Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 825–839 | Cite as

Equal Opportunity, Responsibility, and Personal Identity

  • Ian CarterEmail author


According to the ‘starting-gate’ interpretation of equality of opportunity, individuals who enjoy equal starts can legitimately become unequal to the extent that their differences derive from choices for which they can be held responsible. There can be no coercive transfers of resources in favour of individuals who disregarded their own futures, and no limits on the right of an individual to distribute resources intrapersonally. This paper assesses two ways in which advocates of equality of opportunity might depart from the starting-gate interpretation. The first involves limiting the degree to which people are liable to pay the costs of their past choices. The second involves limiting their initial opportunities so as to prevent certain risky or apparently short-sighted choices. The paper compares these alternatives in terms of their compatibility with a particular conception of persons as morally equal and temporally extended. It constructs this conception by combining reductionist premises about personal identity with the premise that our status as equals is based on the fundamental requirement of opacity respect. Two conclusions about equality of opportunity are shown to follow from this conception of persons as morally equal and temporally extended: the first is that an individual’s liability to pay the costs of her past choices does not diminish over time; the second is that the individual’s initial scope of choice, in bringing about intrapersonal distributions between her current and future selves, can nevertheless be permissibly limited. The two conclusions are consistent, and the second allows for departures from starting-gate equality of opportunity.


Equality of opportunity Basic equality Responsibility Personal identity Agency Freedom 



For feedback on earlier versions of this article I am grateful to audiences at conferences in Pavia (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20th Anniversary Conference, June 2017) and Genova (Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy Mid-term Conference, December 2017), as well as to Patrick Tomlin and two anonymous referees.


  1. Arneson RJ (1989) Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare. Philos Stud 56:77–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bou-Habib P (2006) Compulsory insurance without paternalism. Utilitas 18:243–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Carter I (2011a) Respect and the basis of equality. Ethics 121:538–571CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carter I (2011b) Distributing freedom over whole lives. In: Gosseries A, Vanderborght Y (eds) Arguing about justice. Essays for Philippe Van Parijs. Presses universitaires de Louvain, Louvain-la-NeuveGoogle Scholar
  5. Carter I (2013) Are toleration and respect compatible? J Appl Philos 30:195–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Darwall S (1977) Two Kinds of Respect. Ethics 88:36–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dworkin R (2002) Sovereign Virtue. The Theory and Practice of Equality. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  8. Fleurbaey M (2005) Freedom with forgiveness. Philosophy, Politics and Economics 4:29–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Knight C (2015) Abandoning the Abandonment Objection: Luck Egalitarian Arguments for Public Insurance. Res Publica 21:119–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Korsgaard CM (1996) Personal identity and the unity of agency. In: Korsgaard CM Creating the kingdom of ends. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  11. Korsgaard CM (2009) Self-constitution. Agency, identity, and integrity. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lowry R (2011) Blame, reasons and capacities. In: Vincent NA, van de Poel I, van den Hoven J (eds) Moral responsibility. Beyond free will and determinism. Springer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  13. McGeer V, Pettit P (2015) The hard problem of responsibility. In: Shoemaker D (ed) Oxford studies in agency and responsibility, vol 3. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  14. Mill JS (1859/1910) On liberty. In: Mill JS Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government. Dent, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Millgram E (2014) Segmented agency. In: Vargas M, Yaffe G (eds) Rational and Social Agency. The Philosophy of Michael Bratman. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  16. Navin M (2011) Luck and Oppression. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 14:533–547CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Olsaretti S (2009) Responsibility and the consequences of choice. Proc Aristot Soc 109:165–188Google Scholar
  18. Parfit D (1984) Reasons and persons. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  19. Rawls J (1971) A theory of justice. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  20. Singer P (1993) Practical ethics. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  21. Steiner H (1994) An Essay on Rights. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  22. Stemplowska (2011) Responsibility and respect: Reconciling two egalitarian visions. In: Knight C, Stemplowska Z (eds) Responsibility and distributive justice. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  23. Strawson G (2004) Against narrativity. Ratio 17:428–452CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Tomlin P (2013) Choice, chance and change: luck egalitarianism over time. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 16:393–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Vincent NA (2011) A structured taxonomy of responsibility concepts. In: Vincent NA, van de Poel I, van den Hoven J (eds) Moral responsibility. Beyond free will and determinism. Springer, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political and Social SciencesUniversity of PaviaPaviaItaly

Personalised recommendations