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Equal Opportunity, Responsibility, and Personal Identity

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Carter, I. Equal Opportunity, Responsibility, and Personal Identity. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 825–839 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-018-9901-y

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