Democratic Reform, Intergenerational Justice and the Challenges of the Long-Term | Essay by Simon Caney

Philosophical essay by Simon Caney on the morality of prosperity, intertemporal politics and a re-imagination of our political life

Cover image: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 :: composition — Linda Geßner/ (Derivative of images by Erik Witsoe/Unsplash, 422737 / and Anglea Wulf / Flickr)

Political life is dominated by ‘presentism’ and a focus on the short-term. This political myopia is harmful in two important ways. First, it leads governments to fail to discharge their duty to protect the long-term interests of current generations. Second, it results in governments’ failing to honour their responsibilities to future generations. Members of current and future generations are entitled to live in ecologically sustainable societies which realise their equal right to flourish. At present our political system is not well-designed to realise these ideals.

In his essay for CUSP, Simon Caney explores the nature of what he terms ‘Harmful Short-Termism’, and shows that it is pervasive in political life—contributing to environmental destruction and a failure to invest in the social, economic and structural preconditions of well-functioning societies. Simon argues that this short-termism stems from four separate factors. Together they result in a deep mismatch between, on the one hand, the timespan of many problems (such as climate change) and, on the other hand, the temporal horizons of citizens and politicians. He concludes by exploring what can be done to address these problems. Drawing on insights from Aristotle, de Tocqueville and Dewey, he outlines ways in which we can re-think and re-invigorate our political life so that we are better able to address Harmful Short-Termism.


The paper forms part of a series of philosophical essays commissioned by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), investigating the meanings and moral framings of sustainable prosperity. The open access essay is available on the CUSP website.

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