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Limitarianism, Institutionalism, and Justice


In recent years, Ingrid Robeyns and several others have argued that, whatever the correct complete account of distributive justice looks like, it should include a Limitarian requirement. The core Limitarian claim is that there is a ceiling – a limit – to the amount of resources that it is permissible for any individual to possess. While this core claim is plausible, there are a number of important questions about precisely how the requirement should be understood, and what its implications are regarding the obligations of various agents, that have not been adequately addressed in the discussions thus far. In this paper, I focus on questions about the relationship between the grounds for the Limitarian requirement and its role in generating obligations of justice for different agents. I argue that the plausible grounds for the requirement are incompatible with the widely accepted view, deriving from John Rawls, that the principles of justice apply directly to the institutions of what Rawls calls the “basic structure of society,” but do not apply directly to the conduct of individuals and other possible agents (e.g. corporations) acting within that structure. If my argument succeeds, then Limitarians must accept that if the grounds that they have offered in defense of Limitarian policy interventions are compelling, then individuals are obligated to voluntarily direct any resources that they possess above the threshold in ways that will promote the same goals that justify Limitarian policies.

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  1. Robeyns suggests that because resources above the threshold necessary to fully flourish do not contribute to improving one’s life in any morally relevant way, one cannot have a moral claim to such resources that has any weight (2017, p.12). This implies that the possibility of using the resources for anything that does have moral weight always takes priority over allowing someone who already has enough to fully flourish to keep them.

  2. This is sufficient for Limitarianism to avoid the leveling down objection. I assume that no plausible requirements defended in Limitarian terms will require leveling down. A corollary of this is that any Pareto improvements on distributions that satisfy requirements of justice that ground Limitarian requirements (e.g. urgent needs being met) are at least not impermissible on the grounds of the relevant Limitarian requirements, and may be required for more general reasons. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to discuss these issues.

  3. For criticism, see Volacu and Dumitru (2019). For a response in defense of Robeyns, see Timmer (2019).

  4. It is worth noting that this core Limitarian claim is in one way stronger and in another way weaker than what is suggested by the central justification for the Limitarian resource ceiling that Robeyns offers. It is stronger in that it entails that it is a requirement of justice that no one possesses resources above the threshold so long as there is further injustice that could be remedied by reallocating them – whereas the fact that resources above the threshold contribute nothing to a person’s flourishing or well-being suggests merely that there is always some moral reason, even in fully just conditions, to reallocate resources above the threshold in order to advance morally relevant aims. It is weaker, however, in that unlike the central justification, it does not directly imply that there are reasons to reallocate resources above the threshold when all requirements of justice are already satisfied. While this might initially appear to suggest a degree of tension in Robeyns’s development of the Limitarian view, the fact that the central justification might support a broader range of reasons and obligations than are entailed by the core Claim does not suggest that there is anything objectionable about the way that the argument proceeds. And because the central justification does not support the conclusion that there are obligations of justice on its own, but instead complements the support provided by more general claims about what justice requires (e.g. that it requires that no one’s urgent basic needs go unmet if there are sufficient resources to meet them), there is no tension here either. My focus in the remainder of the paper is on what we should think is implied by the core Claim. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to clarify these points.

  5. I have discussed Institutionalism extensively elsewhere; see Berkey (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021a, 2021b, forthcoming).

  6. On Rawls’s view, the basic structure includes institutions such as “[t]he political constitution…the legally recognized forms of property, and the structure of the economy…as well as the family in some form” (2001, p.10). For earlier statements about the extension of the basic structure, see Rawls (1993, p.258 and 1999, p.6).

  7. Additionally, if there are collective agents that can be the bearers of obligations in their own right, then there will be implications of my argument for them as well. For example, corporations may be obligated not to pay high-level employees so much that they would possess resources above the Limitarian threshold, at least so long as doing so would not, in some indirect way, better promote justice-relevant values overall.

  8. For critical discussion of this view see Murphy (1998), Cohen (2000, ch.10, 2008, chs.1–5), and Berkey (2015, 2016, 2018, 2021a, forthcoming). For defenses of Rawls, see Cohen (2002), Tan (2004), Scheffler (2005, 2006), Thomas (2011), and Schouten (2013). For an intermediate view, see Titelbaum (2008).

  9. It might be suggested that on Rawls’s view it is not Institutionalism that protects individuals from obligations to take the potential impacts of their career choices on the prospects of the worst-off into account, but instead the basic liberties principle (I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion). While I cannot offer a complete response to this thought here, it is worth noting that the basic liberties principle is most plausibly understood as protecting individuals from coercive interference with their liberties on the part of the state and other agents. It is not clear that the principle should be understood as also protecting individuals from non-enforceable obligations to promote justice.

  10. I argue for this claim in detail in Berkey (2016).

  11. Institutionalists might claim that individuals can be required to be guided by these values as a matter of beneficence, though not as a matter of justice (Daniels 2002). While I cannot offer a complete response to this suggestion here, two things are worth noting. First, this view leaves Institutionalists open to the possibility of accepting demands on individuals that many seem inclined to reject (see the following paragraph in the text). And second, it is unclear on what basis we might deny that obligations that are grounded in the same values that ground obligations of justice are themselves obligations of justice. This is, at the very least, conceptually puzzling. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to discuss this suggestion.

  12. This is also suggested by the defense of Institutionalism offered by Samuel Scheffler (2005), according to which it represents an appropriate response to value pluralism, and in particular to the fact that individuals have strong reasons to pursue a range of values apart from justice in their personal lives, including especially those to which they are committed in virtue of their most central projects and relationships.

  13. Once again, the threshold above which possession of resources is impermissible, according to Limitarianism, could be understood in terms of criteria other than what is necessary to fully flourish. I refer to Robeyns’s account of how the threshold ought to be determined primarily for illustrative purposes. I take no position in this paper about whether it is the account that Limitarians should endorse.

  14. Alexandru Volacu and Adelin Costin Dumitru claim that Limitarianism is a view about “the normativity appropriate steps that we should take in order to bring about a more just state of affairs” (2019, p.255). It seems to me, however, that the core Limitarian claim does not itself have any particular implications regarding the appropriate means of reallocating the resources above the threshold possessed by the well-off in ways that will promote justice. For example, it is in principle consistent with that core claim to hold either, as Institutionalists must, that the state ought to tax resources above the threshold at either 100% or the highest level consistent with maximally promoting justice, whereas individuals are not required to voluntarily redirect resources that they possess above the threshold, or that while it is unacceptable for the state to tax the well-off in order to satisfy the Limitarian requirement, individuals who possess resources above the threshold are obligated, as a matter of justice, to redirect them in ways that will promote the satisfaction of currently unsatisfied requirements of justice. It is, of course, also possible to hold both that the state ought to tax resources above the threshold as much as possible, consistent with maximally promoting justice, and that individuals who possess resources above the threshold are obligated to voluntarily redirect them when the state does not tax them away. In my view, this is the most plausible position on the required means of promoting justice for Limitarians to adopt. My arguments in this and the following section are intended to show that the most plausible grounds for endorsing the core Limitarian claim support an account of the content of the Limitarian requirement that is incompatible with the Institutionalist account of the required means of promoting justice.

  15. It is worth noting that strictly speaking Limitarianism has implications not only regarding the reallocation of resources already possessed by the well-off, but also regarding either or both the adoption of policies and personal choices that would prevent individuals from coming to possess resources above the threshold in the first place.

  16. Right-libertarians could, in principle, consistently resist this line of argument, at least with respect to some of the central uses for the resources that Limitarians have in mind. This is because they can claim both that having acquired resources in a procedurally acceptable way grounds a claim against the state taxing them, even if possessing them does not improve one’s life, and that neither significant inequality in opportunity for political influence nor large-scale urgent unmet needs necessarily constitute injustices (Nozick 1974). Of course, in the actual world virtually no resources that individuals currently possess were acquired in a way that right-libertarians could consider procedurally acceptable, and so something like a Limitarian requirement could be justified within right-libertarianism by the need to rectify past injustices through substantial reallocations. In addition, it is not clear that right-libertarians can entirely resist the claim that the well-off have no morally relevant claim to be able to keep resources above the threshold rather than for those resources to be reallocated to help address the threat of climate change (for relevant discussion see Zwolinski 2014).

  17. See also her claim that “the value of surplus income [that is, income above the Limitarian threshold] is morally insignificant for the holder of that income, but not for society at large, at least under certain alternative usages” (2017, p.13, italics in original). It is worth noting that it is possible to argue that the Limitarian threshold should be thought to be lower than the level at which additional resources would contribute nothing to the flourishing or well-being of the well-off. Indeed, if the world is very deeply unjust, then it seems plausible that there are reasons to think that the appropriate threshold is considerably lower. The argument for Limitarianism is, however, especially difficult to resist in the case of the threshold that Robeyns suggests, and my argument in this paper does not require making the case for a lower threshold.

  18. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  19. An early discussion that suggests what I have claimed has become the prevailing way of conceptualizing these issues can be found in Thomas Nagel’s critique of Robert Nozick’s libertarian view, in which Nagel argues that coerced redistribution by the state is preferable, from the perspective of the well-off, to requirements to engage in voluntary redistribution because, in effect, complying with coercively enforced state requirements is less demanding than complying with moral requirements that are not coercively enforced. In Nagel’s terms: “Sometimes it is proper to force people to do something even though it is not true that they should do it without being forced. It is acceptable to compel people to contribute to the support of the indigent by automatic taxation, but unreasonable to insist that in absence of such a system they ought to contribute voluntarily. The latter is an excessively demanding moral position because it requires voluntary decisions that are quite difficult to make” (1975, p.145). For criticism of Nagel, see Cohen (2000, p.168 − 74).

  20. It is also a bit puzzling that, while she very clearly endorses the claim that the state ought to adopt coercive policies in order to ensure that the Limitarian requirement is satisfied, she does not take a clear position on whether individuals are obligated to voluntarily reallocate resources that they possess above the threshold. For example, after noting that she accepts Limitarianism “as a political doctrine,” – that is, that she accepts that the state ought to adopt coercive measures in order to satisfy the Limitarian requirement – she says that this “doesn’t prevent the simultaneous development of a culture of giving among the affluent” (2017, p.32). And she later claims that even if there are practical reasons not to adopt a 100% tax on resources above the threshold, we might still appeal to Limitarianism “as a moral ideal.” What this amounts to is, as she puts it, that “we should encourage a social ethos among those who, after taxation, still have surplus money, to give it away toward the meeting of urgent unmet needs” (2017, p.36). It is important to notice that she does not claim, in these statements or elsewhere, that those with resources above the threshold have an obligation to reallocate those resources – what she says is compatible with it being quite morally good, but nonetheless supererogatory, for those with resources above the threshold to voluntarily reallocate them in ways that would benefit the badly-off. And this is the standard view among those who accept Institutionalism at least in part because they think that the alternative view would be objectionably demanding. This is a further feature of Robeyns’s discussion that makes her claim that accepting Limitarianism as a political doctrine is the more radical view at least somewhat in tension with the structure of recent debates about obligations of justice. Moreover, if the view that the requirement justifies state coercion were the more radical view, it would seem to follow that if that view is sufficiently supported by the arguments for the Limitarian requirement, the less radical view – namely what Robeyns calls Limitarianism as a moral doctrine – would be even more clearly supported.

  21. It is not, of course, a complete account of distributive justice, but rather, according to Robeyns, a component of whatever the correct theory of distributive justice is.

  22. It is important here that Robeyns’s view is that it is, for example, the requirement to meet urgent unmet needs, qua requirement of justice, that generates whatever requirements apply to individuals as a matter of Limitarianism as a moral doctrine. This means that it cannot be the case that there is, for example, an independently grounded, non-justice-based obligation of beneficence that simply happens to promote some of the very same ends as obligations of justice that, if Institutionalism were correct, would apply directly only to the institutions of the basic structure. And this is why it is difficult to make conceptual sense of the thought that Limitarianism as a moral doctrine could generate obligations that are not obligations of justice. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to clarify this point.

  23. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this interpretation.

  24. For example, the assumption that a just society will unavoidably be characterized by a plurality of reasonable comprehensive doctrines, and the task of a theory of justice is to determine how citizens can, despite this pluralism, live together peaceably within a cooperative scheme of the kind represented by the modern state, with its characteristic coercive power, in effect entails acceptance of the claim that it is permissible, as a matter of justice, for individuals to act in accordance with their reasonable comprehensive doctrines, whatever they are, within a just cooperative scheme (i.e. a state and its just policies).

  25. Their description of what an institutional conception involves is not identical to Institutionalism, in that it leaves open that individuals may have some obligations to promote justice-relevant values, despite the fact that these values should be promoted “(mainly) through careful institutional crafting” (2019, p.251). This, however, only further highlights that the description of any individual obligations grounded in the Limitarian requirement as moral but not political sits uneasily at best with the characterization of Limitarianism as a component of acceptable views about distributive justice.

  26. For arguments against the view that demandingness objections can have force, see Murphy (2000, ch.3), Sobel (2007), and Braddock (2013).

  27. It might be argued that it is only obviously implausible that such an obligation is objectionably demanding if we accept a cost-based account of demandingness, but that if we hold that the difficulty of complying with an obligation can make it demanding, even if complying is not costly, then the claim that the obligation is demanding is not particularly implausible (for the claim that the difficulty of complying can ground demandingness objections, independent of cost, see Nagel (1975, p.145), McElwee (2016), and Chappell (2019); for criticism, see Cohen (2000, p.168 − 74), van Ackeren (2018)). It seems to me, however, that even if we think that difficulty can, in principle, ground successful demandingness objections independent of cost, whatever difficulty might be involved in motivating oneself to give up resources that contribute nothing of value to one’s life cannot be sufficient to ground a successful demandingness objection in cases in which the relevant resources could be used to help satisfy unmet requirements of justice.

  28. Robeyns suggests that this is how she understands the content of the requirement as well (2017, p.34 − 5).

  29. This is the type of content that any Institutionalist requirement will have on plausible accounts of distributive justice.

  30. In my view there are strong reasons for anyone to accept it – it seems to me correct. In this paper, however, I have focused on providing reasons why those who are inclined to accept the central arguments that have been offered for Limitarianism are committed to accepting it.


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I am grateful to the audience at the 2022 Braga Meeting on Ethics and Political Philosophy. Philippe van Parijs provided extremely helpful comments this session. I have benefitted from discussions with Nunzio Ali, Fausto Corvino, Don Habibi, Christian Schemmel, Liam Shields, Nicole Whalen, and Vanessa Wills.

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Berkey, B. Limitarianism, Institutionalism, and Justice. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2022).

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  • Ingrid Robeyns
  • Institutionalism
  • John Rawls
  • Justice
  • Limitarianism