Skip to main content


Log in

Equal Opportunity, Responsibility, and Personal Identity

  • Published:
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice Aims and scope Submit manuscript


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Relatively pure forms of starting-gate equality of opportunity can be read into Richard Arneson’s luck egalitarian principle of ‘equal opportunity for welfare’ (Arneson 1989) and Hillel Steiner’s left-libertarian principle of equal initial freedom (Steiner 1994).

  2. I here assume ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’ to be synonymous, and leave open how exactly they are to be characterized. This is not to deny the usefulness, for other purposes, of distinguishing between the two concepts.

  3. I part company here with Lowry (2011) and McGeer and Pettit (2015), who argue that liability-responsibility ought to vary in proportion to individual variations in capacity-responsibility. This, at least, within the context of egalitarian normative theory.

  4. I expand on this point in Carter 2011b, which is in some senses an embryonic version of this article. In that earlier piece I distinguished between different interpretations of the idea of a person’s freedom being something that extends over the course of her whole life.

  5. This is the first definition of ‘unity’ supplied in the Oxford English Dictionary.

  6. These are further definitions supplied in the Oxford English Dictionary.

  7. I am here assuming that the relevant sense of ‘respect’ is what Stephen Darwall has called ‘recognition respect’, as opposed to ‘appraisal respect’, where the latter would include an assessment of the way people exercises their capacities (Darwall 1977; Carter 2013, pp. 198–99, 201–2).

  8. In answer to this example it might be suggested that one can nevertheless distinguish between the capacity to reaffirm, develop, and follow through on an inherited plan and the opportunity to do so, and that it is only the latter that I am denied as a result of my former selves’ failing to exercise their capacities in a coherent way. But this rejoinder is unconvincing, for it is simply not true that it is only my opportunities, rather than my capacities, that are affected by my former failure to make plans. As J.S. Mill reminds us, to exercise one’s capacities is itself to develop them: “The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used” (Mill 1859/1910, pp. 116–17).

  9. More precisely, Tomlin presents two arguments in favour of temporally diminishing degrees of responsibility: the first is based on Parfitian reductionism about personal identity (though without the connection to basic equality contained in my account); the second rests on a particular account of moral responsibility. I cannot here address the second argument, but I believe that the problem I highlight in the diminishing-responsibility view amounts to an objection to both arguments. Admittedly, the problem arises only if I am right that our basic equality is grounded in opacity respect. If this last premise is rejected, the onus will be on the advocate of the diminishing-responsibility view to supply an alternative basis for equality of opportunity.

  10. Technically speaking, this right comprises a combination of Hohfeldian powers, on the one hand, and Hohfeldian liberties protected by claims to non-interference, on the other.


  • Arneson RJ (1989) Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare. Philos Stud 56:77–93

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bou-Habib P (2006) Compulsory insurance without paternalism. Utilitas 18:243–263

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carter I (2011a) Respect and the basis of equality. Ethics 121:538–571

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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-Neuve

    Google Scholar 

  • Carter I (2013) Are toleration and respect compatible? J Appl Philos 30:195–208

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darwall S (1977) Two Kinds of Respect. Ethics 88:36–49

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dworkin R (2002) Sovereign Virtue. The Theory and Practice of Equality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Fleurbaey M (2005) Freedom with forgiveness. Philosophy, Politics and Economics 4:29–61

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Knight C (2015) Abandoning the Abandonment Objection: Luck Egalitarian Arguments for Public Insurance. Res Publica 21:119–135

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Korsgaard CM (1996) Personal identity and the unity of agency. In: Korsgaard CM Creating the kingdom of ends. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • Korsgaard CM (2009) Self-constitution. Agency, identity, and integrity. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • 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, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  • 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, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Mill JS (1859/1910) On liberty. In: Mill JS Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government. Dent, London

  • Millgram E (2014) Segmented agency. In: Vargas M, Yaffe G (eds) Rational and Social Agency. The Philosophy of Michael Bratman. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Navin M (2011) Luck and Oppression. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 14:533–547

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Olsaretti S (2009) Responsibility and the consequences of choice. Proc Aristot Soc 109:165–188

    Google Scholar 

  • Parfit D (1984) Reasons and persons. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawls J (1971) A theory of justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Singer P (1993) Practical ethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Steiner H (1994) An Essay on Rights. Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Stemplowska (2011) Responsibility and respect: Reconciling two egalitarian visions. In: Knight C, Stemplowska Z (eds) Responsibility and distributive justice. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Strawson G (2004) Against narrativity. Ratio 17:428–452

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tomlin P (2013) Choice, chance and change: luck egalitarianism over time. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 16:393–407

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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, Dordrecht

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ian Carter.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Carter, I. Equal Opportunity, Responsibility, and Personal Identity. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 825–839 (2018).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: