Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, and Other Essays is vital reading for anyone interested in the thought of Murray Rothbard. The book is his comprehensive effort to present libertarianism as a “science of liberty.” In order to grasp libertarianism as a worldview, he argues, we must take hold of a fundamental fact.
As he makes clear in the book’s title essay, “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature,” libertarianism rests on the incontrovertible fact that people are different. Procrustean efforts to impose equality are inimical to liberty. This has not prevented egalitarianism from being the dominant ideology of our age. The court intellectuals support it, but they have no arguments to defend their views, which go against human nature.
Not only is equality unnatural; it contravenes the division of labor, the most important cause of a productive economy. Rothbard points out in “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor” that the division of labor depends on differences among people: an economic system based on persons who specialize in producing what they can do best vastly outstrips a society where everyone does the same work. To enforce equality is to ensure a society that can function at only a primitive level. Some leftist intellectuals, bemoaning the “alienation” of the free market, have embraced this consequence. They are, Rothbard holds, the victims of a Romantic myth. Contrary to the views of Karl Polanyi and other proponents of such fantasies, pre-industrial society was no Arcadian Utopia.
The free market, based on peaceful cooperation and productive exchange, is the key to a free and prosperous society. What stands in its way? In his classic “Anatomy of the State,” Rothbard answers that the State is a predatory institution derailing the efforts of people to lead their own lives. Precisely the key task of libertarianism is to combat the State’s nefarious activities, in so doing exposing the State as inherently oppressive. In these efforts to combat the State, the battle against egalitarianism, the prime ideology of the State’s court intellectuals, assumes prime importance.
In the struggle against the State, Rothbard suggests a concentration of effort. As he points out in “War, Peace, and the State,” war has been the principal means by which the State has extended its power. Libertarians must resolutely favor a strictly defensive foreign policy and must oppose all global crusading. This ought to be our primary focus in political action.
The book contains a wide variety of other essays, all written with Rothbard’s vast knowledge and acute insight. If you want to get a sense of Murray Rothbard as a thinker, this book is a good place to begin.
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1. Preliminary Distinctions
Egalitarianism is a contested concept in social and political thought. One might care about human equality in many ways, for many reasons. As currently used, the label “egalitarian” does not necessarily indicate that the doctrine so called holds that it is desirable that people's condition be made the same in any respect or that people ought to be treated the same in any respect. An egalitarian might rather be one who maintains that people ought to be treated as equals—as possessing equal fundamental worth and dignity and as equally morally considerable. In this sense, a sample non-egalitarian would be one who believes that people born into a higher social caste, or a favored race or ethnicity, or with an above-average stock of traits deemed desirable, ought somehow to count for more than others in calculations that determine what morally ought to be done. (On the thought that the core egalitarian ideal is treating people as equals, see Dworkin 2000.) Further norms of equality of condition or treatment might be viewed as free-standing or derived from the claim of equality of status. Controversy also swirls around attempts to specify the class of beings to whom egalitarian norms apply. Some might count all and only human beings as entitled to equality of status. Some would hold that all and only persons have equal moral status, with the criteria of personhood excluding some humans from qualifying (e.g., the unborn fetus or severely demented adult human) and including some nonhumans (e.g., intelligent beings inhabiting regions of outer space beyond Earth). Some would hold that sentient beings such as nonhuman primates that do not satisfy criteria of personhood are entitled to equal moral status along with persons. Some advance other views.
Egalitarianism can be instrumental or non-instrumental. Given a specification of some aspect of people's condition or mode of treating them that should be equal, one might hold that the state of affairs in which the stated equality obtains is morally valuable either as an end or as a means. The instrumental egalitarian values equality as a means to some independently specifiable goal; the non-instrumental egalitarian values equality for its own sake—as an end, or as partly constitutive of some end. For example, someone who believes that the maintenance of equality across a group of people fosters relations of solidarity and community among them, and is desirable for that reason, qualifies as an instrumental egalitarian. Someone who believes that equality of some sort is a component of justice, and morally required as such, would be a non-instrumental egalitarian.
Equality of any sort might be valued conditionally or unconditionally. One values equality in the former way if equality is deemed valuable only if some further condition is in place. One might hold that equality in the distribution of resources among a group of persons is valuable, but only on the condition that the individuals are equally deserving.
Equality might be deemed to be desirable or undesirable. A separate and distinct range of questions concerns whether or not people ought to act to bring about equality or are obligated to bring about equality (see Nagel 1991). The discussion to come often merges these questions, the assumption being that if equality is valuable, that is at least one good reason for thinking one should bring it about.
For those who regard equality as a requirement of justice, the question arises, whether this is a timeless unchanging or instead a variable requirement. Michael Walzer is one who appears to take the latter view. According to Walzer, a society is just if and only if its practices and institutions are in accord with the shared values and cultural understandings of its people. Democratic egalitarianism becomes a requirement of justice in modern societies, because this egalitarianism is an underlying important element of people's shared values and cultural understandings (Walzer 1983). But this appearance may be misleading. Walzer may hold that everyone at all times and places has an equal moral entitlement to be treated according to the shared norms and cultural understandings of one's people or group. Walzer may also hold that everyone at all times and places has equal rights against gratuitous assault by people just seeking fun, whatever the local people's shared beliefs on this matter happen to be. At any rate, we can identify clear exemplars of theorists who regard equality of a certain sort as a timeless unchanging moral requirement. John Locke holds that everyone at all times and places has equal natural moral rights that all of us ought always to respect (Locke 1690). The contemporary moral philosopher Thomas Scanlon holds that all people everywhere equally have the moral right to be treated according to the outcome of a procedure: what constitutes morally right and wrong action is set by the principles that no one could reasonably reject (Scanlon 1998). It is a further question, to what extent this procedure issues in different non-rejectable principles in different times and places featuring different circumstances.
Egalitarianism can be formulated with a variety of roles in mind. For example, an egalitarian norm might be proposed as a fundamental moral principle. As such, it would be intended as a statement of the ultimate norm (or as a member of the set of ultimate norms) to which individual conduct and institutional arrangements ought to conform. An ultimate norm might or might not be suitable for the role of guiding individual decision making or of serving as an explicitly recognized principle regulating institutions and public policy formation in a particular society. If individual agents and public officials are liable through limited cognitive ability, limited knowledge, or limited allegiance to morality to misapply ultimate principles, it might well be the case that these principles could be implemented to a greater degree if they were not employed directly as decision-making guides for individual and public policy choice. (On this issue, see Hare 1981). Following this train of thought, one might favor as guidelines for individual and public choice simple, easily understood, readily implementable rules that are to serve as proxies for the moral principles that are the ultimate norms. Or one might instead hold that the ultimate moral principles that fix what is right and wrong are well suited to be practical decision making guides. The point is merely that we should distinguish these distinct roles that moral norms might play and avoid criticizing a norm in one role by standards appropriate only if the norm is understood to be playing a different role.
Egalitarianism might be upheld as a moral requirement, a component of what we fundamentally owe one another, or as morally optional, a desirable ideal that we might permissibly decline to pursue. When affirmed as morally required, egalitarianism typically figures in a theory of justice. For the most part the discussion in this entry concentrates on egalitarianism as a morally required component of justice, but in considering arguments against a version of egalitarianism, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the possibility that the norm in question is morally desirable but not morally mandatory.
Given some specification of the kind of equality that is under consideration, it is clear what it means to say of a number of people that they are equal in the stated respect. If we are concerned with equal utility, then a group has equal utility when all have exactly the same. If we are concerned with equality of dollar holdings, then people are equal when all hold exactly the same number of dollars. But saying this does not yet suggest a way of determining, in general, whether inequality is greater in one situation than in another, when different people hold different amounts of the good that we are concerned to equalize in the two situations. Inequality can be measured in different ways, and no measure seems to be strongly supported by common sense intuition about the meaning of equality. (See Sen 1997 and Temkin 1993). This entry usually abstracts from this issue by supposing that we can unequivocally determine, for any ideal of equality, how to measure degrees of inequality across the board.
2. Equality of Opportunity
In a hierarchical caste society, positions of advantage are assigned to people on a basis of birth lineage. If one is a legitimate offspring of parents who are aristocrats, one will also enjoy the privileges of aristocratic rank. A historically important form of equality associated with the rise of competitive market economies is the ideal of equality of opportunity. This ideal is also known as formal equality of opportunity or careers open to talents.
Equality of opportunity requires that jobs in economic firms and options to borrow money for investment purposes such as starting a business should be open to all applicants, that applications be assessed by relevant criteria of merit, and that the top-ranked applicant should be offered the job or option to borrow. The relevant criteria of merit are to be set so that those who score highest are those whose selection would best further the morally innocent purposes of the enterprise. In competitive market settings, the presumption typically is that the criteria should be related to profitability. The best applicant for a job or a loan would then be the individual to whom offering the good in question produces the greatest increase in the firm's expected profit. (If the firm's owners are risk averse or risk seeking, the pertinent criterion would be expected profit weighted by their risk preferences.) A further aspect of the ideal of equality of opportunity requires that economic firms offering goods and services for sale should sell to all willing customers, treating all potential customers evenhandedly as potential sources of profit. Finally, equality of opportunity requires that purchasers of goods and services should be responsive only to the price and quality of the goods offered to them for purchase (and not, for example, to the ethnicity or sex or sexual orientation of the maker or seller of the good). This last-mentioned requirement of equality of opportunity might not be included within formulations of the norm that are intended to be enacted as law and enforced by criminal or civil law procedures. But to implement equality of opportunity, an orientation of the hearts and minds of members of society is needed, not merely legal enactments. Equality of opportunity would be subverted if the laws effectively prohibited economic firms from basing decision making on factors other than expected profitability but consumers would not purchase products that embodied the skilled labor of women and blacks, so that their market opportunities are stunted. Moreover, the law might indeed require firms to hire the best qualified applicant, meaning the one best able to perform the role being filled, even if hiring the best qualified in this sense would not be profit-maximizing, due to recalcitrant consumer prejudice.
Two natural extensions of the equality of opportunity ideal deserve mention. One is the requirement that student slots in colleges and universities and competitive private schools should be open to all applicants with applicants ranked by their ability to learn and other academic virtues and selected on these academic grounds (provided they can pay the tuition and fees). A second extension requires that public sector jobs—other than those reserved for elected officials along with their staffs—should be open to all applicants with selection of applicants being made on the basis of the merits of the applications.
The general idea of equality of opportunity is that the political economy of a society distributes positions that confer special advantages and these should be open to all applicants with applicants selected by merit. The merits of the applications for a position should track the degree to which the applicant's hiring or selection for interaction would boost the fulfillment of the morally innocent purposes of the association as weighted by the association's bosses. The more general formulation of the notion of merit allows that an economic firm might legitimately base its decisions on nonmarket values without engaging in wrongful discrimination that violates equality of opportunity rightly construed. For example, a maker of fancy surfboards might sell them by preference to more skilled surfers, and a mountaineering guide might select clients partly on the basis of their physical fitness and their perceived enthusiasm for wilderness adventure. Also, members of the learned professions such as medicine and law might be bound by legal and cultural norms that require them to tailor their services to the aims of the profession rather than just to profitability (e.g., norms that require a medical doctor to refuse to provide a medical treatment to a potential client who is willing and able to pay but would not benefit from the treatment).
The ideal of equality of opportunity is the ideal of a political economy in which each person's prospects as producer depend only on his initial stock of resources plus his ability and willingness to provide goods and services that others value plus luck as market fluctuations are encountered. Moreover, in the role of consumer, each individual (modulo his location) faces the same array of goods and services on sale to anyone who can pay the purchase price (and can satisfy the relevant nonmarket conditions of the seller or maker). Such characteristics of persons as their supposed race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and religion play no role in determining one's life prospects in this public sphere except insofar as these traits might happen to affect one's abilities and willingness to offer what others are willing to exchange for money.
In theory, equality of opportunity could be fully satisfied in a society in which wealth passed along by inheritance from generation to generation fundamentally determines everyone's competitive prospects. In this society jobs and positions and so on would be open to all applicants, but the only applicants who have the skills that qualify them for desirable posts are the children of the wealthy. They alone have access to the training and acculturation that confer skills.
A society that establishes and maintains a state educational system sustained by public funds already goes some way beyond equality of opportunity and toward provision to all of its members of some opportunity to develop skills that will enable them to succeed in competitions for desirable positions regulated by equality of opportunity. The same can be said of a society that enforces minimal standards of child rearing to which parents must conform. One can imagine a society doing more in this same spirit.
A society might institute policies that secure at least a minimally acceptable threshold of schooling and skill formation for all its members. An alternative aim is to eliminate entirely the advantages that family wealth and social status confer on individuals in competitions regulated by formal equality of opportunity. The achievement of this aim would render a society classless, in a certain sense. John Rawls (1999, 63; 2001) has formulated this ideal as a principle of fair equality of opportunity (FEO). This principle holds that any individuals in society with the same native talent and ambition should have the same prospects of success in competition for positions that confer special benefits and advantages. FEO goes beyond equality of opportunity by requiring that all efforts by parents to give their children a comparative advantage in competitions for desirable positions and posts are somehow entirely offset. In a society regulated by FEO, socialization is adjusted so that among people equally willing to work to become qualified for a particular career and equally endowed by genetic inheritance with latent ability needed for that career, all have the same chances of success in that career.
FEO also opposes racial and sexual and similar prejudices that work to deprive disfavored individuals from enjoying opportunities to become qualified so that they would benefit from formal equality of opportunity. In some settings, affirmative action policies that aim to help members of historically disadvantaged groups such as African-Americans in the U.S. gain desirable employment opportunities in proportion to their numbers in the population can be regarded as policies intended to move society in the direction of satisfying FEO.
Formal equality of opportunity, in so far as it imposes requirements on firms, universities and colleges, and government as employer, is the law of the land in many modern democracies, and also entrenched in the common-sense morality most people embrace. By contrast, fair equality of opportunity is a controversial principle, which no existing nation seriously strives to achieve or comes close to achieving.
FEO could not be fully achieved without conflict with other values. Consider that parents naturally want to help their children develop the talents needed for competitive success. Some parents control a lot of resources useful for this purpose; some parents have few such resources. The ordinary interaction of parents with their children is then an obstacle to the achievement of fair equality of opportunity. If society were fully to achieve FEO, then either parental freedom to help their children in ways that give them a competitive edge would have to be curtailed or such help would have to be exactly offset by compensating infusion of social resources toward the education and socialization of children whose parents are less effective. (See Fishkin 1983 and Brighouse and Swift 2009).
3. Equality of Condition: Equality of What?
A society that satisfied the ideal of formal equality of opportunity might provide grim conditions of life for those who are unsuccessful in competitions for positions of advantage. Even a perfect meritocracy that satisfies the stringent Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity principle might impose the same grim conditions of life on those who lack marketable merit and skill. The class of competitive losers might include some who have adequate native talents but fail to make good use of them, but some of the losers will be those with the bad luck to be born without much by way of native talent. The question then arises whether any further substantive ideals of equality, beyond meritocratic ideals, should be affirmed. (See Schar 1967.)
One family of substantive equality ideals, equality of democratic citizenship and civil liberties, is perhaps no more controversial than formal equality of opportunity. Democratic equality embraces the norm that law-makers and top public officials should be selected in democratic elections. All mentally competent adult citizens should be eligible to vote and run for office in free elections that operate against a backdrop of freedom of speech and association, and in which all votes count equally and majority rule prevails. All citizens should have the same wide rights to freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religious practice. Criminal justice rules should be applied evenhandedly to all and should embody the procedural values of the rule of law.
A controversial extension of democratic citizenship resembles Rawlsian equality of fair opportunity applied to the political arena. Call this ideal “equal participation.” Equal participation requires that any individuals in society with the same ambition to influence the political process and the same talents of political persuasion and organization should have equal prospects of influence on the democratic political process. (See Rawls 2005, Lecture VIII, Christiano 1996 and 2008, Walzer 1983, for a criticism, Estlund, 1999, and for a related view, J. Cohen 1989a.)
The remainder of this section surveys several proposals as to what (beyond democratic citizenship and civil liberties) should be distributed equally among the members of society and how equality and inequality in the distribution of these goods should be measured. The latter issue can be posed in this way: When various amounts of heterogeneous goods are held by different individuals, how can one measure individuals' overall holdings of goods so that it can be determined when people's overall holdings are effectively equal?
3.1 Lockean Rights
The Lockean rights approach is so named because an early prominent exponent of the doctrine was John Locke (Locke 1690). It might just as well be viewed as a rejection of egalitarianism rather than as a version of it. Contemporary Lockeans are also known as libertarians (see Nozick 1974).
The Lockean view is that every person has equal basic moral rights—natural rights. Natural rights are rights that one has independently of institutional arrangements, people's subjective opinions, and cultural understandings. A person's natural rights give her a set of claims against all other persons that each person absolutely must respect. Our understanding of a particular rights claim or type or rights claim increases if we can determine whether or not it is forfeitable, waivable by the bearer, and transferable.
The traditional content of Lockean rights is roughly as follows: Each person has the right to do whatever she chooses with whatever she legitimately owns so long as she does not violate the rights of others not to be harmed in certain ways—by force, fraud, coercion, theft, or infliction of damage on person or property. Each person has the right not to be harmed by others in the mentioned ways, unless she voluntarily waives any of her rights or voluntarily transfers them to another or forfeits them by misconduct. Also, each adult person is the full rightful owner of herself and each child person has the right to be nurtured to adult status by those responsible for her creation. It is generally supposed in the Lockean tradition that starting from the premise of self-ownership, under actual conditions on earth one can validly derive strong rights of private appropriation and ownership of land and moveable parts of the earth (Nozick, 1974).
Property ownership of a thing comprises a bundle of rights, the central ones being the right to exclude others from the use of the thing and to control its use oneself. If I own my body, I can exclude others from using it, and I have the right to decide its movements and control what may be done to it. The Lockean supposes that in a world in which self-owning persons confront unowned material resources, moveable and immoveable parts of the Earth, all persons initially have an equal right to use the resources, taking turns if there is crowding. The Lockean supposes this free use regime is provisional. Any individual is permitted to claim any part of the Earth as her private property provided her doing so leaves “enough and as good” for others. Nozick interprets this Lockean Proviso as follows: One's appropriation and continued holding of a part of the Earth as one's private property is morally permissible provided that all persons affected by this claim of ownership are rendered no worse off by it than they would have been if instead the thing had remained under free use (Nozick 1974, chapter 7; compare Simmons 1992, chapter 5). (A different account will need to be given for intellectual property, property rights in ideas.)
Lockean rights do not single out a state of affairs, that in which everyone's rights are fully respected, and hold that all people are obligated to act in whatever ways are needed to bring about this state of affairs. Each person's right generates a duty to respect that right on the part of every other person. Rights are constraints on what each individual may do, and do not set goals that all are together obligated to fulfill (Nozick 1974, chapter 3).
A more egalitarian variant of Lockean rights doctrine combines the right of self-ownership with skepticism about the Lockean account of the moral basis of private ownership rights. Instead the left-wing Lockean asserts that each person is the full rightful owner of herself and each adult person has a right to a per capita share of ownership of the unimproved land and resources of the Earth. In short, this version of Lockeanism combines robust self-ownership with an egalitarian account of world ownership. There are several variants to this doctrine. Critics explore whether or not the doctrine is normatively stable: Do any plausible grounds there might be for denying Lockean private ownership of the world also generate grounds for denying individual self-ownership? Do any grounds there might be for insisting on individual self-ownership also generate reasons to insist on Lockean private ownership of the world? (See Steiner 1994, G. Cohen 1995, Vallentyne and Steiner 2000a and 2000b, and Van Parijs 1995).
The nature of the dispute between the right-wing and left-wing Lockeans emerges into view when we consider justice across generations. Suppose at one time the Earth is unowned and persons alive then appropriate all valuable land. On the next day, new people are born. What natural rights to land do they have? The left-libertarian holds that the doctrine of ownership must provide for fair treatment of each successive generation, and this requires that each new person has a right to an equal share of the value of unimproved resources or to some similar entitlement. The right-libertarian holds that the Lockean Proviso fully accommodates the legitimate claims of new persons. On this view, there is no fundamental right to an equal share in any sense. Luck plays a legitimate role in the operation of a natural rights regime. Granted, it is bad luck for me if I am born uncharming and lacking in good lucks and others are not voluntarily willing to enter into romance or friendship with me, but my distressed condition does not tend to show that my rights have been violated. And granted, it is bad luck for me if I come late on the scene and those who came first happen to be far better off in material wealth prospects than I, but the fact that there are unequal prospects does not tend to show that my rights have been violated. Provided the Lockean proviso is continuously satisfied and the appropriations by others leave me no worse off than I would have been under continued free use, my being worse off than others gives me no moral complaint against their property holdings.
3.2 Karl Marx on Equal Rights
The Marxian tradition in political and economic thought urges the desirability of eliminating some of the inequalities associated with the institutions of a capitalist market economy. Interpreting Karl Marx as an egalitarian normative theorist is a tricky undertaking, however, in view of the fact that he tends to eschew explicit normative theorizing on moral principles and to regard assertions of moral principles as so much ideological dust thrust in the eyes of the workers by defenders of capitalism. Marx does, of course, have an elaborate empirical theory of the evolution of moral principles corresponding to changes in the economic mode of production.
In “The Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx asserts that in the first phase of communist society the economy will distribute goods according to the norm, to each according to his labor contribution. This norm can be regarded as defining an equal right, but like any such right, it is defective. One defect is that some individuals are naturally more able than others, and so the amount of one's labor contribution will vary depending on factors that vary by luck beyond one's power to control. For this and other reasons Marx asserts it will be desirable to discard this norm when a higher phase of communist society is attained. Then society can move beyond the sphere of bourgeois right altogether and operate according to the norm, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Despite Marx's disclaimer, he seems to be proposing a principle of equal right: Each has the right to receive economic goods that satisfy her needs to the same extent provided she contributes to the economy according to her ability. But Marx would resist the description of this norm as a principle of justice or moral rights. One consideration in his mind may be that moral rights ought to be enforced, but when it is feasible and desirable to implement higher-phase communist distribution, the implementation can be carried out successfully without any legal or informal coercion, and hence should not occur through any process of social enforcement. Or so Marx thinks. (See Marx 1978, Wood 1981, Cohen, G., 1988 and 1995.)
3.3 Income and Wealth
In modern societies with market economies, an egalitarian is generally thought to be one who supports equality of income and wealth (income being a flow, wealth a stock). Respecting this usage, this entry considers an egalitarian in the broad sense to be someone who prefers in actual or at least non-exotic circumstances that people should be more nearly equal in income and wealth and favors policies that aim to bring about such equality.
Money is a conventional medium of exchange. Given an array of goods for sale at various prices, with some money one has the option to purchase any combination of these goods, within the budget constraint set by the amount of money one has. What money can purchase in a given society depends on the state of its economy and also on legal and cultural norms that may limit in various ways what is allowed to be put up for sale. For example, the laws may forbid the sale of sexual activity, human organs intended for transplant, the right to become a parent of a particular child by adoption, narcotic drugs, and so on. What money can purchase also obviously depends on what one is free to do with whatever one purchases—one may catch fish with the fishing rod one purchases only with a license and in accordance with rules issued by the state agency that regulates fishing.
Leaving these complications in the background, one can appreciate that having money gives one effective freedom to engage in a wide variety of activities and experiences. One has the option to purchase any of many commodities and do with them whatever is legally and conventionally allowed, up to the limit of one's budget. The ideal of equality of income and wealth is roughly the ideal that people should enjoy this effective freedom to the same extent.
This ideal is attractive to some and repulsive to others. One serious objection is that to bring about and sustain the condition in which all people have the same amount of money would require continuous and extensive violation of people's Lockean rights, which as standardly understood include the right to gain more property than others possess by gift or trade or hard work. Another, closely related objection is that a regime of equal money could be maintained only by wrongful interference with people's liberty, because if money is distributed equally at one time people will choose to act in ways that over time will tend to result in unequal distribution of money at later times. (For the first objection, see Nozick 1974, chapter 7, for the second, see Walzer 1983.)
Another objection to the ideal of monetary equality is that its pursuit would inhibit people's engagement in wealth-creating and wealth-saving activity, and in the not very long run would reduce society's stock of wealth and make us all worse off in the terms of the effective freedom that was being equalized. Yet another objection is that people behave in ways that render them more and less deserving, and monetary good fortune is among the types of things that people come to deserve differentially.
The advocate of egalitarianism in the broad sense has some replies. Unless some substantive argument is given as to why Lockean rights should be accorded moral deference, the mere fact that equality conflicts with Lockean rights does not by itself impugn the ideal of equality. Maybe some purported “rights” should not be regarded as momentous, and their sacrifice to secure equality might be acceptable on balance. In the same vein, one might hold that the fact that continuous restriction of individual liberty is needed to satisfy some norm does not by itself tell us whether the moral gain from satisfying the ideal is worth the moral cost of lessened freedom. Some restrictions of liberty are undeniably worth their cost, and some ideal of equality might be among the values that warrant some sacrifice of liberty.
Equality might be upheld as one value among others, and increase in wealth or in wealth per capita may be included along with equality in a pluralistic ethics. We may want more effective freedom (of the sort money combined with goods for sale provides), and we may also want this freedom equally distributed, and then we would need to find an acceptable compromise of these values to deal with cases when they conflict in practice. Much the same might be said about the conflict between the achievement of equality of money and the distribution of good fortune according to people's differential desert.
Monetary equality can strike one as a misguided ideal for the different reason that it does not deal in what is of fundamental importance. The value of purchasing power, equal or unequal, depends on the value of what is for sale. Imagine that the economy of a society is organized so it produces only trivial knick-knacks. Freedom to purchase trivia is a trivial freedom, and rendering it equal does not significantly improve matters. (Critics of consumerism and consumer culture are moved by the idea that in actual modern societies, the economy, responsive to consumer demand, is responsive to demands for what is not very worthwhile and ignores many truly important human goods, that either happen to be not for sale or that by their nature are not suitable for sale on a market.)
Another concern about monetary equality is that purchasing power interacts with individuals' personal powers and traits, and real freedom reflects the interaction, which an emphasis on purchasing power alone conceals. Consider two persons, one of whom is blind, legless, and armless, while the other has good eyesight and full use of her limbs. Given equal money, the first must spend his money on devices and services to cope with his handicaps, while the second may purchase far more of what she likes. Here equality of purchasing power seems to leave the two very unequal in real freedom to live their lives as they choose. But the case of handicaps is just an extreme instance of what is always present, namely each individual has a set of traits and natural powers bestowed by genetic inheritance and early socialization, and these differ greatly across persons and greatly affect people's access to valuable ways to live.
One response to the problematic features of the monetary equality ideal is to shift to the notion of real freedom as that which an egalitarian morality should be concerned to equalize. Real or effective freedom contrasts with formal freedom. You are formally free to go to Canada just in case no law or convention backed by penalties prevents you from going and no one would coercively interfere if you attempted to travel there. In contrast, you are really or effectively free to go to Canada just in case this is an option that you may choose—if you choose to go and seriously try to go, you will get there, and if you do not choose to go and make a serious attempt to go, you do not get there. (One might lack formal freedom to do something yet be really free to do it, if one was able to evade or overcome the legal and extralegal obstacles to doing that thing.)
Another response to the problematic features of the monetary equality ideal aims to cope with the thought that freedom of purchasing power may not be of great importance. The response is to characterize what we should be equalizing in terms that directly express what is reasonably regarded as truly important.
Both responses are present in a proposal made by Amartya Sen in several publications beginning in 1980 (see Sen 1980 and 1992 and the references cited in Sen 1992). Sen suggests that in so far as we should value equality of condition, what we should value is equal real freedom, and more specifically basic functioning capability equality. People may function—do or be something—in any of a huge number of ways. Consider all of the different ways that one might function variously. Many of these are trivial or of little importance; set these to the side. Consider then basic functionings, functionings that are essential or important for human flourishing or valuable agency. Consider all of the packages of functionings that an individual at a time is really free to choose all at once; these are one's capabilities at a time. We may also consider an individual's basic capabilities over the life course. The proposal is that society should sustain basic capability equality. (Care must be taken in identifying an individual's capability sets, since what others choose may affect the freedom one has. One may have the option of choosing the functioning of attending college, but only if not too many persons in one's high school cohort make the same choice.)
We might construe “basic capability” as picking out one of the capabilities needed for a minimally decent life. For example, being able to obtain enjoyment in life and gain scientific knowledge that meet threshold levels deemed “good enough” suffice to give one basic enjoyment and basic knowledge capabilities. Above that threshold level for each capability, differences in the level of capability that people can attain do not signify—they do not change the fact that everyone does or does not enjoy equal basic capabilities. To get equal basic capability for everyone would be to get each person at or above the threshold level for every one of the capabilities that are specified to be necessary for a minimally decent or good enough life. So understood, the basic capability proposal falls in the family of sufficientarian ideals; on which, see the section on “Sufficiency” below.
The capability approach to equality can be developed in different ways depending on how basic capabilities are identified.
Some theorists have explored the capability approach by tying it to an objective account of human well-being or flourishing. The aim is to identify all of the functionings needed for human flourishing. For each of these functionings, the ideal is that each person should be sustained in the capability to engage in every one of these functionings at a satisfactory or good enough level. (See Nussbaum 1990, 1992, and 1999.)
Another use of the capability approach ties it to the idea of what is needed for each person to function as a full participating member of modern democratic society. Each person is to be sustained throughout her life, so far as this is feasible, in the capabilities to function at a satisfactory level in all of the ways necessary for full membership and participation in democratic society. (See Anderson 1999 and Walzer 1983.)
It should be noted that the capability approach as described so far might seem to involve the assumption that anything whatever that reduces or expands an individual's real freedom to function in ways that are valuable should trigger a response on the part of a society or agency that aims to establish and sustain capability equality. This appearance is misleading in at least two different ways. For one thing, Sen clearly wants to allow that one's capabilities can increase by virtue of gaining opportunities to function even though one does not get real freedom to accept or decline the opportunities. Consider the capability to be free of malaria, which opens many malaria-free life options, when the capability is obtained by public health measures beyond the power of the individual agent to control. Also, if what one embraces is basic capability equality for all, then by implication one is countenancing that there may be non-basic capabilities, providing which to all is not required. But even if we amend our conception of capabilities to accommodate these points, one might still deny that every reduction or threat to an individual's (basic) capabilities poses a social justice issue while otherwise working within the capability framework.
One might distinguish aspects of a person's situation that are socially caused from those that are naturally caused. This distinction is evidently rough and needs refinement, but one has some sense of what is intended. That I am unable to run fast or sing a tune on key may be largely due to my genetic endowment, which in this context we may take to be naturally rather than socially caused. In contrast, the facts that given the talents of others and their choices to use them in market interaction, my running ability is nonmarketable but my singing ability enables me to have a career as a professional singer are deemed socially caused. That I have a certain physical appearance is natural (any of a wide variety of childrearing regimens would have produced pretty much this same physical appearance) but that my appearance renders me ineligible for marriage or romantic liaisons is a social fact (social arrangements bring this about and different social arrangements might undo it). Even if my natural physical appearance repels any marital or romantic partners I might seek, society might provide me charm lessons or cosmetic surgery or promulgate an egalitarian norm that encourages the charming and the physically attractive not to shun my company (or institute some mix of these three strategies or some others).
However exactly the natural and social are distinguished, one might restrict the scope of an equality ideal to the smoothing out of socially caused inequalities. As Elizabeth Anderson remarks, “The proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which by definition is socially imposed” (Anderson 1999, 288). What this restriction amounts to depends on how one distinguishes socially caused from other inequalities. Suppose that society pursues policy A, and that if it pursued policy B instead, a given inequality across people would disappear. Does this fact suffice to qualify the inequality as socially caused or not?
Critics of the capability approach home in on three of its features.
The starting point of the capability approach is that the equality that matters morality or that we are morally required to sustain is equality of freedom of some sort. This starting point is open to challenge. Freedom is no doubt important as a means to many other goods and as something everyone cares about to some considerable extent. But why confine the concern of equality to freedom rather than to achieved outcomes? Suppose that we could supply resources to Smith that will expand her freedom to achieve outcomes she has good reason to value, but we happen to know that this freedom will do nobody any good. She will neglect it and it will be wasted. In these circumstances, why supply the resources? If provision of freedom for its own sake is morally of first-priority importance, then the fact that freedom in this instance will do nobody any good would seem to be an irrelevant consideration. If this fact seems highly pertinent to what we should do, this indicates that freedom may not be the ultimate value the distribution of which is the proper concern of an equality ideal. (A version of this objection can be lodged by advocates of any type of doctrine of equality of outcome against any type of doctrine of equal opportunity for outcomes.)
Another feature of the capability approach as elaborated to this point is that it does not appear to register the significance of personal responsibility as it might appropriately qualify the formulation of an equality ideal (Roemer 1996 and 1998). A simple example illustrates the difficulty. Suppose society is dedicated to sustaining all of its members equally at some level of basic capability. Society provides resources fully adequate for sustaining an individual at this level of basic capability, but he frivolously and negligently squanders the resources. The resources are re-supplied, and squandered again, and the cycle continues. At some point in the cycle, many people would urge that the responsibility of society has been fulfilled, and that it is the individual's responsibility to use provided resources in reasonable ways, if his lack of adequate basic capability is to warrant a claim to equality-restoring social intervention. The capability approach could of course be modified to accommodate responsibility concerns. But it will be useful to turn to consideration of the resourcist approach, within which the aim of integrating equality and responsibility has prompted various proposals.
A third feature of the capability approach that has elicited criticism is the idea that knowledge of human flourishing and what facilitates it must inform the identification of an adequate equality norm. The worry in a nutshell is that in modern societies that secure wide freedoms, people will embrace many opposed conceptions of how to live and of what is choiceworthy in human life. These are matters about which we must agree to disagree. At least if an ideal of equality is being constructed to serve in a public conception of justice that establishes basic terms of morality for a modern democratic society, this ideal must eschew controversial claims about human good and human flourishing such as those in which the capability approach must become embroiled. Martha Nussbaum explores how the capability approach to social equality might function appropriately as a public conception of justice (Nussbaum 2000). Charles Larmore argues that it is wrong for government to impose a policy that could only be justified by appeal to the claim that some controversial conception of the good is superior to another (Larmore 1987 and 1996; for criticism of the neutrality requirement, see Raz 1986 and Sher 1997). In response it might be urged that a conception of human capabilities might be controversial but true and, if known to be true, appropriately imposed by government policy.
The ideal of equality of resources can be understood by recognizing its primary enemies. These enemies comprise all manner of proposals that suppose that in so far as we should care about equality of condition across persons, what we should care about equalizing is some function of the utility or welfare or well-being or good that persons attain over the course of their lives. (There is a complication here, because the resource-oriented approach also opposes the capability approach, which so to speak stands midway between resources and welfare. This raises the question whether the capability approach is an unstable compromise (see Dworkin 2000, chapter 7). This issue surfaces for discussion eleven paragraphs down in this section.) John Rawls offers an especially clear statement of the animating impulse of the equality of resources ideal. He imagines someone proposing that the relevant measure of people's condition for a theory of justice is their level of plan fulfillment or attained satisfaction, and responds that his favored conception “takes a different view. For it does not look behind the use which persons make of the rights and opportunities available to them in order to measure, much less to maximize, the satisfactions they achieve. Nor does it try to evaluate the relative merits of different conceptions of the good. Instead, it is assumed that the members of society are rational persons able to adjust their conceptions of the good to their situation.” (See Rawls 1971, section 15.) Resourcist ideals of equality of condition are non-welfarist.
Several thoughts are intertwined here. One is that equality of condition must be developed as a component of an acceptable theory of justice, intended to be the basic charter of a democratic society and acceptable to all reasonable members of such a society, who are presumed to be disposed to disagree interminably about many ultimate issues concerning religion and the meaning and worth of human life (Rawls 2005). We must seek reasonable terms of cooperation that people who disagree about much can nonetheless accept. If there is anything that people cannot reasonably be expected to agree about, it is what constitutes human good, so introducing a controversial conception of human good as part and parcel of the ideal of equality that is to be at the core of the principles of justice is a bad mistake.
Another thought is that responsible individuals will consider themselves to have a personal obligation, which cannot be shifted to the government or any agency of society, to decide for themselves what is worthwhile in human life and what is worth seeking and to fashion (and refashion as changing circumstances warrant) a plan of life to achieve worthwhile ends. So even if the true theory of human good could be discovered, it would offend the dignity and sense of responsibility of individual persons for some agency of society to preempt this individual responsibility by arranging matters so that everyone achieves human good understood a certain way to a sufficiently high degree. Individuals should take responsibility for their ends. (See Rawls 1971, Rakowski 1992, Dworkin 2000, and for a different view, Fleurbaey 2008).
Another thought that motivates the family of equality-of-resources ideals is that society's obligations by way of providing for its members are limited. A just and egalitarian society is not plausibly held to be obligated to do whatever turns out to be necessary to bring it about that their members attain any given level or share of quality of life. The reason for this is that the quality of life (the degree to which one attains valuable agency and well-being goals) that any individual reaches over the course of her life depends on many choices and actions taken by that very individual, so to a considerable extent, the quality of life one reaches must be up to oneself, not the job of society or some agency acting on behalf of society. Along these lines, the actual course of an individual's life and the degree of fulfillment it reaches also depend on many chance factors for which nobody can reasonably be held accountable. Justice is a practical ideal, not a Don Quixote conception that aims to correct all bad luck of any sort that befalls persons. A reasonable morality understands the social justice obligations of society as limited, not open-ended and unbounded. So if equality of condition is part of social justice, it too must reflect an appropriately limited conception of social responsibility. Equality of resources fills this bill. (See Daniels 1990 and chapters 3 and 4 of Buchanan et al. 2000.)
The trick then is to develop an appropriate conception of resources that can serve in an ideal of equality of condition.
Resources can be external, material goods, such as land and moveable property. One can also extend the domain, and consider traits of persons that are latent talents or instruments that help them to achieve their ends as also included within the set of resources to be equalized. Extending the domain in this way will introduce complexity into the account, because personal talents are attached to persons and cannot simply be transferred to others who lack talent. What one can do is take people's variously valuable personal talents into account in determining how material resources should be distributed so as to achieve an overall distribution that should register as (sufficiently) equal. If Smith lacks good legs, this personal resource deficit might be offset by assigning Smith extra resources so he can buy a wheelchair or other mobility device.
Notice that in elaborating equality of resources, it is assumed that a population of individuals with given traits, generated by genetic inheritance and early socialization, is present, and equalization is to proceed by adjusting features of the individuals' environment or by altering features of the individuals, say by extra education. But of course, moral questions may also be raised about the processes by which individuals come to be born and given early socialization so as to endow them with certain traits. With genetic information about an individual made available to prospective parents before the individual is born, a decision can be made about whether to bring this child to term. In the future, genetic enhancements may be available that can alter the genetic makeup of individuals, and again a morality must consider when enhancements should be supplied and by whom. Raising these questions makes it evident that just assuming an initial population of individuals with given traits takes for granted matters that are very much morally up for grabs (see Buchanan et al. 2000). For the purposes of this entry, this complication is noted only to be set aside.
How can resources be identified and rated? We want to be able to say, given two persons each with different amounts of resources, which one has more resources overall. The literature to date reveals two ways of confronting the question. One has been developed by John Rawls (Rawls 1971), one by Ronald Dworkin (Dworkin, 2000).
Rawls suggests that the conception of resources to be deployed in a resourcist ideal of equality is primary social goods. These are defined as distributable goods that a rational person prefers to have more rather than less of, whatever else she wants. (A variant conception identifies them as goods that any rational person would want who gives priority to her interests in (1) cooperating with others on fair terms and (2) selecting and if need be revising a conception of the good and a set of life aims along with pursuing the conception and the aims.) On this approach it is not so far clear how to measure a person's holding of social primary goods overall if there are various primary goods and one has different amounts of the different kinds. The primary goods approach has yet to be developed in detail. Rawls has suggested that the scope of this problem of devising an index of primary goods is lessened by giving some primary goods, the basic liberties, priority over the rest. For the remainder, Rawls suggests that the relative weight of primary goods can be set by considering what people (regarded as free and equal citizens) need. (See Rawls 2001, section 17.)
Rawls does not propose the primary goods approach as adequate to guide us in figuring out what egalitarianism requires by way of compensation for those with serious personal talent deficits. His account assumes that we are dealing with normal individuals who enjoy good health and have the normal range of abilities. In his account, the problem of deciding what an egalitarian approach requires by way of helping (for example) the disabled is to be handled separately, as a supplement to the primary goods account.
The problem of the handicapped is the tip of the iceberg according to the capabilities approach advocate. All people vary enormously in their personal traits, and these traits interact with their material resources and other features of their circumstances to determine what each one is able to do and be with a given resource share. Since we care about what we can do and be with our resources, merely focusing attention on the resources as the primary goods advocate does is inherently fetishistic. The Rawlsian focuses on the distribution of stuff, but we do not care about the distribution of stuff except insofar as the stuff distribution affects the distribution of capability or real freedom. This is in a nutshell the capability approach criticism of primary goods forms of resourcism.
To some this critique of resourcism appears unstable. The capability theorist criticizes the resourcist for tying the idea of just distribution to the idea of fair shares of resources, but resources are not what ultimately matter to us. But this criticism can be turned against the capability theorist. Ultimately each of us wants to lead a good, choiceworthy life, one that is rich in fulfillment, and not merely to lead a life that has as its backdrop lots of options or capabilities among which one can choose. One wants a good life, not just good options. More options in some circumstances might predictably lead to a worse life. With a moderate level of resources (or capabilities) I might live well, whereas with more resources (or capabilities) I might choose heroin or methamphetamine and live badly. Ultimately we are concerned with welfare (living well) and only secondarily with capabilities (abilities and opportunities to live well). In this light, from the welfarist standpoint, the capability approach looks fetishistic, just as from the capability standpoint, the primary goods approach to the measure of people's condition for purposes of deciding what constitutes an equal (or more broadly, a fair) distribution looks to be fetishistic. (The worry that the capabilities approach is an unstable compromise, without endorsement of the welfarist alternative, is voiced in Dworkin 2000, chapter 7.)
The Rawlsian will reply that it is not the proper business of government to be rating and assessing people's personal traits as the capabilities approach and welfarist approaches require. Respect for persons dictates that the state must respect its citizens by not looking beyond resource shares to assess what individuals can do with them and actually do with them (Carter 2011).
Dworkin's approach begins with the idea that the measure of a resource that one person holds is what others would be willing to give up to get it. From this standpoint competitive market prices are the appropriate measure of the resources one possesses: In particular, the division of a lot of resources among a group of people is equal when all are given equal purchasing power for the occasion and all the resources are sold off in an auction in which no one's bids are final until no one wants to change her bids given the bids of the others.
This equal auction is just a first approximation to Dworkin's proposal. Two complications need to be introduced. One is that one ought to extend the domain of resources to include personal talents as well as external property. A second is that equality of resources as conceived in this construction supposes that the results of unchosen luck, but not chosen option luck, should be equalized.
Take the second wrinkle first. If we start from an initial equality of resources brought about by the equal auction mechanism, individuals might then go on to use and invest and spend their resource allotments in various ways. Assume the rules mediating their interaction are set and morally unproblematic. Roughly speaking, we say people are free to interact with others on any mutually agreeable terms but not to impose the costs of their activities on others without the mediation of voluntary consent. Starting from an initial equality of resources, any results that issue from voluntary interactions reiterated over time do not offend against the equality ideal. Let voluntary choice and chosen luck prevail.
The first wrinkle is that individuals differ in their unchosen natural talent resource allotments. These should somehow be equalized. But how? The Dworkin proposal is that we can in thought establish an insurance market, in which people who do not know whether they will be born disabled (afflicted with negative talents) and do not know what market price their positive talents will fetch, can insure themselves in a variant of the equal purchasing power auction against the possibility of being handicapped or having talents that fetch low market price. In this way in thought unchosen luck is transformed into morally inoffensive chosen luck (so far as this is thinkable).
The final Dworkin proposal then is that the thought experiment of the equal auction modified as above is used to estimate in actual circumstances in a rough and ready way who is worse off and who better off than others through no choice of her own. A tax and transfer policy is instituted then that tries to mimic the results of the imaginary equal auction and hypothetical insurance market. To the extent that we establish and sustain such policies—voila!—we have equality of resources across the members of an actual society. (See Dworkin 2000).
The Dworkin proposal is noteworthy for its integration of themes of equality and personal responsibility in a single conception. But the moral appropriateness of linking these themes in the particular way that he espouses is open to question.
One concern arises from the theoretical role that hypothetical insurance markets are to play in the determination of what is to count as equality of resources. This role assumes increasing prominence in Dworkin's later work (Dworkin 2000, chapters 8–13; also Dworkin 20–11, Part 5, especially chapter 16). Dworkin eventually defines the equal distribution of privately held resources as the one that would issue from an initial auction in which all have equal bidding power to purchase materials resources, supplemented by hypothetical insurance markets against the possibility of suffering the bad brute luck of handicap or low marketable talent. From then on, ordinary market relations govern relations among individuals, and their upshot does not impugn the equality of the initial staring point unless new forms of brute luck intervene. For these Dworkin imagines further hypothetical insurance markets, in which the appropriate compensation for post-initial-auction bad brute luck is set by the average level of insurance that people would have purchased if they knew the incidence of the bad brute luck, its impact on people, and the available devices for mitigating it, but not their personal chances of suffering the bad brute luck. Given this background, just policies in actual societies should aim to mimic the results of these hypothetical equal mechanisms. In this exercise, we seek to undo the effect of brute luck but not option luck, that former being luck that falls on you in ways beyond your power to control and the latter being luck that you can avoid, and maybe reasonably avoid, by voluntary choice.
Notice the transition from (1) the insurance decisions you actually make to (2) the insurance decisions you would have made under imagined equal circumstances to (3) the insurance decisions the average member of society would have made under hypothetical equal circumstances. One might wonder for a start why the last of these should be normative for determining what we owe to Sally, who was raised in poverty and became paraplegic after a ski accident. Counterfactuals about what the average person would have done are arguably of doubtful relevance and counterfactuals about what a particular individual would have done in wildly different circumstances may generally lack truth value.
The distinction between brute luck and option luck does not exhaust the possibilities. Most luck is a bit of both. Option luck varies by degree, but it is unclear how the determination of equality of resources should accommodate this fact. Moreover, the insurance decisions on which Dworkin's procedures rely clearly mix together the brute and option luck he wants to separate. In deciding on hypothetical insurance for health care one will take account of the likelihood that one will engage in imprudent behavior that will affect one's health status.
Others point out that what insurance you would have purchased against a brute luck calamity might not intuitively align with the different notion, what compensation for suffering the calamity is appropriate. The simplest way to see this is that for many people, money will have more use if one is healthy and normal than if one is plagued with physical disability, so given a hypothetical choice to insure for handicaps, one might prefer an insurance policy that gives one less income if one is handicapped and more income if one is not. The insurance decision may be reasonable but the idea that on this basis we ought to be forcibly transferring wealth away from handicapped people and distributing the resources to the non-handicapped is arguably not reasonable (Roemer 2002, and for more far-reaching doubts about hypothetical insurance, Fleurbaey 2008).
Setting to the side the details of Dworkin's construction, we can ask about the prospects of the general project he pursues. The starting point, which some had considered prior to Dworkin's contribution, is to consider what we should count as an equal distribution when people have different goods and they have different preferences over these goods. The basic idea is to treat as an equal distribution of resources one which no one prefers to alter—no one prefers any other person's pile of resources to her own. This fairness test does not require interpersonal comparison of welfare, hence has an appeal if interpersonal comparison is incoherent or ethically problematic. No-envy is not generally satisfiable, but there is a family of fairness norms that could be construed as egalitarian criteria for assessing distributions and that is resourcist in the basic sense of eschewing interpersonal welfare comparisons. Suppose we can separate for each person her features for which she should be held responsible and her features for which she should not be held responsible. One fairness norm says that egalitarian transfers should not vary depending on people's features for which they should be held responsible. Another fairness norm says that people with the same features for which they should be held responsible should be treated the same. In the general case, we cannot fulfill both of these norms, but a whole gamut of compromises between them can be identified and have been studied (mainly by economists). The Dworkin view occupies just one point in a large space of possibilities. As is already evident, some of these criteria relax to some degree (or even entirely dispense with) the Dworkin insistence on personal responsibility—the idea that each person is responsible for her choices in the sense that no one is obligated to make good the shortfall in her condition if her choices turn out badly. (Dworkin's account has an extra wrinkle here: each person is responsible for her ambitions and what flows from them, and one's ambitions are one's desires that one is glad to have, does not repudiate). The vision of personal responsibility that is integral to Dworkin's approach does not characterize the broader family of resourcist distributive fairness doctrines that eschews interpersonal welfare comparisons and investigates variants of the no-envy test (see Fleurbaey 2008 for an accessible survey and somewhat skeptical exploration, and Varian 1974 for an early contribution).
Go back to the idea that a viable account of equal distribution must be appropriately sensitive to personal responsibility by dictating compensation for unchosen endowments but not for ambition and choice. The most far-reaching skepticism on this point denies that personal responsibility can be more than instrumentally valuable, a tool for securing other values. One might hold that in a world in which human choices are events and all events are caused by prior events according to physical laws, responsibility can make sense pragmatically and instrumentally in various settings but does not really make good normative sense under scrutiny. One might reach a similar result by noting that even if persons are truly responsible for making some choices rather than others, what we could reasonably be held responsible for and what surely lies beyond our power to control run together to produce actual results and cannot be disentangled. On this view, if we care about equality, we should seek not responsibility-modified equality but straight equality of condition, using responsibility norms only as incentives and prods to bring about equality (or a close enough approximation to it) at a higher level of material well-being.
Another sort of skepticism challenges whether the broad project of holding people responsible for their chosen luck but not for their unchosen luck really makes sense, because unchosen luck of genetic inheritance and early socialization fixes the individual's choice-making and value-selecting abilities. What one chooses, bad or good, may simply reflect the unchosen luck that gave one the ability to be a good or a bad chooser. Suppose for example that Smith chooses to experiment with cigarettes and heroin, and these gambles turn out badly in the form of contraction of lung cancer and long-term hard drug addiction. He is then far worse off than others, but his bad fortune comes about through his own choice—hence is not compensable according to Dworkinian equality of resources. But that Smith chooses these bad gambles and Jones does not may simply reflect the unchosen bad luck that Smith had in his genetic inheritance and early socialization. So holding him fully responsible for the fortune he encounters through chosen gambles may make no sense if we follow through the underlying logic of the Dworkin proposal itself. This takes us back to welfarist equality conceptions, which the resourcist theorist wishes to steer away from at all cost (Roemer 1985 and 1986).
3.6 Welfare and Opportunity for Welfare
The ideal of equality of welfare holds that it is desirable that the amount of human good gained by each person for herself (and by others for her) over the course of her life should be the same. Human good, also known as welfare or well-being or utility, is what an individual gets insofar as her life goes well for herself (Parfit 1984, Appendix I).). This awkward phrase is meant to distinguish one's life going well for oneself, as one would wish one's life to go from the standpoint of rational prudence, and its going well by way of producing good that enters the lives of other people or animals or fulfills some impersonal good cause. Suppose my life in its entirety consists in sticking my finger in a dike and slowly painfully freezing to death, like the little Dutch boy in the children's fable. So lived, this life produces lots of good for millions of people saved from flood and drowning, but for me it produces no good, just slow misery. The life just imagined is a good in the sense of morally admirable life but not a life that contains much welfare or human good for the one living it.
The background thought is then that morality is concerned with the production and fair distribution of human good. Nothing else ultimately matters (except animal and nonhuman person welfare, but leave these important qualifications aside). So to the extent we believe that fair distribution is equal distribution, that morality requires that everyone get the same, what everyone should then have the same of is human good or welfare or well-being.
To work out this conception of equality of condition would involve determining what account of the nature of human good is most plausible. One account is hedonism, which holds the good to be pleasure and absence of pain. Pleasure and the absence of pain might be identified with happiness, but there are alternative accounts of happiness. For example, one might hold that a person is happy at a time just in case she is satisfied with how her life is going at that time, and happy regarding her life as a whole up to now to the degree she is satisfied with how her life has gone as a whole up to now. If one identifies the good with happiness according to this or another construal of what it is to be happy, we have a non-hedonic happiness account of human good (Sumner 1996, Haybron 2008, and Feldman 2010). Another account identifies the good with desire satisfaction or life aim fulfillment. A variant of this last approach holds that the relevant aims and desires are those that would withstand ideal reflection with full information unmarred by cognitive error (such as adding two and two and getting five). A quite different account supposes that the good is constituted by the items on a list of objectively valuable beings and doings. The more the individual attains the items on the objective list over the course of her life, the better her life goes, whatever her subjective opinions and attitudes about such attainments might be. There are also hybrid views, such as that the good is valuable achievement that one enjoys, or that the good is getting what one wants for its own sake in so far as what one wants and gets is also objectively valuable (Parfit 1984, Appendix I; Adams 1999, chapter 3). The most plausible conception of the ideal of equality of welfare incorporates whatever is the best theory of human good or welfare. (In this connection see Griffin 1986 and Hurka 1990.)
Any such account bumps into problems concerning personal responsibility and the sense that the obligations of society are limited—problems already mentioned in this discussion. A society bent on sustaining equality of welfare would continue pouring resources down the drain if worse off individuals insist on negligently squandering whatever resources are expended on them in order to boost their welfare level up to the average level. One might respond to this responsibility challenge by stipulating that equality is only desirable on the condition that individuals are equally responsible or deserving: It is bad if some are worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own. In a slogan, one might assert an ideal of equality of opportunity for welfare. (See Cohen 1989, Arneson 1989, and for criticism Rakowski 1992, Fleurbaey 1995, Scanlon 1997, and Wolff 1998).
Another criticism does not so much challenge the welfarist interpretation of equality of condition but presses the issue, how much weight any such equality of condition ideal should have in competition with other values. Imagine for example that some people, the severely disabled, are far worse off than others, and are through no fault or choice of their own extremely poor transformers of resources into welfare. A society bent on sustaining equality of welfare or equal opportunity for welfare as a first priority would be obligated to continue transferring resources from better off to worse off no matter how many better off people must then suffer any amount of welfare loss just so long as the pertinent welfare condition of a single still worse off individual can be improved even by a tiny amount.
Another criticism challenges the welfarist conceptions of equality of condition directly. One observes that in a diverse modern society, individuals will reasonably disagree about what is ultimately good and worthwhile in human life. Hence no conception of welfare is available to serve as a consensus standard for a public morality acceptable to all reasonable persons. In a similar spirit, one might invoke the idea that responsible individuals cannot acquiesce in the assumption of the responsibility on the part of the government to determine what is worthwhile and choiceworthy for them, for this responsibility rests squarely on each individual's shoulders and cannot legitimately be dislodged from that perch. (See especially Dworkin, 2000, chapter 7, also Arneson 2000.)
Notice that equality of welfare and equal opportunity for welfare do not exhaust the welfarist egalitarian alternatives. Take the example of a view that is oriented to equality of perfectionist achievement (achievement of objectively valuable achievements of a kind that make one's life go better for oneself). One might hold that what is morally valuable and ought to be promoted is equality of achievement, or equal opportunity for achievement, or another view along the lines of equal achievement of one's potential or equal opportunity to achieve one's potential. Say that each person has a native talent for achievement. I have little native talent; you have a lot. Egalitarianism might be construed as requiring that so far as is possible, social arrangements be set so that each of us achieves, or can achieve, the same percentage of his native potential over the course of her life. Everyone's ratio of actual achievement to native potential for achievement should be the same. So my having the opportunity to achieve little, and my actually achieving little, compared to you, on this conception would not necessarily offend against the egalitarian ideal (see McMahan 1996, and for the thought that measurement of achievements on a single scale is chimerical, Raz 1986).
3.7 Conclusion: A Test Case
Philosophical discussions of what should be equalized if we care about equality of condition raise dust that has not yet settled in any sort of consensus. All the rival views canvassed encounter difficulties, the seriousness of which is at present hard to discern.
It should be noted that the issue, how to measure people's condition for purposes of a theory of equality, connects to a broader issue, how to measure people's condition for purposes of a theory of fair distribution. Equality is just one of the possible views that might be taken as to what fair treatment requires. (For example, the sufficientarian and prioritarian principles discussed in the text below both admit of resourcist and welfarist and “capabilitist” variants.) Any theory of distributive justice that says that sometimes better off persons should improve the situation of worse off persons requires an account of the basis of interpersonal comparisons that enables us to determine who is better off and who is worse off.
Finally, the reader might wish to test the merits of rival answers to the equality-of-what question by considering a social justice issue different in character from the issues considered so far. Suppose a society is divided into two or more linguistic communities, one being by far the most populous. The language of the dominant community is the official language of public life, and a minority linguistic group demands redress in the name of social equality. The minority group seeks government action to help sustain and promote the survival and flourishing of the minority linguistic community. For another example, suppose a modern democratic society contains more or less intact remnants of hunter-gatherer bands who claim in the name of social equality the right to withdraw from the larger surrounding society and practice their traditional way of life and run their affairs autonomously. How should a society committed to an ideal of equality of condition handle this type of issue? (See Kymlicka 1995, Young 1990, Anderson 1999, and Barry 2001.)
4. Relational Equality
The discussion so far presupposes that an egalitarian holds that in some respect people should get the same or be accorded the same treatment. There are other possibilities. One is the idea that in an egalitarian society people should relate to one another as equals or should enjoy the same fundamental status (and also perhaps the same rank and power).
Relational equality ideals are often coupled with the ideal of equal democratic citizenship. On this view, in an egalitarian society, all permanent adult members of society are equal citizens, equal in political rights and duties, including the right to an equal vote in democratic elections that determine who shall be top public officials and lawmakers responsible for enacting laws and public policies enforced on all. An ideal of social equality complements political equality norms. The idea is that citizens might be unequal in wealth, resources, welfare, and other dimensions of their condition, yet be equal in status in a way that enables all to relate as equals. On this approach, an egalitarian society contrasts sharply with a society of caste or class hierarchy, in which the public culture singles out some as inferior and some as superior, and contrasts also with a society with a dictatorial or authoritarian political system, accompanied by socially required kowtowing of ordinary members of society toward political elites.
From the standpoint of the relational equality versions of egalitarianism, equality of condition doctrines get the moral priorities backward. These doctrines make a fetish of what should not matter to us, or should not matter very much. A better approach is to look at distributive justice issues by asking what social and distributive arrangements are needed to establish and sustain a society of free, equal people, a society in which individuals all relate as equals. When the question is posed in this way, relational equality advocates sometimes claim to discern a new strong case for embracing a sufficientarian approach to distributive justice. That some people have more money than others is not an impediment to a society of equals, the argument goes. But if some are so poor they are effectively excluded from market society or pushed to its margins, they are in effect branded as socially inferior, which offends against relational equality. Some philosophers argue for some restriction on the size of the gap between richest and poorest that society tolerates, again as what is needed to sustain a society of equals. Others might see the difference principle as required for the same purpose. Some also pleas for institutional insulation of the political and some social spheres so as to protect these as realms of equality from the corrosive influence of economic inequality (Walzer 1983 and Rawls 2005, Lecture VIII).
The ideal of a just modern society as a democratic society in which citizens relate as equals appears in writings by Michael Walzer on social justice (Walzer, 1983). Elizabeth Anderson and Samuel Scheffler both affirm versions of relational equality and from this standpoint criticize the family of views that Anderson calls “luck egalitarian,” whose foremost exponents are perhaps G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin (Cohen 1989, Anderson 1999, Scheffler 2010, chapters 7 and 8, Dworkin 2000, and for responses to criticisms, Dworkin 2003 and 2010 and Arneson 2004). According to Anderson, the luck egalitarian holds that unchosen and uncourted inequalities ought to be eliminated and that chosen and courted inequalities should be left standing). She criticizes these views on several grounds. One is that the luck egalitarian wrongly takes the aim of egalitarian justice to be achieving an equal distribution of stuff rather than egalitarian solidarity and respect among members of society. Another is that the policy recommendations implied by luck egalitarian principles are too harsh in their dealings with people who fare badly but are deemed personally responsible for their plight (see also Fleurbaey 1995). A third is that the luck egalitarian, in order to establish that people who are badly off are owed equalizing compensation, must involve distributive agencies in intrusive and disrespectful inquiries that issue in public negative assessments of people's traits as grounding the conclusion that these unfortunate individuals are not properly held personally responsible for their misfortune (see also Wolff 1998). A related criticism is that luck egalitarianism adopts a moralizing posture toward individual wayward choice that would make sense only if free will libertarianism were correct (Scheffler 2010).
A further criticism is that the luck egalitarian supposes that if we aim to undo unchosen luck, this aim somehow provides an underlying justification for some form of equal distribution (Hurley 2003). It is not clear that undoing the influence of unchosen luck has anything to do with promoting equal distribution: consider that sometimes via unchosen luck people end up equally well off. A better strategy is for the luck egalitarian to start with the intuitive idea that distribution should be equal and then allow that this presumption for equality can be taken away when people could sustain equal distribution and instead end up unequally well off via individual choices. Equality is deemed morally valuable on the condition that inequality does not emerge from choices for which people are reasonably held responsible.
Another criticism of luck egalitarianism, pressed by Scheffler and especially Anderson, is that the doctrine engenders an inappropriate expansion of what is deemed to be the legitimate business of the state. Suppose we distinguish roughly between misfortune that is imposed on people by social action and social arrangements and misfortune that just falls on people without being imposed by anyone. The distinction draws a line between inequality due to society and inequality due to nature. In the words of Anderson, “the proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which by definition is socially imposed” (Anderson 1999).
Relational equality ideals might be regarded either as required by justice or as not required by justice or other morally mandatory principles, rather as morally optional. Or a component of social equality might count as a justice requirement while another component is treated as a part of a broader social ideal that is desirable but not mandatory.
The idea of relating as equals can be construed in different ways. Samuel Scheffler suggests one specification when he writes that “we believe that there is something valuable about human relationships that are, in certain crucial respects at least, unstructured by differences of rank, power, or status” (Scheffler 2010, 225). The idea is that equality of rank, power, and status is both instrumentally valuable and valuable for its own sake. He immediately notes that such differences are ubiquitous in the social life of modern industrial democracies, so equality so understood is puzzling. If the ideal calls on us to tear down and completely restructure the social life of modern industrial democracies, it looks problematic. Why accept this demand? If one qualifies and hedges the ideal, so it is less revisionary, then the question arises, what is the basis for drawing these lines of qualification and hedge.
At this point the advocate of an equality of condition doctrine in the luck egalitarian range may see an opening. The advocate may urge that we should regard inequalities in rank, power, and status not as desirable or undesirable in themselves but in purely instrumental terms, as means or impediments to fundamental justice goals, the ones identified by the best version of luck egalitarianism. For example, a welfarist luck egalitarian will say that the inequalities in rank, power, and status that we should accept are those that contribute effectively to promoting good lives for people, taking account of fair distribution of good across individual persons. The inequalities that are impediments to promoting good lives for people, fairly distributed, we should oppose. The luck egalitarian will add that we should distinguish two different claims that might be asserted in holding that Schefflerian social equality is valuable. Social inequality might be affirmed either as morally wrong or as humanly bad, something a prudent person would seek to avoid. The luck egalitarian critic of this relational equality ideal is committed only to rejecting it as a proposal for the domain of moral right. If being on the lower rungs of a status hierarchy were per se a way in which one's life might go badly, like failing to attain significant achievement or to have healthy friendships, it would register in a luck egalitarian calculation of a person's situation that determines what we fundamentally owe one another—at least according to versions of luck egalitarianism that affirm a welfarist measure of people's condition.
Scheffler makes a suggestion as to how one might incorporate into the theory of justice a norm against certain inequalities of rank, power, and status and justify the selection of the “certain inequalities” that are singled out in this way. One might invoke the Rawlsian political liberalism project (Rawls, 2005). In this project what is rock-bottom is the idea of society as a system of fair cooperation among free and equal people. This idea is understood in philosophically noncommittal ways so that it can plausibly command support from all of the reasonable comprehensive conceptions of the right and the good affirmed by members of society and also from reasonable individuals who affirm no such comprehensive conception. The principles of justice are the principles people committed to this idea of social cooperation would affirm as capturing the core of their intuitive pre-theoretical commitment. Norms of relational equality that figure in this scheme would then qualify as principles of justice that all citizens of modern democracies can affirm, and to which we are already implicitly committed. To evaluate this suggestion one would have to examine and assess the Rawlsian political liberalism project.
An alternative construal of the relational equality ideal proposes that people in a society relate as equals when the society's political constitution is democratic and all members are enabled to be fully functioning members of democratic society (Walzer 1983, Anderson 1999). All are fully functioning members of democratic society when all are able to participate to a “good enough” extent in all of its core institutions and practices. So understood, the relational equality ideal becomes a version of the sufficiency doctrine (on which, see section 6.1 of this entry).
Relational equality advocates usually advance their equality ideal as a rival to other understandings of equality including luck egalitarianism. But these disparate equality ideals need not be opposed. For example, one could (1) affirm relational equality and hold that in a just society people should relate as free and equal and also (2) affirm luck egalitarianism and hold that people should be equal in their condition (according to their holdings and attainments of resources, capabilities, or welfare or according to some other measure) except that people's being less well off than others is acceptable if the worse off could have avoided this fate by reasonable voluntary choice. One could uphold both ideals even if they sometimes conflict. One could also mix and match elements of these different equality ideals. For example, one might hold that people should have equal status and relate as equals but add that one can legitimately be demoted to lesser status by being responsible for making bad choices or failing to make good choices. Along this line, even a staunch democratic equality advocate might allow that by virtue of committing a serious crime and being convicted of this offense one forfeits some citizenship rights at least for a time. Egregiously bad conduct might warrant exile. Along the same line, some benefits disbursed by a democratic state might be made conditional on specified forms of responsible choice. These moves would all involve qualifying the relational equality ideal by a luck egalitarian commitment to appropriate sensitivity to personal responsibility. On the other side, a luck egalitarian view might allow that in certain domains entitlement to equal treatment might be forfeitable by one's irresponsible choice but maintain that there is a floor of democratic equality status to which all members of society are unconditionally entitled. Taking this stance would be to qualify commitment to luck egalitarianism by a constraint of insistence on some democratic equality.
Luck egalitarianism could be a module or component in either a consequentialist or non-consequentialist moral doctrine. Luck egalitarianism might specify one goal or even the sole goal to be promoted in the former, or might be understood as a deontically required form of treatment in the latter. The same is true of the relational equality ideal. That people should relate as free and equal might be taken to be a goal to be promoted or an entitlement to be respected.