The Ethics of Human Rights (67): What Kind of Redistribution Does Luck Egalitarianism Require?

Luck egalitarianism is the theory of justice according to which bad luck that falls on people through no fault or choice of their own, is an injustice that has to be remedied. Whatever the merits of this theory, it does broadly correspond to certain widely shared moral intuitions. When you lose a limb in an accident, or contract a terminal illness, you probably feel like “why me?” and ask yourself: “what did I do to deserve this?”, “why should I of all people suffer this fate”, and “why should I be worse off than others through no fault of my own?”. You’ll have the same feelings when you happen to be born in a poor country, with a disability, in a dysfunctional family or in a discriminated cast or class. Such instances of bad luck lead to vastly unequal opportunities. And it does seem to be the case that inequality that is attributable to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities is less acceptable – morally speaking – than inequality that is wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make.

Of course, bad luck is unavoidable, but we can do something about the unequal opportunities it creates. This will inevitably lead to some kind of redistribution. The redistribution required by luck egalitarianism means that the lucky among us should transfer to those less fortunate some of the advantages that have come to us through luck. For example, we should pay taxes that are used to make life easier for the disabled. We can’t redistribute luck (for example, we can’t redistribute disease, accidents etc.). Hence we have to redistribute the consequences of luck. We should make the consequences of bad luck less severe or a bit easier to carry, and we should do so by skimming some of the beneficial consequences of good luck.

The redistribution required by luck egalitarianism is asymmetric: something must be done to help the unlucky, and that means taking something from the lucky; but it’s not the case that something must be done to make the lucky less lucky. It’s bad when people are worse off because of bad luck, but it’s not equally bad when people are better off because of good luck. Merit is important in life, and we admire people who are better off not because of good luck but because of what they did and who they are. But this admiration doesn’t imply condemnation of those who are better off simply because of good luck. The latter shouldn’t be condemned but they should part with some of their advantages in order to help those who are worse off because of bad luck. Bad luck is objectionable, and good luck is unobjectionable. But unobjectionable doesn’t mean that we are not allowed to confiscate part of the benefits of good luck in order to do something about objectionable bad luck.

And here we encounter one possible objection to luck egalitarianism: it seems like the theory doesn’t allow taxation of those who have acquired their wealth without any good luck (that is, if there are such people). Normally, most of us would want to impose a duty to help also on those who are better off not because of luck but because of what they did.

Other objections are here. More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (45): Open Borders, Luck Egalitarianism, and the Common Ownership of the Earth

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that argues in favor of interventions in people’s lives aimed at eliminating as far as possible the impact of luck. If you have the bad luck of being born into a poor family, your prospects in life should not be harmed by this and society should intervene in order to correct for it.

I’m not going to endorse luck egalitarianism because it’s a theory that suffers from some serious defects. However, the basic intuition seems sound to me and can be used to argue against immigration restrictions. Your country of birth is also a matter of luck, good luck or bad luck, depending on the country. It’s either good luck or bad luck because the place where you are born has a profound impact on your life prospects. The mere fact of having been born in Bolivia rather than the U.S. makes it statistically more likely that you will be poor, uneducated and unhealthy. Since no one chooses to be born somewhere, no one can be said to deserve the advantages or disadvantages that come with being born somewhere.

Hence, if Americans for example are just lucky to have been born in the U.S. and didn’t do anything to deserve being born there, what right do they have closing their borders and allowing access only to a chosen few selected according to criteria that they have unilaterally decided and that mainly serve their own interests? None whatsoever. In claiming that right they make it impossible for others to do something about the misfortune of having been born in a poor country. Hence, they double other people’s disadvantage.

As Joseph Carens has put it, immigration restrictions are the modern equivalent of feudal privilege, inherited status, birthrights and class rule. In our current, so-called modern and Enlightened societies, the good luck of being born in a wealthy country supposedly gives you the right to exclude others, just as in the olden days the fact of having been born in the class of nobles or aristocrats gave you the right to condemn others to the class of paupers. The lottery of birth yields unfair advantages in both cases.

One may claim that none of this necessarily argues in favor of open borders. The fortunate of this earth could compensate for their good luck by other means. For example, they could have a duty, not to open their borders, but to transfer money and resources to those who have had the bad luck of being born in the wrong country.

Obviously, assistance is a moral duty, but I fail to see how the fulfillment of this duty could grant you the right to close your borders. Those who argue that assistance is enough often use a domestic analogy. Consider Hugh Hefner, for example. The point is not that he probably wouldn’t have had the wealth he has now if he hadn’t been born in a country (or granted access to a country) where the average citizen is wealthy enough to spend large amounts of money on soft porn. The point is that there are millions of other people in the U.S. who, through no fault of their own, are burdened with bad luck, a lack of talent or a lack of education opportunities making it difficult or impossible for them to collect a Hefnerian amount of wealth, or even just a fraction of it. These people don’t deserve their lack of talent etc., just as poor Zimbabweans don’t deserve to have been born in Zimbabwe. Should Hefner therefore open the doors of Playboy Mansion? Or is it enough that he pays taxes to fund the welfare state? Most would choose the latter option.

What’s the difference between this domestic situation and the international one? If Hefner doesn’t have to welcome thousands of unfortunate U.S. citizens to his Playboy Mansion, why should the whole of the U.S. citizenry have to welcome millions of immigrants onto their territory? Well, because it’s not their territory, at least not in the way Playboy Mansion is Hefner’s property. People don’t have property rights to a part of the surface of the earth like they may have property rights to things. I have a long argument here in favor of the common ownership of the earth, and I invite you to click the link and read it. It’s too long to repeat it here, but suffice it to say that it leads to a strong presumption in favor of open borders without destroying the possibility of having borders and states in the first place.

More on open borders here.

What is Equality? (3): Equality of Rights

Equality of what? There’s hardly a more confusing philosophical question. This is my attempt at sorting things out. I apologize for the length of this post, but there’s a lot to digest.

Equality of resources

A well-known problem with theories that focus on equality of resources is that different people need different resources because they have different abilities and different needs. Someone may need more food (in terms of calorie intake) because she has a physically demanding job, or may need more education than the average person because she has a brain dysfunction making it difficult for her to read or remember. Someone with a physical handicap may need expensive tools such as a wheelchair – and therefore more resources compared to a person not suffering a handicap – in order to have the same capability or opportunity to realize freely chosen goals as that other person.

The latter is an important point which I’ll come back to later on: you can’t just think about resources in isolation; you’ll have to consider which purposes these resources serve. Even if different people have the same purposes, they need different amounts of resources to achieve these purposes (and when they have different purposes, the need for unequal resources is even stronger). Hence, equality of resources seems to be an inadequate theory of equality.

A standard reply by resource based theories of equality is to count someone’s abilities (such as the ability to walk) as resources and try to equalize those as well. In our example, the handicapped person would then have equal resources when she has more money than average and just enough money to compensate the loss of resources resulting from her handicap. So it looks like equality of resources is a theory that can be salvaged.

The problem with this rescue is that not all abilities can be equalized by way of the redistribution of resources. Certain handicaps can be reasonably compensated by way of extra (financial or other) resources; paralysis may be one of them, especially given the most recent breakthroughs. But other handicaps can’t. A blind person for instance will probably never have equal abilities, no matter how much extra money or tools she gets. Her loss of eyesight is a loss of resources that can’t be fully compensated by other, equivalent resources.

Another problem with this attempted rescue of the equality of resources theory: there’s no good reason to limit abilities to physical ones. Talents are also abilities, and if you insist that all abilities are resources that should be equalized as much as possible then you’ll have to explain how to equalize talent. It seems very difficult if not impossible to supply extra resources to the less talented so that they end up with equal resources compared to the more talented. Like in the case of many physical abilities, a lack of talent can’t be compensated by way of extra resources.

So the attempt to rescue resource theories by including abilities in the pot of resources looks like it’s bound to fail. Resource theorist could reply that abilities and talents should be viewed as commonly owned resources. And, indeed, no one deserves her talents or most of her abilities; those are largely a matter of luck. Hence it’s not silly to view them as commonly owned. A talented person using her talents only for her personal benefit seems to be making an unjust use of her good luck. If abilities and talents are viewed as a common resource, then equality of resources could be achieved by giving those with few abilities and talents a right to use a share of the abilities and talents of others. However, this solution to the problems faced by resource theories creates another problem because it seems to imply the slavery of the talented (in the words of Dworkin). A talented person will find that she is less able to realize her freely chosen goals compared to another, less talented person, and equality of resource is justified, if at all, by the fact that it allows people to have an equal ability to realize goals. We thereby reverse the initial problem faced by resource theories, and put the burden of equality of resources on those with more abilities rather than on those with less abilities. That’s not a solution; it’s shifting the problem elsewhere.

If we can’t equalize all abilities, maybe equality should be limited: we can try to equalize as many abilities as possible and as far as possible. We can’t equalize a blind person’s abilities, but we can go some distance towards equality (we can offer Braille, improved transportation infrastructure etc.). We can’t equalize the abilities of a person without any talent, but we can offer this person some resources that help her attain a decent level of abilities.

Equality of preference satisfaction

But then we’ll have to say something more: we can’t talk about abilities in isolation (like we can’t talk about resources in isolation); we have to answer the question: abilities to do or be what exactly? One possible answer, and in fact the traditional liberal answer is: whatever people think they should do or be. Then we’re essentially talking about equality of preference satisfaction. Welfare is another word for preference satisfaction and the theory that tries to equalize people’s preference satisfaction is usually called equality of welfare. The purpose is then to distribute resources and improve abilities in such a way that people’s preference satisfaction (or welfare) is equal, or rather as equal as possible given people’s different and often fixed abilities to do things.

However, this theory faces a similar problem as equality of resources: people don’t just have unequal abilities and talents but also unequal preferences (preferences in the sense of the ability to do or be something). And those different preferences require different amounts and types of resources. As such, that’s not a problem. The problem is that some people have preferences that requires very large amounts of resources in order to be satisfied, and these extraordinary preferences are often self-chosen. In this case, these people’s claim on others to the resources necessary for the satisfaction of their extraordinary preferences seems hard to justify, especially from an egalitarian viewpoint. Society is under no obligation to redistribute resources to these people in order to guarantee equal preference satisfaction. Caviar fans have to work for their own money. And if they won’t, well then they have to adapt their preferences rather than appeal to society to redistribute the resources they need for their preference satisfaction. This is one reason why equality of preference satisfaction also seems to fail as a valid theory of equality.

However, we shouldn’t always force people to take care of their unequal or extraordinary preferences by themselves or to modify their preferences if they can’t. Some idiosyncratic preferences are closely connected to people’s identities, and in some cases those may not be self-chosen. Indigenous tribes may consider it essential to their unchosen identity that they have an exclusive right to a certain part of a country’s territory and resources (such as hunting grounds and the stock of fish or deer). There may even be self-chosen preferences that merit the same treatment. People with a preference for artistic expression may have a good claim to transfers of social resources (in the form of subsidies for the arts for instance). In those cases, equality of preference satisfaction does also apply to extraordinary preferences.

Still, notwithstanding these counter-examples, there are numerous cases of preferences requiring relatively large amounts of resources that those holding the preferences can’t produce themselves and at the same time can’t legitimately claim from society. Hence, equality of preference satisfaction does not seem a worthwhile goal.

And it’s not worthwhile for another reason as well. It’s not just that some preferences require unjustifiably large amounts of resources; some preferences are immoral. One can’t justify redistribution of social resources for the satisfaction of immoral preferences. Yet another argument against equality of preference satisfaction results from reflection about the term “preferences”. What is a preference? Is it every unreflected desire? Or rather only those desires an agent would pursue if she had the chance to rationally consider and evaluate all possible desires on the basis of all pertinent information? Do we want a drug addict and a bacillophobe to engage in preference satisfaction? And to redistribute social resources in such a way that they can in an equal manner compared to students and entrepreneurs?

Welfare theories may start off with equality and neutrality regarding preferences (the liberal premise), but because of the problems of morality and unreflected or irrational preferences, they quickly become paternalistic. Welfare theories, compared to resource theories, have the advantage of focusing not on instrumental values but on what ultimately matters to people, namely preference satisfaction. But not everything that matters to people, or that people think matters to them, should receive equal social concern or approval. Some things that matter to some people should not be encouraged from a moral point of view, let alone be subsidized. Other things don’t merit support from redistribution of resources because those things are irrational or self-chosen, expensive and not instrumental to other values such as identity. But once you have to decide which things that matter to people should or should not have a place in social policies that aim at equal preference satisfaction, you are likely to act in a paternalistic way and endanger another important value, namely freedom.

And even when welfare theories manage to remain neutral regarding preferences and don’t encourage or discourage certain preferences, they face the problem of comparing amounts of preference satisfaction across different preferences. Does a music lover, who has the resources to listen to music one hour a day, have an equal level of preference satisfaction as the American Indian who is able to hunt and fish freely and undisturbed whenever he wants? Are those things not inherently incommensurable? If so, how are we to achieve equality?

Equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction

Given the problems faced by preference satisfaction theories, one could assume that theories of equality should move to equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction. Rather than distribute resources so that people have equal preference satisfaction, we could limit distribution to those resource people need in order to have an equal opportunity to satisfy their preferences.

This move, however, doesn’t solve anything. We don’t want people to have the opportunity to act immorally, let alone the equal opportunity. And neither do we want them to have the equal opportunity to do expensive and extravagant things.

Equality of rights

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess. We have to limit the range of equal opportunity, equal resources, equal abilities and equal preference satisfaction. A social and political regime should offer people an equal opportunity to a limited set of actions, functionings and beings, namely those that are necessary conditions for their human rights (see also here). People have equal human rights, and they should therefore have an equal opportunity to enjoy those rights in an equal way. Likewise, people should have the resources and abilities that are necessary for them to enjoy their rights, and their preference satisfaction should be a social concern and should be equalized only when those preferences are preferences for human rights (or for the conditions and resources for or the opportunities to enjoy human rights). (And yes, rights are preferences in the sense that they can be waived).

A problem faced by all theories of equality – including the one focused on or limited by equal human rights – is that people often squander their resources, their abilities, their preference satisfaction and their opportunities. They should be held responsible for their voluntary choices, and if those choices put them in a situation in which they have less resources, abilities, preference satisfaction or opportunities compared to others, then they don’t have a claim to more of those. That’s true for all resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities, except the resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities for human rights. If someone squanders her financial resources, she still has a right not to be poor. But if she loses her ability to acquire enough caviar, then she should take responsibility and not claim that society restores her resources. Similarly, if someone loses the ability to use her limbs through her own negligence, she still has a right to healthcare and mobility and a legitimate claim on society. However, if she thereby also squanders her ability to seduce men, she has no claim on anyone. If the same person has a preference for the enjoyment of a particular human right, but puts herself in a situation in which this enjoyment is impossible, she still has a claim to help. But her preference for fine chocolate made impossible through self-induced or non-self-induced diabetes doesn’t generate a legitimate claim on society. And, finally, if she squandered a good opportunity to education, she still has a valid claim to get some minimum level of education; if, however, she squandered a good dating opportunity, she doesn’t have a claim to the restoration of this opportunity.

Although the sidelining of responsibility is usually not a good thing, there are some practical advantages to it in this case. It’s often extremely difficult to detect responsible or irresponsible behavior. Seemingly irresponsible behavior may look like a voluntary choice but in reality it’s perhaps a choice that is determined by genetics, upbringing etc. Theories of equality which make responsibility and choice a precondition for equality – like luck egalitarianism for instance – face some challenging problems and a high risk of mistake.

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is yet another theory of equality. It demands that people’s unchosen luck (called brute luck, as opposed to option luck, the latter being the luck that people have when taking risks) be equalized. People should start life (in some versions of luck egalitarianism, adult life) with equal fortune, and equal fortune means equal resources, abilities and opportunities. They should be compensated for misfortune due to the lottery of birth. After that, all inequalities resulting from voluntary choice should be accepted by people themselves and by society.

Luck egalitarianism, like all other theories of equality discussed here (with the exception of equality of rights), is plagued by serious problems. Apart from the epistemological one (the difficulty of detecting voluntary choice and responsibility), there’s the problem of cruelty: why should we leave people to starve even if they have brought starvation upon themselves? They have, after all, a right not to starve. And then there’s the problem of intrusiveness: the epistemological problem will force luck egalitarian governments to enact KGB style measures in order to gain as much certainty as possible about responsibility. Other problems are discussed here.

The same solution is available here: instead of compensating people for all types of bad brute luck (but not option luck), we should compensate them for bad luck – brute or option – when this bad luck implies violations of their human rights or difficulties for future enjoyment of their human rights. People who are born paralyzed or who become paralyzed later in life – due to an accident which is or isn’t their own fault – all have a right to mobility and hence an egalitarian claim to social assistance. People who are born without talents or who squander their talents, don’t have such a claim because there is no right to have talent.

The Ethics of Human Rights (42): What’s the Best Approach to Distributive Justice?

What is distributive justice?

Distributive justice is a set of normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity. These benefits and burdens can be material goods and services, income, welfare or something else. Whatever they are, a theory of distributive justice will claim that they should be distributed or allocated to people according to some morally justified and morally just set of rules.

The assumption is that all government activity in some way affects the distribution of those benefits and burdens, whatever we do or believe, and that it’s important to guarantee that this distribution is done in a just way. So a theory of justice will propose rules for taking some benefits and burdens from people and giving them to others in a way that corresponds to ideals of justice.

Different types of distributive justice

Unfortunately, there isn’t one commonly accepted theory of justice. Different people have proposed different theories that describe different ideal methods of distributing different types of benefits and burdens. Some theories propose a more or less equal distribution of income; other theories focus on a more general understanding of benefits and talk about “welfare”. And some theories do not accept equal distributions and focus on desert. Etc. There are even some schools of thought that deny the justice of any sort of redistribution and argue that justice is about respecting property rights (libertarianism for instance). However, I’ll focus in this post on those who think that some kind of distributive justice is an important concern (which doesn’t imply that I believe that libertarianism is completely wrong about everything).

Let’s look at some of the more common theories and try to assess – superficially, I admit – what their respective merits are.

Strict egalitarianism

This theory of justice claims that all people should have the same level of material goods.

  • Advantages. This does seem to correspond to the basic moral rule that all people are owed equal respect.
  • Disadvantages. Different people have different needs, and so they need different and different amounts of goods. There’s also the problem of economic efficiency: strict equality removes incentives for economic productivity. Hence, it may result in overall wellbeing at a rather low level, making things worse for everyone. Conversely, everyone, even the worst off, can be made better off if goods/income/whatever are not distributed equally.

The Difference Principle

That last point was probably the origin of the so-called Difference Principle. This principle is part of John Rawls’ theory of justice. It does not demand strict equality as long as unequal distributions make the least advantaged in society better off than they would have been under strict equality. More precisely formulated: inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This principle is also called the maximin rule: an unequal distribution can be just when it maximizes the benefit to those who have the most minuscule allocation.

The justification of this principle is that higher incomes for more productive members of society provide those people with an incentive to be productive. And if they are productive, they produce more wealth, which can be used to benefit the least advantaged.

(Similar ideas can be found in sufficientarianism and prioritarianism).

  • Advantages. Contrary to egalitarianism, the focus is on the absolute wellbeing of the least advantaged, rather than their relative wellbeing, i.e. their (un)equal position. Hence, we avoid the egalitarian destruction of incentives and the resulting risk of leveling down.
  • Disadvantages. People’s relative positions are to some extent morally important. See this older post for a list of reasons why this is the case. Rawls does have a partial response to that concern because he argues that the inequalities permitted by the difference principle should be consistent with another rule of justice, namely the equality of rights and liberties. For example, high income inequality may make it impossible for people at the wrong end of this inequality to participate in democracy, to have their views represented and to get elected. Hence, Rawls argues for some corrections of inequality when inequality of resources negatively affects equal liberty. However, other disadvantages of inequality receive less attention. Another disadvantage of the Difference Principle is that it ignores desert.

Desert-based principles

It’s plausible to claim that a just distribution of goods should give people what they deserve, at least partially. We intuitively believe that at least some of the inequalities in life are deserved. People who work hard or contribute a lot to society deserve a higher level of wealth/income/welfare etc., even if such inequalities do not improve the position of the least advantaged. The hard working should not be forced to subsidize the lazy. They don’t deserve to be forced in this way, and the lazy don’t deserve to benefit in this way. (Many desert-based theories of justice are based on Locke’s theory of property).

Desert-based theories of justice claim that distributive systems are just insofar as they distribute benefits and burdens according to desert, at least partially. (This goes back to Aristotle).

  • Advantages. Desert is a strong moral intuition and it is therefore important to incorporate it in a theory of distributive justice. Theories that fail to do so will always seem unjust.
  • Disadvantages. We can make mistakes when deciding that some or other activity is deserving or meritorious. Distributions based on such mistakes will only be just by chance. But even when we don’t make these mistakes, it’s hard to measure and compare desert (is art more meritorious than science?). In addition, we can fail to identify real desert. Apparent desert may in fact be based on undeserved endowments. And that’s where luck egalitarianism comes in. (More problems with desert are described here).

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism can be viewed as a desert-based type of justice. It proposes to redistribute the benefits and burdens that people don’t deserve and that result from bad luck, for example the bad luck of being born poor, in a poor country, without talents etc. Bad luck in the initial distribution of natural or social endowments should not affect one’s life prospects or distributions of income/wealth/etc. People don’t deserve those endowments and hence don’t deserve the distributions that result from it. These distributions therefore need to be corrected and equalized. After having equalized people’s starting positions in life, we have to let people free to decide what to do with their lives. Those decisions are their responsibility and hence they deserve the outcomes of their decisions. After corrections for endowments, people who work deserve the benefits of their work, and people who are lazy or careless deserve the results of their laziness or carelessness.

  • Advantages. Luck egalitarianism avoids the pitfalls of both crude desert-based justice and strict egalitarianism.
  • Disadvantages. There may be cases in which people who bring bad luck or suffering on themselves still have a claim to assistance. Also, luck egalitarianism produces some bad incentives and can be seen as demeaning (go here for more detail).

International distributive justice, or cosmopolitan justice

A small detail in the theory of luck egalitarianism has far-reaching consequences. Among other things, people don’t deserve the places in which they are born. And yet, those places can determine whether you are rich or poor, free or persecuted etc. To some extent, poverty and persecution are just bad luck, the bad luck of being born in the wrong country. Residency and citizenship are as morally arbitrary as race, gender, natural endowments etc. No theory of justice that takes the equality of human beings serious can ignore the unequal distributions caused by the place of birth, and has to correct these distributions. Arbitrary facts about places of birth, border, residency or citizenship – just like genetic defects, race, gender etc. – cannot be allowed to determine people’s lives. Limiting the principles of justice to citizens or residents is unacceptable.

That means that redistribution should be international and not just between citizens of a particular country. Of course, it’s plausible that people have more responsibilities to those closer to them: parents have more responsibilities towards their children than towards the rest of humanity; friends should help each other etc. Closeness is morally relevant because it means more power: the closer you are to someone, the easier it is to help. But equal dignity and equal respect for all human beings is also morally relevant, and closeness therefore doesn’t mean that people who are far away and who are unknown to you and unrelated to you can’t legitimately demand assistance.

Preference to people close to you – and those people can perhaps include fellow nationals rather than just family and friends – shouldn’t be the only or overriding concern. We want to avoid chauvinism, parochialism and egoism. The metaphor of the family can turn nationalism into something very nasty. And anyway, the salience of closeness has been substantially reduced by technology: nowadays, it’s easy to send money abroad for example.

Still, in some plausible conception of international justice there can be room for some form of differentiation of duties towards fellow citizens and foreigners. International or cosmopolitan justice is therefore possibly coherent with the Difference Principle: international inequalities are acceptable if they improve the position of those who are globally worst off (although Rawls himself did not believe this because he correctly pointed to the absence of global institutions, and institutions are crucial to his theory).

  • Advantages. International (or cosmopolitan) justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities and people burdened with bad luck should be treated equally, why not foreigners? Borders are indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as gender, race or talent and they can’t, therefore, determine distributions. International justice assumes all the consequences of the theory of human equality and makes the theory of justice more coherent compared to theories that focus on domestic distribution only.
  • Disadvantages. International justice can burden the citizens of wealthy countries with extreme and unbearable responsibilities. After all, we want a coherent system of justice that treats people equally regardless of their place of birth. So it’s not just that rich countries have to prevent starvation and genocide abroad. That seems to be difficult enough already, but international justice makes things even more difficult because it gives people abroad the same benefits and burdens as citizens. That can imply, for example, completely open borders or far-reaching redistribution leading to substantially reduced welfare levels in rich countries. Another problem is more practical: it’s not clear how international redistribution should take place. In the case of national distribution there is a state taking care of it. Not so on the global level.

Distributive justice across generations

The same reasons that argue against the moral salience of closeness in space argue against the moral salience of closeness in time. The fact that some people will be born after our death isn’t a good reason to impose burdens on them. Hence, our distributive principles should take into account the interests of future generations. It wouldn’t be just to design a system of distributive justice that takes care of the least advantaged among us, that removes the influence of bad luck suffered by the living, that preserves a place for desert, that is insensitive to borders, and that at the same harms the interests of future generations (for example because it fails to provide a good system for the management of natural resources). More here on transgenerational justice.

  • Advantages. Like international justice, transgenerational justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities, people burdened with bad luck and foreigners should be treated equally, why not future generations? Time is indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as borders, gender, race or talent and can’t, therefore, determine distributions.
  • Disadvantages. Again, like in the case of international justice, we run the risk of imposing enormous burdens on the present generations. Moreover, there’s the so-called repugnant conclusion: if we multiply the number of future people – which is potentially a very large number of people – then we run the risk of drowning the interests of present generations. A small benefit for a very large number of future people will then justify a very heavy burden on the limited number of people currently alive. However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the interests of future people.

Welfare-based principles

Theories of justice can also focus on welfare. According to welfare-based theories of distributive justice, the only value of goods, resources, desert-claims, equal freedom and even equality is their positive effect on welfare. Distributive principles should then be designed so that they enhance welfare. Welfare maximization is the only criterion to decide distributive rules.

Utilitarianism is the main welfare-based theory of justice. “Utility” can be understood as more or less identical to “welfare”. It can be defined as pleasure, preference satisfaction, happiness etc. According to utilitarianism, distributing benefits and burdens means distributing them in such a way that we maximize overall utility (i.e. overall preference satisfaction, happiness etc.). We have to choose the pattern of distribution that maximizes the sum of all satisfied preferences, of all instances of happiness etc. (unsatisfied preferences or unhappiness count as negatives, and some “higher” or more intense preferences may be weighted higher, depending on the type of utilitarianism we are talking about).

  • Advantages. Utilitarianism’s main advantage is its compatibility with freedom: it doesn’t prefer particular types of preferences, pleasure, happiness etc., and it therefore allows people to realize their own visions of the good life.
  • Disadvantages. What about evil preferences, such as hate and racism? If those kinds of preferences are widespread and the individual targets of those preferences are a minority, then the latter will suffer because overall wellbeing will be increased by allowing the realization of evil preferences. Also, it’s not because it’s rational for an individual to sacrifice some present preferences for a larger future gain, that it’s moral for a society to sacrifice individuals for the gain of the whole, as utilitarianism often requires. That is why some utilitarians have added rights or rules to their equations: preferences can only be satisfied when they don’t violate the rights of others.

Feminist approaches

Feminism has convincingly argued that the traditional theories of justice described above tend to ignore how distributive principles affect the fate of women, especially given the fact that women still have primary responsibility for child-rearing. Distributions within the family are usually not discussed in theories of justice. Therefore, these theories can be criticized as paternalistic or at least unwittingly supportive of paternalism. Many theories of justice include specific rules about the protection of the private sphere as an area that is off-limits for the government and hence for distributive efforts. So theories of justice have made themselves powerless to address gender inequality.

Conclusion: What’s the best approach to distributive justice?

So, after all this and if you’re still with me, what do we take away? Strict equality and simple utilitarianism seem the least appealing. And any coherent approach has to include rules that apply both nationally and globally, has to be gender sensitive and has to reserve some attention to desert. Intergenerational concerns are also hard to avoid if we want to maintain coherence, although perhaps we could limit the impact of the demands of future generations by claiming that actual suffering is more urgent than possible suffering.

This brings back the concern of the burden justice imposes on people. If we want to take the best of all the previously described approaches to distributive justice, we necessarily end up with a “thick” conception of justice, imposing a heavy burden. We have to take into account all people currently living, not just our fellow citizens, as well as people not yet born. And we have to give special attention to gender. But at the same time we don’t want to have a theory of justice that’s so burdensome that people will say: thank you but no thanks. It’s fine to have a coherent theory of justice but if this coherence leads to impossible demands on people or demands they are not (yet) willing to accept, then the practical use of that theory is nil.

One possible reaction to this concern about the burden of justice is the adoption of a prioritarian approach, and more specifically a global gender sensitive prioritarianism with a time preference: the worst off should get the most attention. For example, poor women currently living in a patriarchal society should be the first beneficiaries of redistribution. The disadvantage of this is that it will force us to abandon, temporarily, a lot of people we don’t want to abandon, for example welfare beneficiaries in rich countries. Or we could bite the bullet and say with Peter Singer that the burden is what it is and we should carry it. Morality may be more demanding than we had initially thought. Rather than adapting morality in order to diminish its burden, we just accept the burden.

More posts in this series are here.

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”?