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


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.

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  1. Each of these theorists favours a different interpretation of the basic luck egalitarian idea. Note also that Dworkin has in fact rejected the label “luck egalitarian” for his theory (Dworkin 2003, pp. 190–191). In the argument presented in this paper, I follow Cohen and Arneson in linking brute luck to the absence of agent control. I reject Dworkin’s view that certain conditions in which people find themselves cannot be regarded as a matter of brute luck, irrespective of their inability to control these conditions, but cannot provide an argument to this effect here.

  2. See Dworkin (1981 [2000, p. 73]) for the distinction between “option luck” and “brute luck.”

  3. Two different kinds of pluralism can be distinguished in this context, depending on how the relationship between equality and justice is conceived. Some theorists, such as Cohen (1989, 2004) and Kymlicka (2006), equate equality and justice, the requirements of which have to be weighed against other commitments. Others suggest that equality is one of the values that must be weighed against other considerations to determine the requirements of justice (e.g., Vallentyne 2002; Otsuka 2004a). The first view is criticised by Miller (1997).

  4. This underlines the luck egalitarian case for taxing inheritance although Rakowski (1991) suggests that option luck can play a role in determining what bequests individuals receive.

  5. It is important to remember that this point holds only in the context of a fully equal distribution. In the real world, where distributions are highly unequal, charitable giving is likely to enhance equality and would be welcomed by luck egalitarians; bequests, to the extent that they increase rather than redress inequality, would remain questionable.

  6. While Goodin is not responding to luck egalitarianism and despite the differences between luck egalitarian and desert-based approaches, his argument captures an idea that could support the Harshness Objection.

  7. I am not addressing the question of how the exact amount of compensation is to be determined. Rather, I argue that in many of the examples proponents of the Harshness Objection use to support their critique, there is good reason to think that there is a case for luck egalitarian intervention (even if this does not amount to full compensation).

  8. I take the term “individuate” from Robinson and Darley (1995, pp. 116–123). Robinson and Darley’s study tests people’s intuitions about deserved punishment in criminal law cases. The US legal code around the “reasonable person” standard used in negligence cases allows the jury to individuate this standard if the defendant’s circumstances seem to warrant it.

  9. More recently, Fleurbaey has defended the principle that “people should enjoy situations that would have arisen from equal opportunities had they always acted according to their current mindset” (Fleurbaey 2005, p. 30, emphasis in original). The luck egalitarian need not deny that, as Fleurbaey suggests, such a principle would enhance individual freedom, but it is not clear why considerations of freedom would affect what equality requires.

  10. Consider, for example, Arneson’s example of the rescue team that has to decide whether to rescue a group of reckless hikers, a group of experienced climbers who voluntarily chose a risky path, or a group of schoolchildren caught in an unexpected blizzard. In these circumstances, where the cost of rescuing one group is that neither of the other groups could be saved, it would seem wrong not to take questions of responsibility into account when deciding whom to rescue (Arneson 2000a, p. 348).

  11. Such distinctions may, of course, be difficult to make on the spot and hence not recommend themselves for actual policy questions (see Anderson 1999a, pp. 295–296, for this point); however, this does not diminish the case for wanting to accord priority to the innocent victim over the reckless driver.

  12. The problem described here is closely related to the familiar levelling-down objection in that the luck egalitarian (qua egalitarian) would have to reject the move from a distribution of 10-10-1 to 10-10-4 despite the fact that there is no one for whom the second distribution is worse and someone for whom it is better. The luck egalitarian can, of course, respond that there is a sense in which the first distribution is better – it is better from the point of view of equality – but that the second distribution may still be preferable overall (see Temkin 1993). This pluralist stance, as discussed in Section 1 above, is of course open to the luck egalitarian but she would have to admit that an “all things considered” endorsement of the second distribution involves a violation of her principle of equality.

  13. It might be objected that if brute luck is as pervasive as I claim, luck egalitarianism is of little relevance to the real world. However, this objection holds only if we think that luck egalitarianism must be a theory of ex post compensation. Instead, we can think of luck egalitarianism as requiring that we aim to equalise background conditions so that the scope for unjustified inequalities decreases. However, because brute luck is so pervasive, I do not believe that such policies could ever make pure option luck possible. The argument of this paper – that partial compensation would always be forthcoming in response to the influence of unequal brute luck on individual choice – would therefore remain intact even after such policies were introduced (although partial compensation might be less).

  14. Arneson (1999a, 1999b, 2000a, 2000b).

  15. While some theorists have described prioritarianism as an egalitarian principle (e.g., McKerlie 1994), there are important differences between the two approaches and it is reasonable to suggest that prioritarianism is not a version of egalitarianism at all; see Temkin (1993) for this point.

  16. Dworkin (2002) suggests that the hypothetical insurance market he endorses as part of his theory of equality of resources would also result in the provision of a minimum standard of living to be ensured for everyone, regardless of certain of their choices. However, on the approach adopted in this paper, the hypothetical insurance market has to be regarded as a deviation from the basic luck egalitarian approach and not, as Dworkin suggests, as part of a theory of equality. On this point, see Otsuka (2002, 2004a, 2004b), Williams (2004), as well as Dworkin’s reply to Otsuka (Dworkin 2004).

  17. Dworkin, for example, suggests that citizens should be required to insure to the level determined by the hypothetical insurance device (Dworkin 2002).

  18. Because, as I explain in Section 1 above, luck egalitarians can be pluralists, they can affirm the existence of such a duty and hence accept Bou-Habib’s argument without contradicting themselves. They might not be able to regard this as a duty of justice but they might, for example, see it as a duty of charity (see also Bou-Habib (2006) on this).


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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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Correspondence to Kristin Voigt.

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Voigt, K. The Harshness Objection: Is Luck Egalitarianism Too Harsh on the Victims of Option Luck?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 10, 389–407 (2007).

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Key words

  • choice
  • equality
  • harshness
  • luck egalitarianism
  • option luck