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Unjust Equalities

Abstract

In the luck egalitarian literature, one influential formulation of luck egalitarianism does not specify whether equalities that do not reflect people’s equivalent exercises of responsibility are bad with regard to inequality. This equivocation gives rise to two competing versions of luck egalitarianism: asymmetrical and symmetrical luck egalitarianism. According to the former, while inequalities due to luck are unjust, equalities due to luck are not necessarily so. The latter view, by contrast, affirms the undesirability of equalities as well as inequalities insofar as they are due to luck. The symmetrical view, we argue, is by far the more compelling, both by internal luck egalitarian standards and in light of the external rightist emphasis on choice and responsibility to which luck egalitarianism may partly be seen as a response. Our main case for the symmetrical view is that when some people, against a background of equal opportunities, do not exercise their responsibility to the same degree as others, they cannot justifiably call for equalizing measures to be put in place. Indeed, such measures would be positively unfair. The symmetrical view, accordingly, rejects compensation in such cases, whereas the asymmetrical view, implausibly, enjoins it. We also examine two objections to this argument. First, that this view fails to qualify as genuinely egalitarian, instead collapsing the notion of equality into the notion of desert. Second, that the opposing asymmetrical view, in contrast to the symmetrical view, can draw support from its compatibility with sufficientarian concerns. Both objections are rebutted. We conclude that luck egalitarians are best served by endorsing the symmetrical, luck-neutralizing stance.

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Notes

  1. In this paper we use ‘equal’ in at least two central senses. First, we apply it in the flat or ‘equal treatment’ sense, implying an equal distribution of some benefit or burden. Second, we refer to ‘a right to be treated as an equal’ or to treatment in accordance with some notion of worth (see Dworkin 1977, p. 227). Cf. Aristotle’s distinction between proportionate and arithmetical equality (1980, bk. V). The sense at stake in different parts of the argument should be clear from the context; otherwise, it is specified.

  2. This is an implication of the absence of an ‘only if’. See Lippert-Rasmussen 1999, p. 478.

  3. Other ways of describing the contrast we are addressing in this paper include Segall’s distinction between the responsibility and the non-responsibility view (Segall 2012, p. 509) and Lippert-Rasmussen’s between maximal and minimal luck egalitarianism (Lippert-Rasmussen 2011b, p. 180).

  4. In order to reflect this claim, Segall’s formulation should read something like: (5*) It is bad with regard to inequality if, and only if, some people are worse off than others due to outcomes it would have been unreasonable to expect them to avoid.

  5. The terms ‘responsibility’ and ‘choice’ are often used interchangeably in the luck egalitarian literature, and we do so as well (cf. formulations (1) and (4) above, and see Cohen 1989, p. 933). However, it bears notice that a person may be responsible for a certain outcome even though he has not deliberately chosen it (as in negligence). Furthermore, the choices by virtue of which luck egalitarians believe it is acceptable for people to be worse off than others are genuine or perfectly voluntary choices. We do not propose a specific account of what is required for a choice to be genuine (our argument is compatible with different ways of spelling this out).

  6. As suggested by the formulations (C) and (D) we conceive of brute luck in the thin sense, that is, what is not due to choice or exercises of responsibility (cf. Hurley 2003, p. 107).

  7. See Note 4.

  8. Speaking of ‘equality’ in this way is of course slightly misleading on certain notions of egalitarian justice, including the one we defend, in that the appropriate metric includes considerations of effort and responsibility. Still, referring to equality in this ‘flat’ sense facilitates discussion of the core issue at stake between the asymmetrical and symmetrical views (see further Note 1).

  9. One might, as conditions for inequalities being cleanly generated or for matters of brute luck being successfully transformed into matters of option luck, include conditions such as those defended by Michael Otsuka. For example, one might require that among the array of options people face should be ‘a reasonable alternative to gambling whose outcome is certain (or at least nearly so)’ (Otsuka 2004, 153. Emphasis original. Note omitted). This would still leave a non-trivial number of cleanly generated inequalities with respect to which the asymmetrical and symmetrical views would differ concerning the justice of equalisation. The phrase ‘cleanly generated’ may indicate that in addition to there not being anything wrong with these inequalities, it would also be wrong to eradicate them – but note that nothing of the kind necessarily follows. One might, as Segall does, deny the badness of inequalities generated by choice or option luck, whilst at the same time denying the badness of cancelling such inequalities (bringing about equalities in the presence of differential exercises of responsibility). To be sure, we have fundamental objections of an egalitarian nature to this view, but we do not deny its availability and interest.

  10. This case is an adaption of Dworkin’s Adrian-Bruce case (Dworkin 2000: 83–85).

  11. Some readers may question the applicability of this central luck egalitarian intuition to cases such as Segall’s lead case, which is not overtly redistributive in direction of equality, but in which equality is brought about by a stroke of good brute luck befalling Lazy. However, note first, as stated above, that the applicability of Segall’s view is arguably broader than the mentioned lead case, including cases in which equality is restored by, for example, taxing Prudent. Second, in both cases equality is due to something other than choice or exercises of responsibility – that is, luck. Third, Prudent is, in a relevant sense, asked to fund Lazy’s optional choices in the sense of being asked to forego the benefits that would otherwise accrue to him by virtue of a policy of equalizing matters of differential brute luck, so that equality is restored between him and Lazy.

  12. A stance that seems notoriously at odds with his invocation of the difference principle, and a tension in Rawls’ work that luck egalitarians have been apt to exploit.

  13. The avoidability motif integral to this view looms large in what Cohen has later referred to as the flagship statement of his 1989 article (see Cohen 1989, p. 923; Cohen 2004, pp. 7–8).

  14. See Note 1.

  15. We owe this point to one of our reviewers.

  16. We recognize that there is much more to be said about the relation between ‘equality’ and ‘desert’. See e.g. Kagan (2012).

  17. And in communications (July 11, 2012) he makes clear that he believes that the considerations we have in mind might count in favour of his view, although not amounting to a decisive argument for it.

  18. We may say that Segall’s view, as opposed to the symmetrical view, enjoins the positive thesis of sufficientarianism (i.e., it is important that people live above a certain threshold) and, together with other egalitarian views, denies the negative thesis (i.e., additional distributive requirements are irrelevant). See Casal 2007, pp. 297–298. We owe this point to Lasse Nielsen.

  19. Jeremy Moss raised this point in his comments to our presentation of an earlier version of the paper.

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Correspondence to Sören Flinch Midtgaard.

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Earlier versions of the paper have been presented to various audiences: the section for Political Theory, Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University; Danish Society for Political Science, Annual Conference 2012; Working group on Practical Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Aarhus University; Society of Applied Philosophy, Annual Conference 2012. For useful comments on these occasions, we are very grateful to a number of people, including David Axelsen, Alexander Heape, Iwao Hirose, Katrine Krause-Jensen, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Jeremy Moss, Lasse Nielsen, Raffaele Rodogno, Shlomi Segall, Johanna Seibt, and Zofia Stemplowska. We are also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for this journal for perceptive comments and constructive suggestions.

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Albertsen, A., Midtgaard, S.F. Unjust Equalities. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 17, 335–346 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-013-9442-3

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Keywords

  • Luck egalitarianism
  • Unjust equalities
  • Sufficientarianism
  • Desert
  • Shlomi Segall