (Cobigo et al. 2016). Nevertheless, all definitions must take into account its semantic roots as related to a generative, i.e. procreative act (generatio) (Tremmel 2009: 19). The foundations of the concept, relevant for its political clarification and use, are therefore biological and underpin primary transgenerational relations. These are identified by the generational relationship par excellence, family relationship, when it extends to more than one generation (the simpler transmission between one generation and the following falls under the notion of intergenerationality: see Kuzawa et al. 2014: 70-76; Klengel et al. 2015: 220-221).

5The relationship between parents and children has always had clear ethical, political and legal implications. The issues of upbringing, maintenance, inheritance and, consistently, freedom of the individual in and beyond the family structure have been at the heart of existential worries of family members and the work of legislators in the realm of family law. The widespread intuition that individuals have duties that transcend themselves has this basic and primary social core: one cannot disregard their family members, especially their offspring. On the other hand, family and kinship ties are limited in space and time if compared to the enormous set of relationships that characterize society in its evolution over time. Philosophical speculation directed at transgenerational justice should therefore establish, from this basis, an enlarged idea of intergenerational duties.

2.1 Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in connection with singularity and norm

6Such broader duties ought to extend themselves to the idea of next generations and future generations. They need to reach, therefore, on a non-primary category of transgenerationality: secondary transgenerationality. The latter exists where the subject extends her or his consideration beyond the family sphere, considering rights and duties in relation to generations instead of lineage. Members of generations, however defined, possibly even transcend indeed the sphere of the subject’s extra-family closest ties. In contrast to primary intergenerationality, secondary transgenerationality implies therefore much more pronounced forms of imagination and abstraction. It is through such abstraction that the individual enables her or himself to conceive those who are spatially and temporally distant (and potentially unknown) as part of a common human universe.

7The abstraction from social proximity to social distance, from particular to universal and from personal to impersonal may recall the distinction, central to the sociological thought, between community (Gemeinschaft) and association or society (Gesellschaft) proposed by Ferdinand Tönnies (1887: 36-99). Primary and secondary social relations on the one hand, and community and association relations on the other, do not simply overlap. However, family ties, that form the basis of primary transgenerationality, are fundamental to the dimension of Gemeinschaft. The horizon of secondary transgenerationality, on the other hand, is compatible with what differs from simple community – Gesellschaft.

8The community horizon has long been conceived as belonging to a specific kind of social relations (Schreker 2011). These are connected with the closest relationships established, beside family ties, by mutual recognitions not excluding emotions and feelings. In order to single out the elements of continuity between family and community ties, we must remember how, on a global level, the dispersed nuclear model of the family typical of Europe and North America (and more widespread in urban and metropolitan realities) is by no means quantitatively hegemonic in the world. Where forms of extended family exist, the boundary between family and community – which ought to be preserved any way on a conceptual level – let any sharp distinction fade, highlighting family and communitarian networks juxtapose on a matter of degrees.

9The associative bond characterizing society (Gesellschaft), on the other hand, is imagined as constituted by individuals who relate according to more mediated criteria. The latter are the recognition of more universal and defined norms, roles and functions calculated over wider spatial and temporal ties. Albeit not easy to draw (Cobigo et al. 2016), this demarcation has a strong impact on the reflection on justice. Communitarian justice can be thought as more limited in the number of individuals involved. It presupposes some place for emotional relationships and some sort of intimacy, not settling for abstract equality or repetitive, mechanical adherence to impersonal norms (Clark 1973: 400-404). Community justice, having primary family relationships as its fundamental core, takes into account personal power such as the power of the father over the child. This power evolves in community roles such as that of the wise elder, supposed to have an ability to interpret customs on a very local, neighboring basis. The competence of such ruler extends to know in depth local individuals and local circumstances, to ensure, through these references, a kind of fairness ensuring justice to each individual event or case.

10The modern depersonalization of justice aims, differently, at seeking aseptic equality through typified and abstract norms. It is the codified impersonal justice conceived in the intellectual context of the legal profession, where the father or the elder abdicate to figures coming from outside family or community networks. In opposition to personal wisdom and fairness, the utopia stemming from the legal profession can be that of a purification of judgement from any subjective or personal connotation, singular inclination, passional or emotional component (Bianchi 2010: 25-36). The psychological reference in the process of judgement, thus, is not a person towards whom one has individual deference or trust; is an interchangeable figure that tends to disappear behind the dictate of a norm, assumed to be transparent and universally applicable.

2.2 Primary and secondary understandings of generations and justice

11This is, in its core, the logical tension between equity and equality (Morand et al. 2012: 141-142). It does not simply overlap, again, with that related to community and society. We have forms of equality in communitarian relationships and rules, as much as judgements of equity in modern societal and state systems. Equity is sometimes confused with equality in the economic jargon, but it depends on the characteristic of the recipient, whereas proper equality does not, qualifying for the notion of “macrojustice” as opposed to “microjustice” (Cook et al. 1983: 221). The counterposition between singular equitable judgement and learned egalitarian abstraction is fundamental to the social, juridical and economic universe (Hootegem et al. 2020: 257-263). Even if the two permeate communitarian and societal customs and norms, the ideals of equity and equality are connected, if taken as conceptual extremes, to the polarity affecting concrete and abstract justice on two opposing ends. In its most radical form, as we will see, the former adheres to an idealization of family or community, the latter to societal and state spheres. In terms of epistemic principles adopted to guide our understanding of an ever nuanced social reality, they ought to be conceived as opposite poles inclined, respectively, to the primary and secondary levels of transgenerationality.

12Even if the pole of family – or communitarian social behavior – grounds the basic assumption that duties to posterity are in place, it appears difficult to justify, on this sole basis, a theory of justice between generations. The intuition of primary intergenerational duties may be even in direct contrast, instead of being its logical and political premise, with the recognition of protected interests transcending close temporal and spatial boundaries. Primary transgenerationality can close itself off in a logic of self-sufficiency, making the political and conceptual leap towards secondary transgenerational justice impossible. In the same way, and for the same reasons, communitarian intragenerational justice can potentially undermine justifications of cosmopolitan ideals. The assumption of a possible self-sufficiency of a purely primary or communitarian declination of transgenerational justice ought then to be challenged and deflated.

3. Singularity and norm in connection with absolute or universal justice

13There is a distance separating the iudex as pater familias from the magister conceived as inserted in a more sophisticated institutional hierarchy. Such distance can somehow be related to the two opposing myths about justice, stemming from immediate intuitions of the above mentioned epistemic polarities. On the one hand we have the understandable desire of being just to the unrepeatable singularity of a case, giving to someone exactly what she or he is entitled to. On the other hand, we would like to apply a principle not differentiating between punctual occurrences: a universally just principle. This tension was sensed, of course, in the ancient times, even in the society that gave birth to the term justice itself. As Cicero proclaimed “summum ius, summa iniuria” (De Officiis, I, 10) he treaded a path covered by Terence: “ius summum saepe summa est malitia” (Heautontimoroumenos, IV, 5). Wherever ius – the regulating principle of a just action – is supreme or excellent in its fabric (i.e. perfectly applied through mechanical repetitions of abstract norms) injustice (and possibly malice) can be the greatest.

14The protest against such summa iniuria is not infrequently put forward by individuals sponsoring family or community-based justice against the power and logic of state law. This can be done in the name of personal, informal, communitarian practices. It is difficult, though, to understand how would be possible to render justice to a case without a criterion (a rule) to distinguish just from unjust. A rule is by definition something repeatable, that exists if it applies in more than one circumstance (Guardo 2018). The perfect “equity” judge would be someone who, evaluating the individual episode for what it is, and weighing up what is right for that and only that individual case, applies a rule fitting perfectly with all properties of that person or event. Such a rule would apply only once; hence, never. This judge would act, historically, outside of time. He would act beyond all generational relations, not being limited or inspired by inheritances of any sort. He would leave no criteria, rules or principles for future judgements and would therefore render absolute justice: free (ab-soluta) from any claim and debt to past or future generations, resulting in something obscure to the other in general (see Wittgenstein 1953: §§ 202-243; Kripke 1981).

3.1 Basic logical tensions and a strange solidarity

15Such a justice does not resemble what Émile Benveniste (1969) researched as the social practice at the origin of the very notion of ius, attempting a comparison between ancient Indo-European lexemes. Compatibly with the semantics of Iranian and Vedic expressions the Latin ius shows a bifurcation of the meaning of the Indo-European yous (“the state of regularity, of normality that is required by ritual rules”) going, on the one hand, to the factual situation of justice and, on the other, to its rule or procedure. In the first sense it is expressed by its derivative iustus: iustae nuptae (lawful wedlock), iusta uxor (legitimate wife) up to the meaning of legitimacy related to broader institutional and statist terms: iustum imperium (legitimate command) is an expression used, among others, by Sallust (Con. Cat., 52); tyrannus iustus (legitimate tyrant, not a usurper) by Cornelius Nepos (De Vir. Ill., Milt., 8, 3).

16The second intension of the term ius covers the notion of justice as a norm: the “formula of normality”, says Benveniste, implied by the expression ius dicere, from which iudex comes. An almost perfect conceptual parallel occurs, on this respect, with ancient Greek: díkēn eipeîn is to say the law or justice; and as díkaios corresponds to iustus, so dikaspólos corresponds to iudex: he who says the law (i.e., what is just) – the judge. Ius denoted in this sense a formula in a very narrow sense, pure repetition of ritual phrases, fixed sentences and established texts. Iura (here too we find semantic correspondence with díkai) was the collection of judicial rulings. The verb derived from iusiurare – denoted the ancient Roman practice of swearing, consisting in a solemn procedure, ius iurandum: the “formula to be formulated” referring to the mimetic and mechanical repeating of words uttered by an authority.

17At the heart of the religious and ritual origin of the Indo-European notion of justice, we seem thus to find the highest possible degree of formalization and depersonalization. The impersonal repetition connects here strongly the idea of justice to a transmission, a tradition (traditio) of an overtly transgenerational bond. While distancing itself from the emotional connection of personal ties, though, ius as a pure formula does not provide references to a critically considered criterion or logical content (Ribes-Iñesta 2000). The origins of ius seem to shift the weight of justice to a pure flatus vocis, uttered by someone who says the law by repeating its exterior mode of presentation. Such extreme, opposed to the ideal of the norm as perfect and not repeatable content, one-time absolute judgement of justice – but in some strange solidarity with it – affirms law without giving a reason for it (Derrida 1992: 23-29). It shrouds its origin and therefore, no less than its opposite polarity, hides the ratio for justice in a halo of mystery.

3.2 Relevant contradictions in historical praxis

18Law or justice as historical realities, nevertheless, aren’t close to such extreme, ideal polarities. We would find it hard to isolate a radically “irregular” arbitrary judgement or the “arbitrariness-free” mechanical subsumption to the norm. This circumstance is illustrated by the very historical developments of legal claims on equity and equality. We will present just two meaningful examples. The concept of equity, in the common law tradition, arose and established itself in order to carve out an intangible judicial space for the sovereign decision (Oleck 1951: 33-40). It was the affirmation of an untouchable superiority of the royal judgment over that of the ordinary professionals of the law. These proceeded in the quest for the customs of the kingdom through formulas derived from the study of legal precedents. This is why their inferences, classifications and generalizations needed a good deal of abstraction.

19The claim of the king’s superiority in this realm was based on the idea that the sovereign would be able to eventually ensure supreme justice for every singular case (Bader 2014: 435 ff.). This did not mean, though, that he would be exempted from the intellectual action consisting in finding the law. On the contrary, what was superior – sovereign – was his knowledge of it. The king’s judgments of equity were not based on a denial of knowledge; rather on a presumption of unsurpassable knowledge. This is what the theoretical and political dispute with the legal profession has been actually based on. In the era following the collapse of ancient Roman institutions, customs were supposed to embody a lex identifiable as communis. The king shroud at his turn what enabled his mind to find the law in a halo of mystery, finding himself in an even stranger solidarity with the utterer of the ius iurandum in Rome – the opposite, strictly repetitive polarity of the manifestation of a rule. Nevertheless, the law the king would find in its judgement was no formula: it was the criterion of the norm, the ratio from which every previous application had to be deduced.

20Custom was considered an abstraction from the outset. The judgement of equity was based on a hidden norm that someone should be able to find. Customary law and the sovereign intuition of what was just in one particular case were not exempted, in their core, from repetition, regularity and generalization. This brings us to the second, specular example. The continental legal tradition, which unraveled with the university studies of the second millennium A.D., developed as science of the legacy of the Corpus Iuris Civilis (Lukošius 2020: 112-117). It was strongly connected to the idea of identifying principles capable of classifying reality and producing repeatable applications of rational rules. However, just as the British reading of customs could not immunize itself from enunciations or conceptions of formulas and generalizations, so the gradual formalizations and continental codifications (later contaminating the Anglo-Saxon systems as well, and the whole world) has never been able to rid itself of non-repeatable decisions for specific application, i.e. judgements and one-time rulings. Arbitrary elements of interpretation of the norm, and customs as a source of law, are still ubiquitous in the legal practice of codified modern state systems.

4. Community, metaphysics and transgenerational Justice

21Justice is therefore not simple repetition, let alone pure invention; nor is it placed on a middle line, rather in a median space of conflict generation after generation, where tensions emerge between inheritance and intellectual transformation, example and principle. This tension – logical and historical – can introduce an understanding of the relationship between community, transgenerationality and justice that denies the self-sufficiency of basic, and fundamental, family and community conceptions of duties toward posterity. The notion of justice is fundamentally epistemic. Its knowledge is undetachable from a transgenerational horizon. There is no justice without judgement, without a mental act of metaphysical separation within heritage as a reality.

22This metaphysical separation, however implemented and justified, grounds all ethical and juristic discernments. Whether conceived through an inclination towards equality or equity, justice is linked to the examination of what is in common between different objects separated from an inherited whole. The ocean of such inheritance consists of acts and events recounted or described in various forms, from which we must select cases and properties in order to extract a rule. The definition of custom has this in common with the code: it discerns and catalogues, distinguishes and judges according to a criterion. The code has this in common with custom: that the ordering criterion is hidden in its letter and must be extracted by acts of interpretation.

4.1 From the transgenerational quest for justice…

23Alongside qualities such as affability and sociability, the term communitas expressed, in Roman times, the acceptation – logically prior – of “what is in common” (communis) as opposed to what is not. Possessing a common property or condition (physical or metaphysical) justified therefore the attribution of a communitas to two or more entities. When Seneca recalled how “Martem esse commune”, he was underlying that the uncertainties of war are common to all (De ira, I, XII, 5). This is why the adjective communis could also convey an idea of non-excellence: “communes mimi” (common mimes) were apparently related by Cicero, in a letter, to boredom (Ad fam., 7.1; but see Slater 2002). Things, to be common, must share properties: “communem imperatorum fortunam” (De or., II, 196). When they do not, commonality is denied: “homini nulla cum deo sit communitas” (De Natura Deorum, I, XLI).

24This is the metaphysical commonality, applying to any possible phenomenon of shared property in the universe and even to common properties of abstract artifacts produced by our imagination (which is to say, to things that do not actually exist). The metaphysical communitas is thus to be distinguished from what would be specifically a social communitas (a set of entities that are human individuals sharing properties: having something in common). A social communitas is in fact a particular case of metaphysical communitas: a communitas in the specific metaphysical realm of social reality (as opposed to physical or, possibly, phantasy-produced reality, or mathematical reality, and so on). Now we can see that the sociological concept of communitas (widely known as Gemeinschaft) is an even more specific concept, abstracting some specific relations among those who tie, more in general, members of a metaphysical communitas defined in social terms. These relations are those connected with proximity, intimacy, emotional ties, deep knowledge of local people and circumstances, perception of a common identity.

25If the Gemeinschaft is a specific sort of social commonality, the same can be said of generations. Let us recall Tiziana Andina (2022: 17) outlining members of the same generation as someone who “share elements in some sense accidental”. Karl Mannheim made clear how difficult would be, theoretically, to justify a juxtaposition between generations and concrete social groups or formations. Generations do not share specific projects, rules or goals: they are made of people who do not know each other around the planet or a single nation and in both cases do not share the same lifestyles and values. In this sense a generation is what is furthest possible from a Gemeinschaft in the sociological sense, albeit being a communitas in metaphysical terms: “people who are part of the same generation share certain things” (ivi).

26What a generation certainly share is the need to adjust the inherited rules for association and social cooperation and critically understand – and possibly transform – their ratio. This is not to say that, among the millions of members of global and national generations, everyone is involved in the same historical quest for ius – for justice. In metaphysical terms, a global generation is a communitas because has a commonality in the mere search for a new and apt understanding of inherited social rules and principles (Edmunds et al. 2005: 559). The way different regroupments of people carry this quest around the world defines them in terms of more specific metaphysical communities, providing them with gradually more stable identities as long as we proceed to the level of proximity.

27The metaphysical, intellectual search for communitas, for common traits and properties among things, is the intellectual operation carried out by each generation while seeking a criterion to assess justice, faced with the magmatic legacy of the previous ones. Facing this magma, we need to carve out some regularity, some track of repetition. Each of our abstraction requires the individuation of a custom, emerging on the horizon of a universe, as an intellectual act locates the distinction between ‘usual’ and ‘unusual’. Such an act is not to be understood as the outcome of some specific rational method invented by specialists. It is a common experience among every human being, and they do not need to know about the meaning or the history of what we here call “metaphysics”, nor agree with our use of it. Usual is something that commonly happen: several events and acts have something in common. This is the definition of custom: recognizable repetition of acts, where they are treated as analogous (sharing this or that property) with some chosen criterion.

4.2 …to the construction of communities

28We see then, that the generational quest for an inherited rule highlighting a ratio for justice can be traced back to informal and customary laws proper of non-state or communitarian (gemeinschaftlich) relations. At the same time those relations, precisely because involved in a search for justice that presupposes abstraction, are directed spontaneously toward some societal (gesellschaftlich) and universal connotation. When Domitius Ulpianus established, in the 3rd century AD, the distinction between ius privatum and ius publicum, identified the original nucleus of the former with the ancient body of Ius civile, constituted during the monarchy by Ius Quiritium (Fernández de Buján Fernández 2000: 18 ff.). In addition to the leges regiae, it included the mores maiorum: the sedimentation of customs of the ancestors. They had stipulated agreements between the respective families, maintaining absolute power within them – ab-solutus from the inter-family pacts. The leges antecedent to the kings were hence mores of those who were considered maior for being the founders of a chain of acts that made it possible to discern the right from wrong. Maiores were therefore to be taken as examples.

29The customary component of private law highlights the difference between the notion of law and the subset constituted by formal legislative acts emanated by a state (Sacco 1995). This notwithstanding, custom is not the exclusive expression of a pre-state era (Diala 2017: 7-10). State law preserves custom: not only domestic law, also international law has a fundamental customary component (Shaw 2008: 69 ff.). Mos is not the primitive stage of law, simply succeeded by codex. It is a fundamental component of ius as such (Monateri 2018). Custom is a layer of law: the oldest layer, preceding a written systematization which is unable, anyway, to completely escape those roots (but see Zenker et al. 2018). Beyond the distinction between formalized or informal law, nevertheless, any criterion to assess a commonality among facts and events extracts a communitas of properties. Identifying such a communitas requires a rationale (Rosser 2007: 25-27). Which properties must I abstract from past events (which I qualify as acts) in order to define an analogy between them? Which ones from human beings whom I consider eminent (maiores) in order to elevate their acts to the rank of examples? Is it a communitas of analogous acts that is deduced from the communitas, or is it deduced from the communitas, or is the latter derived from the former? Are the acts excellent and just, hence so are our maiores – or vice versa?

30Each generation, each community of ancestors or descendants has chosen, according to a criterion of abstraction that is also the first foundation of justice, what acts and individuals to group together as usual – the regular or frequent appearance of a specific property – against the background of the uncommon. Before every community of ancestors and fathers there is a prior generation of maiores whose mores the posterity intends to interpret. There is no decision concerning justice not claiming to possess a ratio to select sets of events against a thousand possible others. Whoever renders justice is therefore never safe from a cognitive relationship that involves a choice with respect to generations.

31Finding a law is looking for the norm, identifying the communitas between different cases and sorts of judgement, indebted to a plurality of humans and groups. These human groups can be abstracted as past or present communitas of human beings, communitas of individuals. Thus communitas as a commonality of properties is specified as a community of human properties and beliefs within the human race – a social community. The communitas in the social sense is therefore a set of individuals who perceive themselves as sharing, at the most general level, a common quest for justice – for ius – or ideas and criteria of justice perceived as mutually compatible (see White 2013: 224). It would always have a synchronic dimension – those who live in the same time – as much as a diachronic one: those living in different times. The structure of the search for justice is then intergenerational and transgenerational: it involves more than one generation, and often generations separated by long time distances.

5. The involvement of future generations in the quest for justice

32The search for justification takes place in the present, in the urgency to act or give justice; but the historical material from which to extract examples of a principle is found in the past. In that past, it was a different generation of humans who dispensed justice, critically repeating a rationale inherited from older generations. This transgenerational, indirect cooperation in the search for justice is to be understood in its dynamic and conflictual terms. We can’t change the historical material we inherit, but new insights into the criterion of justice collide with traditional criteria as well. Indeed, the new formulation of a prevailing criterion clashes in its present with what is predominantly considered right within a present community. Tradition is therefore to be distinguished from mere imitation or repetition. The legal act imitates selectively, repeats critically. The ideology justifying the choice between sequences of acts may present a tradition as the only intellectually recognizable – the only true lex deducible from history, sole legitimate legacy – and declare it to be one and the same with the whole of cultural heritage. Opposing principles can be formulated, nevertheless, in the name of the same inheritance, and repeatedly clash, even to the extreme.

5.1 Communitas, Gesellschaft and transgenerational responsibility

33Arguments have been presented above to show how the polarity between concrete and abstract justice, and how the tension between a primary ideal of responsibility as equity and a secondary-transcommunitarian ideal of equality cannot be overcome. This tension expresses the matter of fact that a notion of justice can’t be immune from emotions and personal feelings, but also from abstraction and depersonalization. That is why, in the conception of justice, concrete family or proximity relations are never self-sufficient. They tend to something beyond them. It is impossible, this notwithstanding, to imagine a society without communities and communitarian relationships. The impersonal ideal of justice as equality is not self-sufficient at its turn: completely depersonalized, non-arbitrary and mechanical criterions of justice are also not possible.

34This has important implications for the problem of transgenerational justice. It is particularly true when this question is conceived in relation to future generations. The locus of a widespread intuition of a responsibility tie between those who generate and those generated exists certainly in primary transgenerational relations. These are connected to the family sphere, which we assumed to be archetypal for the community bond. A politically effective theory of transgenerational justice (i.e. able to gain normative efficacy among existing humans) is not affordable without making reference to such basic intuitions and their context – primary relations, family, Gemeinschaft.

35The family-communitarian sense of responsibility tends spontaneously, nevertheless, to make community into a form of broader associative bond. Families and communities can deny this bond and try to close up, but the quest for predictability of social outcomes – i.e., for shared norms, and for the knowledge of normative criteria of other agents – is at work all along (Harsanyi 1977). Communities based on intimacy and proximity need to fix a ratio for their common acting and judging. Such a ratio is founded through the establishment of metaphysical commonalities among the inherited cultural material. This grounds a social communitas transcending in time and space the intimate proximity of primary relations. The cultural heritage from which an idea of justice is carved out is larger than just the family and the neighborhood, or even the nation.

36This is not to deny that the concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft possess comparative and epistemic value. It is their possible rigid contraposition that is misleading, since the communitas engaged in the quest for justice tends in itself to be, so to say, gesellschaftlich. To deflate rigid contrapositions between these comparative poles does not mean subsuming primary, personal or communitarian relations under a theoretical order reduced to the horizon of Gesellschaft. On the contrary: such an operation would endanger the possibility itself to justify transgenerational justice. What ought to be highlighted is that the very concept of community testifies an inclination towards a broader social and normative horizon.

37The preposition cum indicates, in words such as communis or communitas, an association through a munus. In Latin this can mean both “duty”, “gift”, “service rendered” or “favor” as well as “function”, “office” and “obligation” (for a reflection on this circumstance, leading to different conclusions, see Esposito 1998: 6). It is different to be united by obligations and functions or, on the other hand, gifts and favors.

38The first case – munus as obligation or function – can imply rational calculation, intellectual programming, isolation of compartmentalized purposes, categorizing and ordering in a repeatable manner, according to ends. Munus in this sense would result in an association (cum) quite close to the concept of Gesellschaft. The second acceptance – munus as gift – refers to a form of giving which, if not necessarily immune from interests of some sort, does not render the reference to categorized functions a presupposition for the social transaction. This connotation of munus might appear more compatible with what social sciences and ordinary language associate with the idea of Gemeinschaft. To this idea, as we see, the metaphysical notion of communitas is not completely reducible.

5.2 Future generations: reaching justice through metaphysics

39However construed, the social communitas involved in the transgenerational quest for justice is a set of discrete individuals. Even an imagined transgenerational community, including maiores and thus both living and no longer living individuals, would form such a set. The question about justice for future generations changes the prospect, since the latter cannot be conceived in the same terms. The definition of future generations as sets of discrete non-existent individuals, who will one day see the light of day, ought to be excluded (Bickham 1983: 174 ff.). The hypothesis must be rejected for two reasons. Firstly, because of the paradoxes it may produce: our choices in light of future generations, whatever they may be, will change the world. If the discrete future individuals they are made of ever had interests (including those of coming into the world as concrete particulars in the future) they may be harmed. Our actions, changing history, would create possible scenarios where these individuals will not come to existence, but others would – which would be a damaging circumstance, theoretically, for them (Parfit 1982).

40Secondly, the mere assumption of non-existent individuals possessing interests of any sort would expose them to a need to manifest them, which is illogical (Jonas 1974). What does not yet exist, just as what will never exist, possesses no force or interests at the present time. This motivates the exclusion of contractualist accounts of the foundation of justice criteria toward future generations. Future generations, unlike young generations – already born in the living multigenerational universe – do not yet exist (Weston 2008: 383). Only existing subjects can enter into a contract of any kind (Beckermann 2006: 54-61). The metaphysical definition of future generations takes priority over the ethical treatment of their possible relations with other entities, including present ones. Indeed, that very definition is what ends up excluding contractualist explanations of these relations. The contractualist conception of social and institutional relations is not at issue here in itself. What needs simply to be emphasized, in order to put forward our concluding thesis, is that we can’t use it to ground an idea of justice concerning the specific question of future generations. How, then, can we establish a fair relationship with future generations?

41The intergenerational passing on of norms and customs enables the reflection on justice and the ever changing distinction between what is just and what is not. This cultural heritage is never confined to a single family, nor to a single community (ever since, but especially today). It is also never confined, as shown by historical evidence, to one generation. We can infer, then, that any gesture interpreted as wishing to interrupt or reject such transgenerational quest would be no less damaging to the common trust on social cooperation than any other particular infraction of whatever synchronic norm, custom and code. This principle is most evident in relation to the young generations (the already born). Policies or behaviors expressing a lack of care for children and youth affect negatively the sensation of community members of a stable social commitment on moral values grounded on primary intuitions.

42Future generations, differently from discrete existing individuals, cannot damage us directly. Nonetheless, our lack of care toward them can damage us as a continuous breach of a transgenerational tie whose existence is testified by the quest for justice carried on by once existing and already existing people. This would be an indirect damage, pertaining to the fundamental feeling of the societal, mutual respect for social bonds and customs (see De Shalit 2021). Involving future generations in our idea of justice would be, in relation to primary values related to posterity in terms of proximity, a mere matter of logical extension. Social behaviors and institutional choices focusing on, or taking into account, the wellbeing of next generations would give a strong sense of stability to any social pact, however conceived, even if future generations are not sets of individuals entering that pact. The utilitarian grounds for the abstraction from primary to secondary justice should hence be connected to our interest (Lumer 2006: 41), rather than on a supposed interest of future generations, as Rawls (1967) seemed to propose.

6. Conclusion

43The secondary extension of our most basic intuition is cognitive and surely inside our possible reach. This is also demonstrated by individuals, among many generations, adding a care for generations distant in space and time to the fundamental feeling of a duty (even when not fulfilled) toward their own posterity. Whereas the struggle of younger generation bears the potentiality and effectivity of what can display force and interests throughout history, future generations can’t struggle. Their only possible involvement is intellectual. Involving them in the transgenerational search for justice, if only indirectly and in absentia – sole ontological possibility – would be a recognizable advantage for the living, multiple generations. This intellectual involvement would be grounded on political abstraction. It is therefore possible, but not spontaneous. On such greater capacity for abstraction is founded, in itself, transgenerational justice. This ties the transgenerational horizon to the cosmopolitan one, founded at its turn on a similar, but synchronic, extension of our quest – throughout space.

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Davide Grasso, «Heritage, community and future generations: the transgenerational quest for justice»Rivista di estetica, 84 | 2023, 103-121.

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Davide Grasso, «Heritage, community and future generations: the transgenerational quest for justice»Rivista di estetica [Online], 84 | 2023, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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