Thursday, November 16, 2006

Luck Egalitarianism

Any political theory worth defending will be based on some notion of equality (e.g. moral or political equality). But many egalitarian theories of justice subscribe to an additional premise- the notion of distributional equality. This is the supposition that people should be equal in terms of some index of goods (e.g. resources) or wellbeing (welfare).

Following on from my previous post about the virtue of virtue ethics-- I wish to say a few things about what I see as the poverty of contemporary egalitarian theory. More specifically, the theory known as "luck egalitarianism" (LE). There are many variants of this theory, but LE encompasses theories that are premised on the chance/choice distinction which maintains:

Inequalities in the advantages that people enjoy are just if they derive from the choices people have voluntarily made; however, inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people's circumstances are unjust.

Many egalitarians like the chance/choice distinction as it permits them to undercut a common objection to egalitarianism: that egalitarians fail to take personal responsibility seriously enough.

Am I a luck egalitarian? No. I don't believe that all inequalities that can be traced back to choice are just, nor do I believe that all inequalities that can be traced back to bad brute luck are unjust.

Consider first inequalities that can be traced back to choice. In her article "What is the Point of Equality?" (Ethics, 1999- highly recommended!) Elizabeth Anderson provides a number of compelling examples to show that we have a duty of justice to redress some chosen inequalities. Suppose someone engages in a risky leisure activity like sky diving. If, when pursuing this chosen risky preference, they are injured in an accident, do we then have a (collective) responsibility to help them? That is, to provide the medical services necessary to save them. And is this responsibility a duty of justice?

According to the chance/choice distinction we are not obligated to help, as this is a disadvantage that can be traced back to their personal choice. Those who willingly engage in dangerous activities are responsible (according to LE) for their choices. But this doesn't seem right. A civil and fair society will not take such a harsh line on personal responsibility (in these kinds of cases).

The failure of luck egalitarianism, I believe, is its failure to place concerns of responsibility in their proper context and to see the other relevant considerations at play. On some occasions we should hold people responsible for their actions: those who study hard and do well on a test should be rewarded with a high grade and praise. Those who commit crimes should be held responsible and go to jail.

But when someone is in need of life saving medical services it does not matter if the causal story of how they arrived there is one that can be traced back to choice or chance. The most relevant considerations are: how severe is their disadvantage? How urgently do they need treatment? Appeals to notions of personal responsibility are out of place (or at least play a very minimal role) in many situations. But the luck egalitarian cannot make these subtle distinctions and qualifications. A virtue-oriented political theory can. Virtue theorists will reject the claim that all chosen inequalities are just. A number of diverse considerations must be addressed before we can make competent judgments concerning the appropriateness of remedying different kinds of inequalities.

Lets consider now the second horn of the chance/choice distinction- those inequalities that people are not responsible for. Are all of these unjust? Should we attempt to mitigate all such inequalities? Following this logic will lead us to some absurd conclusions. Many, many things in life are unequal and stem from brute luck factors. Some people are taller than others because of the genes they inherit from their parents. Others may have more dating propsects than other people because of their physical appearance. People are born into climates that impact their health and wellbeing in unequal ways. Do we really want to say that all of these inequalities are unjust? Are they all equally unjust? And if they are not, how do we distinguish between the really important inequalities and the trivial ones? The ones that we have a collective responsibility to redress and those we do not. These are the really important questions. And appeals to luck egalitarianism do not get us very far in terms of answering these questions.

The chance/choice distinction may have some intuitive mileage. It may help us explain why we think we should mitigate some inequalities but not others. But when pushed just a little, I think the cracks in the theory are quickly revealed. The real challenge for us is to identify which inequalities we should seek to redress, who should be responsible for redressing them, and how vigorously and at what cost we should be prepared to fight for equality in different contexts. Unfortunately luck egalitarianism detracts us from the truly important questions.