Artificial Intelligence and Society: Philosophy of Fallibility
Part 16: System of Justice as an Intergenerational Asset—Time Inconsistency Problem

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

It is known that under the Rawlsian liberal philosophy, intergenerational sustainability problems cannot be successfully resolved. The “theory of innovation-driven justice,” which was discussed in the previous chapter, maintains that individuals’ lives create social value because their innovations contribute to the society-wide system of justice. The time factor under the theory of innovation-driven justice can create a natural motive to deal with intergenerational problems. That is the theme of this chapter.

In the short span of the last few decades, a host of policy challenges related to intergenerational sustainability, including fiscal crises and global environmental problems, have emerged. If modern people—that is, selfish and rational individuals—are to make political decisions in ways that maximize the benefits for themselves, they cannot undertake acts of self-sacrifice for future generations, because increasing the benefits for future generations at their own expense without the prospect of receiving any return only reduces the benefits for themselves.

That is also true of a society that shares the two principles of Rawlsian justice. Rawls argued that in a society facing intergenerational problems, “just savings” occur. Since “savings” in this case means what is bequeathed from one generation to succeeding ones, it may as well be called “legacy.”

Rawls assumed that when people are in the “original position”—that is, when they are enveloped in a veil of ignorance as to which generation they may be born into—they agree on the principle of intergenerational “savings.” In this case, the rules on just savings are determined by the “difference principle.” Let us take up global warming as an example. When people are ignorant (in the original position) as to which generation they may be born into, one of their fears is that they could be born into the most unfortunate generation. In this case, the most unfortunate generation is the generation that suffers the worst damage from climate change due to global warming. Therefore, those people try to set rules on intergenerational bequeathal of resources (the global environment in this case) in a way that minimizes the damage from global warming for the generation that is expected to suffer the worst damage. As a result, it is assumed that there will be agreement that each generation should implement global warming mitigation measures under the principle of just savings, so that the sustainability of the global environment can be ensured. Thus, it appears as if the sustainability problem can be resolved by applying the veil of ignorance theory across generations.

However, it is difficult to reach such an agreement because selfish individuals essentially do not self-sacrifice for future generations.

That is because in the real world, selfish people honor an agreement concluded as a social contract in the original position because it is difficult to rescind a commitment after the veil of ignorance has been removed. Under the Rawlsian political philosophy as well, human beings are selfish creatures. However, that applies only to agreements that apply within the same generation. On the other hand, regarding the rules on intergenerational savings, it is very easy to rescind any commitments made. Let us take a closer look at the differences between agreements that apply within the same generation and ones that apply across generations. In the case of agreements concerning resource allocation within the same generation (e.g., an agreement on a social welfare system for economically vulnerable people), strong resistance arises in response to attempts to change the rules because all interested parties live in the same generation even after the removal of the veil of ignorance. Since the people for whom there is a conceivable risk of becoming poor represent the majority in a society, the wealthy, who are in the minority, cannot have their way under a democratic system even if they insist on going back on an income transfer agreement (the creation of a democratic government is also based on an agreement concluded as a social contract in the original position), meaning that it is difficult to rescind an agreement that applies within the same generation.

However, in the case of agreements on intergenerational resource transfers (the rules on just savings), after the removal of the veil of ignorance, on one side, there are interested parties who live in the time period when the agreement has been concluded (the present generation), while on the other side, there are those who do not (succeeding generations). What will the reaction of the selfish people of the present generation be when the situation of the present generation (e.g., the not-yet catastrophic level of global warming) becomes clear? It is obvious that regardless of what kinds of rules on intergenerational savings the previous generations may have applied in resource allocation, bequeathing nothing to succeeding generations is the best option for the present generation. Therefore, the present generation tries to change the rules on “just savings,” while the people who would oppose the change (i.e., succeeding generations) have yet to be born. The present generation can rescind the agreement on just savings that was concluded in the original position without interference from anyone. As a result, under the premise that human beings are selfish creatures with no altruism for the interests of future generations, it is impossible to realize intergenerational just savings and it is therefore difficult to maintain the sustainability of human society in the long term.

The rules on just savings are “time inconsistent” in that they can be agreed upon but are destined to be reneged on later. Rawls himself was aware that the time inconsistency problem is involved in the rules on just savings. In A Theory of Justice, he recanted his assessment of human nature, stating that human beings are not completely selfish but may behave altruistically, taking into consideration the interests of their offspring as the head of a family. Assuming that human beings may behave as the head of a family, rather than merely as an individual, is tantamount to assuming that they have strong altruism for the interests of future generations. If people have strong altruism for the interests of future generations, the time inconsistency problem may be resolved, to be sure. People may try to honor the rules on just savings across generations. However, in the real world, we have been stalling in efforts to scale back ballooning government debts or to combat global warming. This reality suggests that people’s altruism for the interests of future generations is fairly weak. The biological altruism that is rooted in human nature is too weak to resolve sustainability problems such as fiscal and environmental crises.

February 22, 2023

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