This chapter begins by reviewing the so-called ontological problems that affect relations with future people, from the nonexistence challenge and poor epistemic access to problems affecting interaction and world constitution. It is then argued that ontological problems call for ontological solutions—here, investigations of moral agents' being in relation to time and world. Drawing on phenomenological sources, the chapter provides a first sketch of the book's overarching claim that justice becomes an issue for human beings to the extent we are generational beings who are noncontingently subject to birth and death. Birth and death, the argument continues, link us to previous and subsequent generations in ways that are socially and morally relevant. If we take this into account, the dead and the unborn will appear less absent and more (albeit "spectrally") present. The chapter ends by outlining possible responses to many of the ontological problems.
The second chapter elaborates the constitutive role of natality and mortality, sketched in the previous chapter, in much greater detail, with particular focus on Levinas. In the wake of Heidegger and others, Levinas argues that, in accessing the finite time that is co-disclosive of agency, I necessarily encounter the mortal, vulnerable other whose face demands that I let the other live. Agency is co-constituted by a futural demand to let others have possibilities for life beyond my death. Thus, the demand from actual future people on the living comes to be seen as exemplary of moral normativity. However, Levinas insufficiently links this futural responsibility to debts to previous others (including mothers), drawing legitimate feminist and Derridean critiques of his "fecundity" and "paternity." The chapter concludes that the moral demand cannot just be futural but must also be related to gifts from predecessors.
Taking off from the insight offered at the end of the previous chapter, this chapter elaborates indirect, asymmetrical reciprocity as a model of intergenerational justice. This notion is meant to capture the idea that indebtedness to preceding others plays a role in giving to future others, no matter how asymmetrical and altruistic the gift to future people is taken to be. With this goal in view, the chapter connects Derrida's critical reading of Levinas to economic literature on intergenerational transfers, specifically economists who draw on the premodern, indigenous notion of the gift, as famously elaborated by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss. The chapter distinguishes four (ideal) types of intergenerational three-party reciprocities and concludes that the notion of the gift points to the enabling conditions of economic activity. Both gifts of nature and benefits from nonpresent generations belong to these conditions, conditions that are too often "externalized" by market economies.
With this topic of collectively shared goods in mind, the fourth chapter presents turn-taking as the second model of intergenerational justice that elaborates the "spectral" presence of nonpresent generations. Taking turns is more appropriate than reciprocity when the "object" of intergenerational sharing, in particular the natural environment and democratic institutions, is quasi-holistic and organically interrelated, such that it cannot easily be divided into parts nor can parts be substituted for one another. Drawing on Derrida's work on time and democracy, this model's distinct advantages are discussed in view of answering the question as to what a fair turn with earth and future people might be. The chapter concludes by showing that quasi-holistic objects such as earth and climate necessarily precede and outlive generations, and thus are not indifferent to, but co-constitutive of, the very being of generations, the subjects of sharing by turn-taking.
To avoid the humanism that takes the earth to be an indifferent object of intergenerational sharing, the final chapter complicates taking turns by arguing that the earth, understood as the history and habitat of life, for its part turns human beings about. We do not only have human generations taking turns with the earth, but individuals being born of the earth into a generation, while returning to the earth upon death. Humans are both "interred'" (agonistically belonging to a larger time and space here called the earth) and "interring" (responsible for returning others to the earth, as in burial).