Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 389–407 | Cite as

The Harshness Objection: Is Luck Egalitarianism Too Harsh on the Victims of Option Luck?

  • Kristin Voigt


According to luck egalitarianism, inequalities are justified if and only if they arise from choices for which it is reasonable to hold agents responsible. This position has been criticised for its purported harshness in responding to the plight of individuals who, through their own choices, end up destitute. This paper aims to assess the Harshness Objection. I put forward a version of the objection that has been qualified to take into account some of the more subtle elements of the luck egalitarian approach. Revising the objection in this way suggests that the Harshness Objection has been overstated by its proponents: because luck egalitarians are sensitive to the influence of unequal brute luck on individuals’ choices, it is unlikely that there will be any real world cases in which the luck egalitarian would not have to provide at least partial compensation. However, the Harshness Objection still poses problems for the luck egalitarian. First, it is not clear that partial compensation will be sufficient to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Second, the Harshness Objection raises a theoretical problem in that a consistent luck egalitarian will have to regard it as unjust if any assistance is provided to the victim of pure option luck, even if such assistance could be provided at no cost. I consider three strategies the luck egalitarian could pursue to accommodate these concerns and conclude that none of these strategies can be maintained without either violating basic luck egalitarian principles or infringing upon individual liberty.

Key words

choice equality harshness luck egalitarianism option luck 



I would like to thank Adam Swift for detailed comments and helpful discussions of earlier versions of this paper. I am also grateful to Nicholas Cheeseman, G. A. Cohen, the participants of the Nuffield College Political Theory Workshop, Oxford, as well as two referees of this journal for their suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Politics and International RelationsUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.Christ ChurchOxfordUK

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