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Tiziana Andina, Ontologia sociale. Transgenerazionalità, potere, giustizia

Davide Pala
p. 203-208
Notizia bibliografica:

Tiziana Andina, Ontologia sociale. Transgenerazionalità, potere, giustizia, Roma, Carocci, 2016, pp. 221 (eng. tr. Sarah De Sanctis, An Ontology for Social Reality, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016, 197 pp.).

Testo integrale

1§ 1. The main idea expressed in Tiziana Andina’s Ontologia sociale. Transgenerazionalità, potere, giustizia is that some social actions are identified and structured by the fundamental property of transgenerationality, i.e. the ability to significantly affect the interests not only of the present generation, but also of future ones (p. 85, Eng. tr. pp. 77-78). From an ontological point of view – which the author addresses in the first two chapters of the four that make up the book – transgenerationality is a necessary property of certain social actions. This property is able to grasp and bring out the primary or essential characteristics of social actions better than other supposed dispositions and faculties such as, for example, collective intentionality. (p. 86, Eng. tr. pp. 78-79).

2This, Andina argues, has important consequences from a normative standpoint. Indeed, if one acknowledges that some actions are necessarily transgenerational, one also has to admit that – precisely by the virtue of what they are – they establish an intrinsically normative relation between present and future generations, that is, a relation characterized by obligations and demands if not rights. In other words, the fact that social actions are transgenerational means that those who will undergo its consequences in the future have demands about it (e.g. that their interests be taken into account) and that the agents of that action have obligations towards them – and therefore towards the future. For this reason “the transgenerational character of some actions […] implies that ethics and ontology cannot be separated” (p. 128, Eng. tr. p. 119).

3This framework is then completed by two further considerations relative to justice, which are dealt with in the third – and possibly most important – chapter of the book. First, Andina claims that the only entity able to guarantee – that is, to manage and enforce – the transgenerational character of social actions is the state. On the one hand, this statement is justified de facto: only the state has the coercive power and it is able to solve problems related to collective actions generated by transgenerational social actions. On the other hand, though, it is also true by principle: if the state necessarily has a transgenerational duration and requires, for its preservation, the support of future agents that have never given it their consent, then it has to accomplish its main tasks (i.e. to guarantee every citizen’s right to self-determination and a certain degree of social justice) by also taking into account the interests of such future agents. Otherwise, justice would not be preserved (pp. 155-157, Eng. tr. pp. 142-144). Secondly – and more radically – Andina states that transgenerationality is a criterion both of legitimacy and of justice for the state: only if it takes charge of transgenerational actions and their consequences can a state be legitimate and just (p. 156, Eng. tr. p. 144).

4Finally, in the fourth chapter that closes the book, Andina argues that, from a motivational point of view, to support the obligations generated by transgenerational actions it is essential to create a transnational collective identity. The latter can only rest on testimonial memory, especially that deposited in art (p. 193, Eng. tr. p. 179).

5§ 2. As this brief summary shows, the book has many merits. First of all, from the ontological point of view, the author manages to demonstrate rather convincingly that what she calls O-ontologies (based on Objects) are superior to both P-ontologies (based on People) and I-ontologies (focused on Institutions and rules). Indeed, it seems that in cases where social actions are taken to involve many people over time, notions such as joint commitment, proposed by P-ontologies, and collective intentionality, proposed by I-ontologies, lose much of their explicative power and should be replaced by a perspective focused on the properties of the objects and actions themselves. In short, in a deflationary reading, Andina successfully persuades the reader that the objects and actions can say more than one might think.

6The second merit of the book is its pluralism of perspectives: it is not easy to find texts combining ontological considerations and reflections of political philosophy. Moreover, the widespread trend is that of sectoral closure, while Andina shows that the combination of different perspectives can be fruitful. Third, the book rightly avoids the dubious “shortism” or “presentism” so common in the public debate, as well as in some academic circles, and even seen among professional politicians – which is even more worrying. The book, in short, affirms with good reason that the temporal domain of politics is not just the “here” and “now”, but also that of “there” and “tomorrow” – not to say “after-tomorrow”.

  • 1 However, the integration at a foundational level between Rawlsian contractualism – which the book t (...)

7Finally, the book gives an interesting contribution to a debate that has engaged political philosophers for over thirty years, that is, roughly said, a debate to prove that justice is not just about our domestic society, either in a spatial sense (e.g.: Pogge [edt.] 2001) or in a temporal sense (e.g.: Gosseries and Meyer [eds] 2009). More specifically, it seems to me that, on the one hand, Andina provides some relevant arguments in support of a “time-sensitive” version of contractualism – a view that should be explored further, as contractualism usually struggles to justify justice between generations, given its basic normative framework (Gardiner 2009)1. On the other hand, the author notably tries to maintain a broadly statist paradigm while developing a stronger normative commitment, more in line with the exigent ideals of “cosmopolitanism” (Cfr. Ypi 2011).

8Despite its many merits, though, Ontologia sociale. Transgenerazionalità, potere, giustizia presents some problematic issues that deserve to be discussed. In particular, I believe there are four points that need to be addressed.

9§ 3. The first issue concerns the complex relationship between ontology and morality or, if you prefer, between being and principles. In this regard, I am not certain that the idea of their relationship as it appears in the book, somewhat unbalanced in favor of ontology, is completely convincing. Indeed I have the impression that what is missing in the discussion of justice between generations here is precisely the formulation of a principle. One might rightly ask: from what principle comes the institutional duty and the obligation for individuals to comply with the obligations set out by transgenerational social actions? Without such a principle, I am not sure one can access the domain of justice proper.

10To clarify my objection, I will resort to some considerations Rawls made about promises in § 52 of A Theory of Justice. In that paragraph, after discussing the obligations of individuals in a well-ordered society as derived from the principle of fairness, Rawls focuses on promises:

Now the principle of fidelity is but a special case of the principle of fairness applied to the social practice of promising. […] It is essential, as noted above, to distinguish between the rule of promising and the principle of fidelity. The rule is simply a constitutive convention, whereas the principle of fidelity is a moral principle, a consequence of the principle of fairness. […] Even the rule of promising does not give rise to a moral obligation by itself. To account for fiduciary obligations we must take the principle of fairness as a premise.

11And he goes on: “[…] obligations arise only in virtue of ethical principles. […] The tendency to conflate the rule of promising and the principle of fidelity […] is particularly strong. At first sight they may seem to be the same thing; but one is defined by the existing constitutive conventions, while the other is explained by the principles that would be chosen in the original position.” Hence, therefore, “[…] the something implied in there being bona fide agreements which looks much like an agreement to keep agreements” (Rawls 1971: 331-335).

12In my opinion, if one leaves aside the fact – certainly relevant but perhaps not decisive – that Rawls’s idea of promise is related to Searle’s ontology and not Ferraris’, his argument can be transposed, with some adjustments, to the case of transgenerational actions. Let’s admit that these actions have a normative structure capable of generating obligations and claims: something, I believe, would still be missing. This something cannot come from ontology, because it has to be a principle originating the duty of the state and the obligation of the individuals to comply with the obligations coming from transgenerational actions. Otherwise why and how should one take charge of them? In the absence of a principle (“it is just and dutiful to do so”) the only reasons would be merely pragmatic or related to an ontological ascertainment (“it is a matter of fact”). In this sense, it seems to me that the normative relations shown by ontology are but a first step, important in itself, but still not enough to get an idea of justice between generations. In short, we need a normative philosophy to give us principles, in a way that is more or less independent from ontology.

13§ 4. The second question has to do with the consequences of transgenerational actions. I wish to highlight an epistemic problem that, I think, can be mostly solved, once again, by formulating a principle. The idea is the following. Andina claims that the state has to provisionally take charge of the consequences of transgenerational actions; that is – to put it differently – it has to perform social actions affecting future generations by taking into account the latter’s likely interests (pp. 125, 127-128 and 132, Eng. tr. pp. 116-120 and 122). However, there is a dual problem.

14On the one hand, if one speaks of interests, it is not obvious that future generations should have any. In fact, one could claim that future generations do not yet exist, and saying that non-existing subjects have interests is controversial. However, let’s say they do: should we consider all their interests or just some? If so, which ones? How can we choose what interests are relevant and what are not? In addition, if the range of interests to consider is wide, the picture becomes more complicated. After all, we have the ability to predict, roughly, the interests of the next generation, but what about the generations that will come two hundred years from now? Technological changes may be so significant by then as to arouse interests that we cannot even imagine.

15On the other hand, if one speaks of consequences, another similar epistemic problem arises. What consequences should one take into account? Likely ones or also less foreseeable side effects? Determined ones or also ones that are stimulated and fostered with a certain indifference (e.g. Pogge 2002: Ch. 7)? Moreover, in the case of transgenerational actions, typically carried out by means of legal norms, the further question of intervening agency arises: between X, the norm, which intends to continue Y (the political action extended in time) and Z (the supposed negative consequences of X) there is a plethora of private agents whose actions may have little or nothing to do with X; alternatively, X may not be unjust per se and still private agents’ compliance with it contributes to engendering Z (cf. Meckled-Garcia 2014). How can one deal with this problem?

16To make an example illustrating how complex the issue is, consider the Treaty of Versailles (which Andina herself addresses on p.123, Eng. tr. p. 115). That Treaty was supposed to keep Germany at bay after the Great War. Instead, as Andina notes, it ended up being one of the causes of the Second World War, with all its implications – including the shift of the world’s geopolitical power from Europe to the United States and the Soviet Union. To what extent were those consequences foreseeable? And did they all have the same importance, in that they should all have been considered – provided such a thing is even possible? Let me be clear: I don’t think it is wrong to focus on the consequences of social actions with a transgenerational scope. However, I think it might be apt to narrow down the field, specifying what consequences one should consider – that is, reasonably foresee – given our limited knowledge of the future, and distinguishing which are relevant and which aren’t. Such a task, I think, can only be accomplished by a principle: it would therefore be useful to establish one (filtering the relevant consequences) and, at the same time, to acknowledge the limited scope of our knowledge (further filtering the reasonably foreseeable consequences).

17§ 5. The third point I would like to focus on is the thesis that transgenerationality should be understood as a good criterion to evaluate not only the justice of a state, but also its legitimacy. If one accepts some degree of difference between these two terms – so that legitimacy concerns procedures and it is a standard to evaluate whether a political authority has the right to govern, whereas justice regards the substantive question of what is owed to individuals (Valentini 2012: 593-596) – then I’m not sure transgenerationality can easily fit in the first domain, namely that of legitimacy. Of course transgenerationality raises important questions of justice, but saying that it is also a criterion of legitimacy for a state, in my opinion, is problematic. This is due to at least three reasons.

18First, if transgenerationality fully belonged in the context of legitimacy, the latter would appear too demanding: only a state that cared for the interests of future generations would be legitimate. According to this standard, what state would be legitimate today, if you think, for example, of climate change? Hardly any state is taking serious care of the issue, and therefore almost no state would be legitimate. Furthermore, according to Andina, if a state is illegitimate then the individuals have the right to revoke the agreement instituting the state itself (pp. 156-157, Eng. tr. pp. 144-146): if one accepts this reasoning, how not to envisage a largely unstable political scenario? This does not seem desirable.

19Secondly, it is true that it would be unjust to leave to next generations a very poor political, economic and social environment. But suppose these future agents live in a semi-just state, where fundamental liberties are respected and the government does all it can to make up for the mistakes of previous generations. Of course, such agents could not question the legitimacy of past governments – if not as a historical judgment – as the latter would no longer exist. However, they could not do that with the present government either, given that it would be doing its best to fix past mistakes. How to solve this issue?

20Thirdly, if one strictly relates transgenerationality and legitimacy, one has to be very specific about “what” and “to what extent” the next generations are owed. Indeed, it is one thing to say that future generations are owed, for instance, the respect of fundamental rights (p. 157, Eng. tr. p. 147); it is another thing to claim that we owe them socio-economic conditions similar to, if not better than, ours (p. 165, Eng. tr. p. 152). Given that the book makes both claims, it should be clarified which is more appropriate.

21If the above is correct, I think it is indeed problematic to establish a “strong” connection between transgenerationality and legitimacy.

22§ 6. Finally, let me address the last point, related to motivations. As mentioned, Andina rightly underlines that, to support the obligations generated by transgenerationality, a collective transgenerational identity is needed, which could be built through testimonial memory – such as that produced by art. My question, in this case, is: why art? I have no empirical data, but it seems reasonable to hypothesize that nowadays art only motivates subjects with a relatively high degree of education. Therefore, why should one primarily rely on art and not other tools, such as civics, perhaps the law itself and a certain type of literature? The various tools don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but one should explain why art, taken as the primary tool, should have more chances to motivate individuals compared to the others.

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Gardiner, S.
– 2009,
A contract on future generations?, in Gosseries, A., and Meyer, L.H., Intergenerational Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 77-117.

Gosseries, A. and Meyer, L.H. (eds)
– 2009,
Intergenerational Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Meckled-Garcia, S.
– 2014, Does the wto violate human rights (and do I help it)? Beyond the metaphor of culpability for systemic global poverty, “Political Studies”, 62: 435-451.

Pogge, T.W.
– 2001 (ed.), Global Justice, Malden (MA), Blackwell Publishing.
– 2002,
World Poverty and Human Rights. Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Rawls, J.
– 1971,
A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
– 1993,
Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University Press.

Valentini, L.
– 2012,
Assessing the global order: Justice, legitimacy, or political justice?, “Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy”, 15, 5: 593-612.

Ypi, L.
– 2011,
Global Justice and Avant-garde Political Agency, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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1 However, the integration at a foundational level between Rawlsian contractualism – which the book tries to support – and this social ontology is not so obvious. In fact: 1) the subjects in the original position may not have specific ontological knowledge, as that would be prevented by the veil of ignorance; 2) contractualism is constructivist in its foundations and this doesn’t go well with the non-constructivist setting of O-ontologies; 3) the ontological justifications do not have the public character that contractualism demands. Cf. Rawls 1993. In this sense, one might think of an ex post “private” support, i.e. founded on “private” and more comprehensive reasons.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Davide Pala, « Tiziana Andina, Ontologia sociale. Transgenerazionalità, potere, giustizia », Rivista di estetica, 64 | 2017, 203-208.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Davide Pala, « Tiziana Andina, Ontologia sociale. Transgenerazionalità, potere, giustizia », Rivista di estetica [Online], 64 | 2017, online dal 01 aprile 2017, consultato il 18 agosto 2017. URL :

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