Future Generation, power and democracy


Gustaf Arrhenius



date de sortie




A large part of my research has been a reflection upon what we owe to future generations and how we can take future people into account in our moral and political theories. Almost any government policy will affect not only future people’s quality of life but also how many people there will be and their identities. Since, arguably, any reasonable theory has to take such considerations into account when determining the normative status of actions, the study of these problems is of general import for moral and political theory. Moreover, these problems raise deep questions which span many of the sub-disciplines of moral philosophy.


I have recently finished a book on future generations (Arrhenius 2011, see also my 2010 and 2000 papers) which draws together the results of my research on population ethics and on our duties to future generations during the last ten years or so. In the book I propose a number of intuitively compelling adequacy conditions for theory about our duties to future generations. I consider whether it is possible to find a moral theory that satisfies all of the adequacy conditions I have proposed and, worryingly, I prove that no such theory is possible. Since, arguably, a necessary condition for a moral theory to be justified is that it is consistent with our considered robust moral intuitions, my result raises the troubling spectre that no moral theory can be justified. Basically, my impossibility theorems leaves us with three options: (1) to bite the bullet and abandon one of the compelling conditions on which the theorem is based; (2) to become moral skeptics; or (3) to try to explain away the significance of the impossibility theorems – alternatives which do not invite an easy choice.


The focus of my research when at IEA-Paris will be on the democratic boundary problem – Who should be eligible to take part in which decision-making processes? – and democracy understood as a theory of fair distribution of power. The extraordinary political events in the last twenty years have made reflections on the value and nature of democracy all the more pressing and important. On the one hand, we have seen a number of countries around the world that have changed their political system from one party systems (e.g., countries in Eastern Europe, Russia), dictatorships (e.g., South-America), and minority rule (e.g., South-Africa) to some form of liberal democratic system which gives the impression of a victory for democratic rule. On the other hand, the increasing power of multinational companies and the growth of supranational states and institutions seem to usurp the power of democratically elected national governments in favour of non-elected bodies and thus indicate a crisis for democracy. In the light of these events, we need to ask again fundamental questions regarding the scope and limits of democratic rule and its justification. What issues ought to be decided democratically? What is the appropriate domain of democracy? Is its domain only national states or can it also be applied to supranational states of considerable size or perhaps even globally? Can it be applied to non-geographical entities such as international institutions and companies? Is democracy a normative ideal in itself or just an expedient way of solving conflicts in a peaceful manner? What is the relation between individual (liberal) rights and democratic rule: are they competing ideals or merely flip sides of the same coin?


As I indicated above, one of the issues I shall focus on is the boundary problem: Who should be eligible to take part in which decisions? This problem is of both practical and theoretical import and a fundamental issue in democratic theory. If nothing else, all the different notions of democracy have one thing in common: a reference to a community of individuals, “a people” who are, in some sense, collectively self-governing. Surprisingly, however, little attention has been given to this problem in the classical treatises on democracy. As Robert Dahl (1970, p. 60) puts it, “how to decide who legitimately make up ‘the people’… and hence are entitled to govern themselves… is a problem almost totally neglected by all the great political philosophers who write about democracy”.


The boundary problem raises a number of problems, some, as it seems, quite intractable. For example, in his pioneering 1983 paper Frederic Whelan claims that “… democratic theory cannot itself provide any solution to disputes that may – and historically do – arise concerning boundaries”. Although I do not agree with Whelan’s gloomy conclusion regarding the autonomy of normative democratic theory (I rebut it in my 2005 and 2009 papers), I do agree that the boundary problem forces us to reconsider fundamental questions regarding the theoretical status of democracy.


At the level of ideal theory, an intuitively attractive boundary principle is the all affected principle: the people that are relevantly affected by a decision ought to have, in some sense, influence over it. It is perhaps implicit in the phrase “government by the governed” or as Lincoln famously expressed it: “A government of the people by the same people”.


It is easy to garner intuitive support for the all affected principle. We do not think that the curriculum imposed by the School board of Waco, Texas, is any business of Icelanders since they are arguably not relevantly affected by this decision. Likewise, people in Luleå (far up north in Sweden) should not, in most cases, have much of a say on how the public transportation is organized in Stockholm, e.g., whether to increase the number of buses to a certain suburb. However, what kind of hair spray the teachers use in Waco might be the business of Icelanders too, e.g., if the hair spray used destroys the ozone-layer. Moreover, whether state tax revenue should be used to subsidise the public transportation system in Stockholm is arguably something that the people in Luleå, qua taxpayers, should have an input on.


One reason why many people would agree with the all affected principle, however, is that it is very vague. As it has been stated, it doesn’t say anything about what amounts to being relevantly affected or what it means to have influence or power over a decision. Moreover, it is hard to see its implications for institutional design. Here is an area where more analysis is needed. Let me give some examples.


Should “relevantly affected” be spelled out in terms of people’s well-being, preferences or interests or in some other way? What should we do with “nosy” or “meddlesome” preferences? Although some preferences we have for how other people lead their lives (e.g., their use of cars) seem to be legitimate from a democratic perspective and therefore should be counted, others seems not (e.g. what consenting adults do in their bedrooms). This question is all the more pressing for democracy in today’s multicultural societies in which competing and incompatible views on how one should lead one’s life need to co-exist.


A promising approach is to spell out “relevantly affected” partly in terms of people’s interests, in the broad sense of the term “interest”. If you fare better in respect to your interest in alternative A as compared to alternative B, then there is a prima facie case that you will be relevantly affected by the decision. The reason why the curriculum in Waco is no business of the Icelanders is that, arguably, their interests are not at stake in any important way. On the other hand, actions in Waco that have consequences for the global environmental situation might very well affect the interests of Icelanders too and thus they should have some influence over decisions of that kind.


There are of course other ways of spelling out “relevantly affected” than in terms of “interests”. A common suggestion is that those who are legally bound by certain laws should have the right to take part in making the laws. This might very well be a better exegesis of, for example, the quote from Lincoln above. However, my tentative suggestion above concerns how the most reasonable explication of “relevantly affected” would look like. Arguably, the “legally bound principle” has too narrow a scope to be such a candidate. Although the Danes are not legally bound by the laws regarding the maintenance of nuclear plants on the south coast of Sweden (just across from Copenhagen), they certainly would like to have a say in this matter. Moreover, the scope of “legally bound” is quite unclear. I am in a sense legally bound by the laws of South Africa since I spend a fortnight there every year. Does that mean that I should have a right to take part in the South African elections? When can we say that a person has had sufficient influence over a decision, or has sufficiently taken part in it? Is it enough to be able to stop proposed legislation, or should one also be able to influence the drafting and the legislative agenda? How can influence be carried over from an individual to her representatives? Here we need an analysis of the concepts of “influence” or “power” in relation to democratic ideals.


A starting point could be to analyse it in terms of whether or not an individual’s preferences could determine the collective ordering in some possible situations. Such an analysis has to be supplemented with an analysis of an individual’s influence on other peoples’ preferences and beliefs, and her influence on the agenda. For example, a person can have great influence on a decision by just being the kind of person that many people trust (e.g., an expert or a charismatic leader), or by having control over what issues that are discussed in the mass media, or by having control over which alternatives there are on the voting agenda. I have started this investigation in collaboration with Professor Marc Fleurbaey (CERSES, CNRS).


As I said above, the boundary problem might forces us to reconsider fundamental questions regarding the theoretical status of democracy. I think it opens up for a new exciting albeit controversial way of understanding democracy, namely as an idea of fair distribution of power. Although the general rough idea has probably been around for a very long time, there are surprisingly few developed efforts in the literature. Roughly, the idea is that people’s power over a decision should be proportional to how each individual’s relevant interests are affected by the decision (see also Brighouse & Fleurbaey 2008).


According to this view, which we could call Proportionalism, how much power you ought to have over an issue depends on how much your interests are at stake. We approximate this by having different issues handled on different levels: council, province, state, European, etc. The subsidiarity principle, frequently invoked in the discussion of decision making in the European Union, is in one of its popular interpretations – “decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen” – very much along these lines. The general prescription of Proportionalism is that a type of issue should be handled by the democratically run body that represents the social union that best approximates the set of affected people. In what we roughly could characterise as the received view of democracy, the democratic ideal is conceived in terms of a kind of equality among citizens, often expressed by the slogan “one person, one vote”, in combination with the idea of majority rule. This conception is afflicted with a number of well-known and often discussed problems: majorities may oppress minorities and infringe on basic individual rights; majority cycles may lead to inconsistent decisions; outcomes can be manipulated by the person or group that sets the voting agenda (i.e., the problem associated with Arrow’s impossibility theorem); and so forth (see e.g. Arrow 1963; Riker 1982). An exciting aspect of replacing the standard equality principle (one person, one vote) with Proportionalism is that many important difficulties associated with the received view of democracy are substantially alleviated by this alternative approach, or so it seems. For example, the tyranny of the majority, where some basic rights of the minority are violated by majoritarian decisions, might just be a case of incorrect distribution of voting rights (or some other power resource) since the minority’s interests are, arguably, much more at stake in such cases than the majority’s interests. Indeed, violations of individual human rights, such as the right to life and security of person, are acts that have such dramatic effects on people’s interests that we may think that no group has the right to decide that a person should be subjected to them against her will. We can conceive of this as the individual being a dictator and that she has a veto right against other people’s wills in such cases. Hence, this approach suggests a promising way of squaring our intuitions regarding the necessity of majority rule over certain issues, on the one hand, and individual rights, on the other hand, i.e., the classical conflict between liberalism and democracy.


Actually, as the above discussion of the all affected principle indicates, Proportionalism might not be such a radical departure from actual democratic practices as it might initially appear (in contrast to contemporary democratic theory). Taken literally, the “one person, one vote” slogan would mean that everybody should have the same say on every issue. But again, we do not think that the people of Luleå should have a say on how the public transportation is organized in Stockholm. However, whether state tax revenue should be used to subsidise the public transportation system in Stockholm is arguably a question on wich the people of Luleå, qua taxpayers, should have a say.


In addition, one can be dissatisfied with the almost exclusive focus in recent normative political theory on the distribution of goods like material resources, welfare, capabilities, primary goods and the like. A dimension of justice which these theorists have almost completely neglected is the distribution of power in the different spheres of life, including firms and workshops, the family (as often pointed out by feminist theorists (e.g., Okin 1989; Mackinnon 1987), and private associations. This approach neglects how pervasive power issues are in all aspects of our lives. A theory of fair distribution of power may remedy this unsatisfactory situation as well as generating new interesting solutions to classical problems in democratic theory.



Arrhenius, G., Population Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2011.

——— “The Democratic Boundary Problem” mimeo, SCAS & Dept. of Philosophy, Stockholm University, 2009.

——— “The Boundary Problem in Democratic Theory” in F. Tersman (ed.) Democracy Unbound: Basic Explorations, Kristianstad, 2005.

——— “An Impossibility Theorem for Welfarist Axiologies”, Economics & Philosophy, October, p. 247-266, 2000.

Arrhenius, G., Ryberg, J., and Tännsjö, T., “The Repugnant Conclusion”, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), 2010.

Arrow, K., Social Choice and Individual Values, 2nd ed., 1963.

Brighouse B., & Fleurbaey, M., “Democracy and proportionality”, The Journal of political Philosophy, 2008.

Dahl, R., After the Revolution? Authority in a Good Society, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970.

Mackinnon, C., Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, Harvard Okin, S. M., Justice, Gender, and the Family, Basic Books, 1989. University Press, 1987.

Riker, W. H., Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice, W. H. Freeman & Co, 1982.

Whelan, F. G., “Democratic Theory and the Boundary Problem”, in Liberal Democracy, J. R. Pennock & J.W. Chapman (eds), New York and London, New York University Press, 1983.

Gustaf Arrhenius, résident à l’IEA-Paris, a été formé aux universités d’Uppsala, de Toronto et d’Oxford. Il est maître de conférence en philosophie, spécialisé dans la philosophie politique et morale. Il est en résidence à l’IEA-Paris de janvier à juillet 2011.