Module Essay
W.C.: 1981/2000

31440 – Distributive Justice Today
Prof Paula Casal
Sisheng Chris Zhang, Universitat Pompeu Fabra MA Political Philosophy


In this essay, I offer a shareholder approach to complement Mazor’s theory on intergenerational justice. Shareholder revitalises Mazor’s chain model by enabling a direct response to Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem; it also overcomes the contingency problem that I identify in Mazor’s theory. Finally, I shall show how the shareholder differs from conventional entitlement theory.


Many find intuitive that the current generation (e.g., we) have obligations toward future generations. However, theories such as the non-identity (NID) wields away much force in transcribing our moral intuition into obligations. For Parfit, NID says there is no promise that this agent (to whom we owe our obligations) will necessarily exist12; therefore, we cannot identify, exactly, to whom we owe our obligations. Joseph Mazor responses to NID. His theoretical foundation is what we might call a “chain”: briefly, that 1) an immediate future generation necessarily overlaps with its current generation along with 2) our obligations toward all currently existing people mean that the obligations owed to any future generation can be traced back to generations prior to it. Put differently, take three generation proceeding: A-B-C (earliest-latest, while A and C do not overlap), A owes obligations toward C because A owes obligations to B, and B to C; also because A necessarily overlaps with B, and B with C. One might, therefore, argue that Mazor’s theory overcomes the NID for A’s obligations toward C does not require the existence of any particular member of C to come into existence. I believe this is mistaken but can be dealt with.

This essay replies to Mazor’s proposal by offering a remedial approach to his theoretical foundation: shareholder. Shareholder says that for any individual claim to particular resource, it is possible if and only if there exists no further active competition to particular resource. I believe, shareholder conjoins with Mazor’s chain model is a highly plausible theory for intergenerational justice.

There are four sections in this essay. Firstly, I highlight how, exactly, is NID challenging for intergenerational theorists. Secondly, I debunk Mazor’s argument and show how the NID remains unchallenged, while the problem of contingency emerges. Thirdly, I layout the shareholder approach. Finally, I reply to challenges.

Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem

Following Parfit, I assume that future generation necessarily exists3, meaning that the NID is a real problem4. Unable to determine the identity of the future people means that their claims to resources are hardly weighty to guide existing people’s actions. To be sure, it is not that we cannot benefit people in the future; but that we cannot benefit any particular future person. More importantly, it is also possible to deny responsibilities for future people, in light of NID56. Collectivising the claims of future generation7 is also disputable for Mazor8. Intergenerational justice, therefore, ought to bind individuals rather than a generation. Finally, justice derived from people’s entitlement and rights are also problematic. Parfit believes that future people, once they exist, can reasonably reject what we have assume of the them. We assume that a premature mother’s child is necessarily worse-off, but this need not be what this child, in fact, concedes.9

Mazor’s Chain

Mazor’s argument proceeds in two steps: 1) equal-share-transfer obligation, then 2) generations have obligations to conserve resource for future generation. In this section, I will sketch Mazor’s argument before exposing its problems, these will cast lights onto theoretical improvements.

For Mazor, equal-share-transfer obligation says that once a person exists, all other existing people have a justice-based obligation to ensure that he receives an equal share of resources; such is a claim of entitlement. Mazor argues that one’s resource-entitlement is unaffected even when 1) a certain type of resource is depleted or 2) there is no unoccupied resource. Responding to NID, Mazor argues that people “are being harmed once they exist by not being given equivalent resources.10. He concedes that while, pre-existence, one cannot be harmed due to NID; but he is harmed if he does not receive equal resources once he come into existence. Put simply, NID tackles on potential harm, and Mazor dodges the NID as he charges on current harm11.

Building on the equal-share-transfer obligation, the resource-conservation obligation, for Mazor, can be sufficiently grounded as a demand of justice, rather than mere obligation. When Agnes (in the current generation) fails to save sufficient resources for the future generation, Anthony (same generation as Agnes) ought to be held accountable. Importantly12, that people co-exist in a generation means that they form a partnership in meeting the resource requirement of future generation; and when one refuses to comply (e.g., Agnes), this means that those who comply ought to bear more burden13. To be sure, Agnes owes her obligations not toward future generation but simply to complying people in the current generation (e.g., Anthony) as their obligations are otherwise less burdensome to uphold had everyone complied14. While it can be argued that the additional burden due to no direct fault of Anthony’s is too demanding for him15, he is, nonetheless, residually liable for not being able to prevent the injustice from happening in the first place (e.g., of Agnes’s overconsumption)1617. Thus, all are liable for under-providing resources for future generations once they exist.

I believe Mazor’s argument is persuasive to bind non-complying agents to certain valuable obligations (e.g., of conserving resources) even if one does not act in light of justice for future generations. However, even if Agnes eventually complies with the obligations toward Anthony, for me, she does so for the wrong reason. Agnes, unlike Anthony, is acting disingenuously towards future generation. Anthony’s ingenuous care for the future generation persuade him to pick up Agnes’s slack. Sure, slack-picking, say, when one is unaware of his obligations, is in many cases helpful. But it seems highly counterintuitive to claim that every slack-picking is equally morally weighty. Pushing other’s chair into a table when he has forgotten to do so in a cafe might help with conserving resources for future generation. Imagine that we have helped David who assigns much importance to chair-pushing, that, when he knows of the accident (of not having to pushed the chair in), he drives back so that he can push back his chair. Therefore, we help reducing his petrol consumption by helping with his chair-pushing. But this case may seem farfetched for intergenerational justice because our kind chair-pushing is not, primarily, due to our concern for the future generation; instead, we concern primarily with elements proximate to us (e.g., David). Even if our action, by chance, helps with a greater goal (e.g., welfare of future generation), it seems presumptuous to equate such action to one that has more direct bearing on the greater goal.18 I shall call this the contingency problem.

Motivating the Shareholder

Thus far, we see Mazor’s proposal dodges NID, and that the contingency problem is real. I believe that the shareholder approach can remedy both problems. Further, as we shall see, the shareholder does not require one’s entitlement or rights.

Being a shareholder of resources means that one acknowledges that he is only able to obtain particular resource due to the lack of additional competition that could otherwise exist (e.g., due to new-borns). A miner is only possible to extract particular units of coal at a given time and space, if and only if, there exist no other miners mining this identical portion of coal. To be sure, shareholder differs from mere acquisition/consumption (that resource-consumption, entail a reduction in total available resource for others); but that it also charges on the idea that someone else will make use of the identical share of resources19.

Thus, shareholder replies to:

  1. NID: that we have obligations to future generations not because of their entitlement to a certain/equal share of resources (whether they in fact exist or not); instead, it is because of the lack of competition that can otherwise make impossible for one to extract the particular portion of resources. Future person’s identity, therefore, is irrelevant for shareholder.
  2. Contingency: acknowledging the chances in which we may be impossible to extract a particular resource means that the claim to resource-entitlement is groundless20. Shareholder entails that our actions, necessarily, bear on the otherwise competing agents, whether they exist or not.
  3. Entitlement/rights: that one can utilise particular resource is because his competitors have not done so; and nothing about this begs one’s entitlement/right. Competitors need not necessarily compete for the this particular resource, but the total supply of this resource: one’s extraction of coal depends on coal being available (free from direct competition); if total supply of coal reduces dramatically, then, competitors will 21directly compete. Individuals have reasons not to over-consume for his prospect, in light of future competition to be as low as possible.

However, shareholder, per se, might be under-demanding to be action-guiding because it relies heavily on personal perceptions which are highly individualised: that one sees a fierce resource-competition does not make it true for other people. However, reasonable people should not find it difficult that if all over-consumes, not only it is more difficult for themselves to consume more in the future (as resource becomes more scarce); but also that they mutually deprive each others’ possibility of resource-consumption, yielding hostility between people, obstructing social cooperation.


In liberal societies, one can reasonably reject social cooperation temporarily. However, a complete rejection seems impossible, more so with increased competition (e.g., due to emerging future generation). What we learn from Mazor’s chain is that intergenerational justice obligations can be met even if other co-existing members do not comply. Shareholder overcomes both NID and contingency problem for people now have obligations not only towards themselves but also members that could constitute their competition. More importantly, the existence and the identity of such members are trivial for the shareholder approach, as long as we can envisage the future generation.


Kumar, Rahul. 2003. “Who Can Be Wronged?.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 31(2): 99–118.

Mazor, Joseph. 2010. “Liberal Justice, Future People, and Natural Resource Conservation.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38(4): 380–408.

Murphy, Liam B. 2003. Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory. Oxford University Press.

Parfit, Derek. 1986. Reasons and Persons. OUP Oxford.

  1. Parfit, Derek. 1986. Reasons and Persons. OUP Oxford, ch. 16
  2. Or the people whom we owe obligations to, in fact, assumes the psychophysical makeup. Mazor, Joseph. 2010. “Liberal Justice, Future People, and Natural Resource Conservation.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38(4): 380–408, 389;
  3. Reasons and Persons, op. cit., §120
  4. Ibid, §123
  5. Ibid., §122
  6. Cf. Murphy believes that there is a collective obligations of beneficence; such obligations, moreover, is mistaken to think of as over-demanding. This essay does not tackle this position. Murphy, Liam B. 2003. Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory. Oxford University Press, ch. 2, 3.
  7. That non-existing people’s claim be considered as a claim of this generation.
  8. it is individuals, not (or at least not only) collective entities like generations, who have rights and obligations.”. Mazor, op. cit., 393
  9. Reasons and Persons, op. cit., §121
  10. Ibid., 391
  11. Ibid.
  12. To be sure, Mazor gave two clarifications in addition to this one. For simplicity, this essay will not entertain them. Ibid., 395
  13. Ibid., 396
  14. And because Mazor believes in equal entitlement of people.
  15. That he has to conserve much more resources than otherwise.
  16. Mazor, op. cit., 397-398
  17. Mazor distinguishes between conserve and save. Conserve means saving resources while anticipating possible under-fulfilment of other members. Ibid., 402
  18. To clarify, this is not to say that the less direct action is any less worth undertaking than more direct action. My claim merely charges on the reason for action. This essay does not assume a reason-value relationship.
  19. i.e. if one does not use it, others have the opportunity to use it. Shareholder also differs from opportunity cost as any particular resource is unique.
  20. This differs from one’s general entitlement to resources: that one’s entitlement to some resources, for sake of, say, survival, differs from the entitlement to any particular portion of resources. E.g., one’s entitlement to water does not mean that he is therefore entitled to the water from my glass.
  21. More likely, at least.
Categories: Essays