Volume 2, Issue 1, 2021
The Meanings of History
Discourse Ethics and the Intergenerational Chain of Concern
This paper addresses the question of what discourse ethics might have to contribute to increasingly urgent issues in intergenerational justice. Discourse ethics and deliberative democracy are often accused of neglecting the issue, or, even worse, of an inherently presentist bias that disregards future generations. The few forays into the topic mostly seek to extend to future people the “all affected principle” according to which only those norms are just to which all affected can rationally consent. However, this strategy conflicts with core commitments of discursive ethics, as it renders agreement hypothetical and discursive participation virtual. I will attempt a supplementary route toward a connection between discourse ethics and intergenerational justice. Discourse ethics must be concerned, in what Habermas calls the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld, with the emergence of rational minds capable of assessing reasons for proposed norms and policies, and such emergence is an intrinsically intergenerational affair. Symbolic reproduction links overlapping and non-overlapping generations in what has been elaborated as a chain-of-concern model, which I show to be linked to forms of indirect reciprocity among more than two parties. I conclude by discussing some consequences of this model for the all affected principle when viewed as specifically applied to future generations.