The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that focuses on the injustice of bad luck, and one type of bad luck in particular: it wants to eliminate as far as possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own. One type of luck that we don’t bring on ourselves is the luck – or lack of it – associated with the circumstances into which we are born. We don’t deserve the circumstances, family, class or country of our birth. We don’t even deserve our talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort.

There’s a natural lottery (the lottery that decides which talents and other biological potentials or inabilities we are born with) and a social lottery – as Rawls called it – (the lottery that decides which political, social and economic circumstances we are born into, including our family and country of birth). Bad luck in either of these lotteries can lead to vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes, none of which we deserve.

Luck egalitarianism states that only those inequalities that are wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make, and not to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities, are morally acceptable. The focus on responsible choices means that, once you’re an adult and capable of responsible choices, luck egalitarianism considers that its work is done. Its focus is on birth and early life, because that’s when misfortune of circumstances and nature take effect, and that’s when their unequal consequences have to be corrected. Opportunities have to be equalized. What people do in adult life with their equalized opportunities is their responsibility and of no concern to society or justice.

There are two moral intuitions at play here:

  • It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
  • It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.

In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.

In the ideal luck egalitarian society, there are no inequalities in people’s life prospects except those that arise through processes of voluntary choice or faulty conduct, for which the agents involved can reasonably be held responsible. Richard Arneson (source)

That means, positively stated, that disadvantages for which a person is not responsible and which result merely from bad luck, establish a claim to correction or, if correction is impossible (e.g. blindness), compensation (e.g. provision of guide dogs).

[I]t is the responsibility of society – all of us regarded collectively – to alter the distribution of goods and evils that arises from the jumble of lotteries that constitutes human life as we know it … Distributive justice stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky. Richard Arneson (source)

Some such disadvantages are physical disabilities, lack of talent, inadequate parents, being born in a poor African country etc. All other disadvantages, inequalities or differences are the outcome of choice and are therefore the individual’s responsibility. She should bear the costs of her own choices and can’t demand compensation. And when compensation is required, it should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.

If we manage to redress or compensate inequalities resulting from luck, the luck egalitarianism perspective can accept all remaining inequalities, because those remaining are deemed to be the result of people’s own choices and relative merit. Only equality of opportunity counts. Once people are adults, and all opportunities have been equalized, no further intervention is needed.

Some problems

Luck egalitarianism is appealing because of its focus on undeserved misfortune. We are appalled by people suffering from circumstances or endowments which they don’t deserve because they didn’t choose them and were simply born with them. It’s also appealing because, contrary to many other egalitarian theories, it provides room for merit, personal responsibility and choice.

However, luck egalitarianism is also problematic. First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them. Not always of course, because we don’t want to give people incentives to act irresponsibly (moral hazard etc.), but sometimes. So luck egalitarianism seems incomplete, to say the least, because it offers no aid to those it labels as irresponsible, whatever misery they happen to find themselves in.

Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.

And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. People who, after prudent assessment of risk, engaged in an activity but suffered a bad outcome notwithstanding an initial positive assessment of risk, can demand compensation of their bad luck, like people having the misfortune of being born blind or in a poor family or without talent. None of them deserve their bad luck or are responsible for it. The imprudent, however, still deserve what they get. They can’t be said to have bad luck since they engaged in an activity knowing full well the risks. But how can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical. And how is this extended version of luck egalitarianism different from normal egalitarianism? It seems to encompass almost as much equality.

Luck egalitarianism is not only unnecessarily cruel in some cases – unnecessarily because we often can do something to help the undeserving sufferers – but also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? – her misery was perhaps not (entirely) her own responsibility. For example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.

Because of the very common difficulty to separate responsible actions from irresponsible ones, luck egalitarianism provides an incentive to deny responsibility and to hide it. If you can convince people that you weren’t responsible, then you can claim compensation. This incentive in turn provides an incentive to the state – which is supposedly the agent who should correct for bad luck – to snoop and invade people’s privacy (even their genes) in order to separate the really responsible from the merely apparently responsible, or the prudent from the imprudent.

And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.

Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. The natural inequality in the distribution of luck overshadows the artificial inequalities resulting from social interaction. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.

This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.

So we need more than equality of opportunity at the start of life; equality also means focusing on institutional arrangements that protect, widen and equalize people’s choices over the entire course of their lives (with the exception of those people who voluntarily, through their own choices or excessive risk taking, have reduced their choices; the exception to this exception being people who landed themselves in a situation in which “diminished choices” equals utter suffering, see above).

Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?

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15 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

  1. Ahhhh I love this, glad someone is blogging about luck egalitarianism at length.

    Ok, I have more than a few comments on this:

    1. I don’t agree with your characterisation of the basic luck egalitarian intuitions:
    “There are two moral intuitions at play here:

    •It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
    •It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.
    In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.”

    I don’t think luck egalitarianism countenances the second moral intuition. I don’t think luck egalitarians make the moral judgment that “it’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts” on the ambitions/choice/option-luck side – they only think that luck egalitarianism does not require us to equalise the effects of differences on that side. It’s not saying it’s a good thing for people to be better off than others, just that option-luck advantages don’t fall under the auspices of luck egalitarian demands. You could be morally indifferent to these advantages, or, if you are a value-pluralist luck egalitarian (as Dworkin, Cohen and, I think, Rawls (a proto-luck egalitarian!) are) you could see the advantage as being morally bad, but for reasons other than the fact it is due to option-luck/choice/ambitions. Luck egalitarianism requires us not to promote just reward, but simply to avoid unjust punishment.

    2. Here are my replies to your objections to luck egalitarianism (they are the bullet-pointed pararaphs).

    “First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them.”

    • A value-pluralist conception of distributive justice which incorporates luck egalitarianism doesn’t deny this. It only says that we have no luck-based duty to redistribute to them. We might have a duty for other reasons.

    “Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.”

    • I don’t think this is a problem for luck egalitarianism. Brute luck surely does encompass instances other than the lottery of birth or nature. That said, if someone made a choice where the risks were unknowable, this probably counts as option luck. If you are unaware of the risks of doing something yet you do it anyway, you’re responsible for the choice you made to do it despite the fact that the risks were unknowable.

    “And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. How can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical.”

    • Practical objections to luck egalitarianism get levelled at it all the time. I think it’s fair to say that objecting to an ideal of distributive justice on grounds of practicality is irrelevant – it can still be used as a sort of yardstick to guide policy in the ‘non-ideal world’.

    “Luck egalitarianism is… also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.”

    • This doesn’t look like a problem with luck egalitarianism – genetic predispositions to risk taking are a result of brute luck, so it looks like we have more a practical problem in both identifying the boundaries of brute luck and measuring levels of predispositions to risk taking in individuals. See the above on dealing with practical problems with luck egalitarianism.

    “And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.”

    • But if they had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth they reveal it to the rest of society anyway – this is what luck egalitarianism is trying to address. If these things weren’t revealed to the rest of society anyway, then there would be no problem, since there would be no way that these things could be a disadvantage. No additional ‘revealing’ is being done here by luck egalitarian policy. Aaaaahhhh, the Andersonian/Wolffian Shameful Revelations Objection.

    “Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.”

    • Value pluralism should take care of these additional concerns. However, if the inequalities are done away with, surely we can’t call oppressive actions ‘oppressive’ anymore, or discriminatory actions ‘discriminatory’ anymore – think of the Jim Crow era-South in the US. Black people were not allowed to drink at the same water fountains as white people. Equalisation (one fountain for black and white people to share) would necessarily remove the discrimination. With ‘oppression’ you have to go into what ‘oppression’ actually means (see: Iris Marion Young; much of Anderson’s other work), but if you remove the effects of ‘oppression’ then surely you are removing what is morally relevant about oppression (unless you count, say, undisclosed personal thoughts as ‘oppressive’).

    “This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.”

    • I think luck egalitarians would deny ‘money or life’ was a choice; one example would be Cohen talking about a ‘genuine’ choice, which eliminates concerns about the status of options selected within ‘choice sets with n-1 options in that set being unpalatable’ as falling in the ambitions/choices/option-luck camp.

    “Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?”

    • Probably; I think people underplay how strongly egalitarian a theory like luck egalitarianism actually is. The above is really a concern about the process of evaluating whether an effect is down to endowments/chance/brute-luck or ambitions/choice/option-luck. Cognitive scientists and biologists might have to do some work on this kind of thing (character), but also note that character can be heavily influenced by upbringing, which is a matter of brute luck.

    1. Much of this can be solved by recognizing that there are different forms of luck egalitarianism. I’ll come back to your different points later, when I find some time. Feel free to remind me.

      1. That’s great. Thanks for the reply! I thought this post was written too long ago and I’d missed the boat.

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