On Justice In Time

When political philosophers think about how time matters for justice, they often focus on the future. They reflect, for instance, on the rights or welfare of future generations, or on obligations with regard to the future, or on whether future costs and benefits can justifiably be discounted relative to present values. Environmental concerns have prompted some to consider when a precautionary principle should constrain future-orientated actions; and some note that time delays – between causing or benefiting from environmental changes and bearing the costs of their effects – have distributive implications between generations. Yet a background assumption remains that such questions are distinct from those of contemporary global justice, with the difference being whether the people concerned are separated by time or by space.

But what about the importance of time as it is lived and experienced here and now?


In a paper now published online in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (and pre-printed here),[i] Yukinori Iwaki and I suggest that there are several ways in which unjust inequalities are bound up with different circumstances in relation to time. We show, in particular, that three kinds of temporal disadvantage map onto the three areas of basic rights that Henry Shue categorises as subsistence, liberty and security.

First, because it takes work to produce the basic necessities of life, and work takes time, then if the fruits of people’s labour are expropriated leaving them with insufficient for themselves, there is a violation of human rights and an injustice. This deprivation can also occur through ecological marginalisation: the more marginal one’s subsistence conditions, the more time one has to devote to trying to eke out any kind of living at all.

Second, there is a value of time for the exercise of individual autonomy that relates to the basic rights associated with liberty. Empirical poverty research has shown the importance of autonomous time for even a minimally decent human life. For people to be subjected to conditions where they have no freedom at all from demands of labour is already recognised to be a violation of human rights as through slavery or servitude.

131107102646-goldblatt-bus-passengers-horizontal-galleryThird, the time necessary for individual health and survival relates to basic rights of personal security. The amount of time in a lifespan that an individual has for the leading of a minimally decent and healthy life is strongly influenced by social and ecological conditions. Lives that are cut short through violence or preventable disease may be subject to violations of subsistence and liberty rights, but there is additionally a dimension of personal security that is thereby violated.

In all, the global picture is of affluent people drawing innumerable benefits from the copious use of others’ time in producing the goods that only the affluent have the leisure and money to buy; and as inequalities intensify, the marginal gains of the rich cost ever more real time of the poor to achieve.  This disproportionate effect looks to be not only unjust and inhumane, but also – as if to add further insult to injury – negative sum.

We argue, then, that integrating the temporal dimension contributes to fleshing out the requirements of human rights, particularly in establishing thresholds for basic rights. The framing developed enables us also to address problematic questions such as how people who live in affluence may seem to be time-poor while not evidently being victims of unjust inequalities. By distinguishing the various ways in which temporality can affect individual well-being and be affected by social relations, a suitably nuanced approach can be taken towards such questions.

Our main claim is that injustices relating to unequal access to material necessities of life can be compounded by temporal injustices. Advantages with respect to the use, occupation or command of ecological space can be leveraged to secure advantages over others with respect to time; meanwhile, disadvantages of time can lead to further disadvantages of access to ecological space, and thus there is a vicious circle.

The problem of time for global justice is not only about the future, we emphasise: it concerns the reality and trajectory of current relationships of advantage and disadvantage in the global economy.


[i] The paper as published is a revised version of our earlier working paper with a different subtitle. The substantial revision is the addition of a new first section that sets out more fully the theoretical background of our argument in critical social theory. Other changes are minor and do not affect the argument.

This entry was posted in ecological space, global justice, human rights, political philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s