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Samuel Freeman, University of Pennsylvania
Posted 2/26/98

a-drop.gif - 1.3 Kccording to John Kekes, egalitarians maintain that "all serious inequalities are unjustified unless they benefit everyone in one's society, especially those who are worst off."[1] Consequently egalitarianism "requires the redistribution of primary goods, which involves taking them from those who are better off and giving them to those who are worse off." Egalitarianism is one aim and justification of welfare state policies such as "graduated taxation, affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, the preferential treatment of various minorities and women, and a whole panoply of antipoverty policies...." (p.658)

Kekes then runs his reductio argument: Life expectancy is a primary good. Men's life expectancy is 10% less than women's. This inequality results from contingent facts, and is therefore "morally objectionable." Egalitarians are bound to enact programs that either reduce it or compensate the worse off: better health care, shorter work days, more vacation time, and "pleasure centers" for men; allocating more stressful jobs to women; and other measures that "equalize the life expectancy of men and women by making men have longer and women shorter lives." (p.661)

Kekes contends these "absurd policies follow from basic egalitarian beliefs." Their absurdity casts doubt on egalitarian principles, and on the familiar policies of the welfare state.(p.662)

Following Kekes's account, egalitarianism should also be committed to making attractive people uglier, lean people fatter, and agile people clumsier, for people worse off in these respects would all benefit from a more favorable comparison. Kekes depicts egalitarianism as if it held that the world is morally better the more people resemble one another in every significant respect. Egalitarianism requires homogenization, and when this is not possible, compensation is due the disadvantaged.

No egalitarian endorses this position. Egalitarians hold that there are one or more morally relevant respects in which individuals ought to be equal (in welfare, basic capabilities, fulfillment of basic needs, or resources such as basic liberties, opportunities, and income and wealth). To equalize individuals in one respect requires inequality in others. Equal freedoms and opportunities result in unequal welfare. Equal welfare requires unequal wealth, perhaps even unequal freedoms. Even equal incomes result in unequal wealth given different saving rates. Egalitarians recognize that equality in every respect is not possible. None hold it is desirable.

Kekes's argument aims at liberal egalitarians like Rawls, Nagel, and Dworkin, who focus on equality of primary social resources. Social goods are deemed primary when they are among basic social needs. By assigning priority among primary social goods to equal basic liberties and then opportunities, an egalitarian view becomes liberal. Income and wealth are primary since, in addition to being all-purpose means to successfully pursuing conceptions of the good, they are needed to effectively exercise basic freedoms and take advantage of opportunities.

I focus on Rawls's account, since Kekes relies on the difference principle for his caricature. Rawls is clear that only primary social goods are the subject of distributive justice. Life expectancy is a natural, not a social good (a fact Kekes recognizes near the end of his discussion). There are biological reasons why men's life span is shorter than women's (greater body mass, etc.). Also, like innate mental and physical capacities, life expectancy depends on individuals' natural luck (genetic lineage, etc.) Such genuine natural differences among individuals and the sexes are not in themselves "morally objectionable." They are simply natural facts. Liberal egalitarians do not call for eliminating genuine natural advantages (e.g. "making...women [live] shorter lives"). To do so would violate the integrity of persons and the equal basic liberties that define a liberal egalitarian view. Moreover, the less advantaged would not benefit from such policies; indeed the naturally fortunate can and often do benefit others. What is "morally objectionable" is not then unequal natural goods, but organizing basic institutions to distribute social goods to reflect natural fortune. Then the naturally disadvantaged are penalized for their misfortune, while the naturally fortunate benefit at their expense.

Though largely determined by nature, life expectancy and other natural goods are also socially influenced, by social luck, public health, people's free life choices (occupation, exercise, diet, smoking, etc.), and their level of income, wealth, health care, etc. Perhaps for this reason Kekes claims that egalitarians still "aim to exercise social control over natural goods." (p.667) This is misleading. Life expectancy and natural aptitudes are not funds that can be dispensed at will. The most that society can legitimately do in affecting the distribution of natural goods is provide the social bases for realizing and enjoying the natural goods that a person is endowed with. These social bases are the primary social goods.

In providing the social bases for enjoying natural goods, liberal egalitarians do not aim to equalize natural goods. Rather, they seek to establish conditions where each person is enabled to live a normal healthy life span and freely realize their basic natural capabilities.[2] Natural inequalities are a problem only when they are used to prevent the less advantaged from developing and exercising the natural capacities they have. This occurs when society denies the disadvantaged the social bases to ameliorate natural deficiencies that can be remedied. Consider the increasing disparity in life expectancy between the rich and the poor in the U.S. Largely because of growing income inequality, differences in life expectancy between the highest and lowest income classes are not only greater in the United States than in all of Europe, but are of "the sort found between poverty-ridden Sierra Leone and wealthy Japan."[3] Here, unlike Kekes's example, inequality in primary social goods is the genuine cause of an inequality in the enjoyment of a natural good (normal life span) to the detriment of those worse off.

Kekes also mistakenly contends liberal egalitarians aim to "compensate" the naturally disadvantaged when equalizing natural goods is not feasible. He quotes (p. 661, see also p.660) Rawls on the principle of redress, which says that "undeserved inequalities...are to be somehow compensated for." But then Rawls goes on to deny the position Kekes attributes to him:

The difference principle is not of course the principle of redress. It does not require society to try to even out handicaps as if all were expected to compete on a fair basis in the same race.[4]

Distribution of Rawls's primary social goods has nothing to do with compensation. How are the disadvantaged "compensated" by affording them basic liberties and fair opportunities that are equal to everyone else? Moreover, the difference principle is based on considerations of fair reciprocity, not compensation for disadvantages. It requires, in effect, that social institutions guarantee everyone a fair and adequate share of income and wealth so that each person can achieve independence, by (a) effectively exercising their basic liberties; (b) taking advantage of the fair opportunities for achieving powers and positions open to persons with similar natural capacities; and (c) pursuing a freely chosen life-plan realizing their natural capacities.

Summing up, liberal egalitarians seek an ideal of political, social, and economic equality, not natural equality. Focus on the least advantaged's share of primary social goods is not then driven by a concern to compensate them for their natural disadvantages. Rawls's requirement that social institutions be designed to fairly distribute primary social goods for everyone's benefit has different purposes.

Kekes contends liberal egalitarians are unclear whether primary goods are to be distributed specifically or in combination. This too is mistaken. Whether primary goods are to be distributed individually or jointly depends on the significance of the goods at issue. Rawls's principles of justice clearly require specific distributions of basic liberties and fair opportunities. (1) The first principle mandates equal distribution of basic liberties, and their priority over distributions of all other primary social goods. (Society cannot then allocate more stressful and hazardous jobs to women, since this violates their freedom of occupation and choice of careers.) (2) The second principle requires equal distribution of fair opportunities and their priority over the remaining social goods. (This rules out giving men shorter work days, and longer vacations.) (3) Rawls's difference principle holds that the remaining social goods (income and wealth, (legal) powers and positions of authority, and the remaining bases of self-respect) are to be combined according to an "index," and distributed by focusing on those who are worst off in terms of their share of these goods.

What of the problem of practical implementation Kekes raises? (p.665) Interpersonal comparisons are a practical difficulty for any conception of distributive justice, whether its basis of comparison is primary social goods, welfare, basic capabilities, or (Kekes's position in Against Liberalism, p.128) moral merit combined with other criteria. One reason for liberals to focus on primary social goods is that they allow for more objective comparisons; distributive shares are then capable of being publicly assessed and agreed to. Having public criteria for interpersonal comparisons, without having to rely upon arcane assessments by authorities or experts, fits with democratic principles; moreover they prevent resentment and peoples' fear of having been shortchanged. Still, with objective indicators there remains the problem of ranking individuals according to their combined share (in Rawls's case, of income and wealth, legal powers and positions, and the social bases of self-respect other than equal basic liberties and fair equal opportunities.)

Rawls's difference principle deals with this problem by assuming that individuals' shares of income and wealth are, for practical purposes, a sufficiently accurate measure of their combined share of these three groups of primary social goods. After all, the powers people exercise in society, and their occupational bases for self-respect, do approximately correlate with their level of income and wealth; and in the most significant case of deciding who is worst off in these respects, it accurately correlates with their share of income and wealth--the persistently unemployed and minimum wage workers are almost always worst off in all three respects. If we remain with Rawls's list of primary social goods, there is no major problem of practical implementation.

But where does this list of primary goods come from? This is the more substantial question Kekes raises. He claims that Rawls's account is "impressionistic," that without a complete list of primary goods the worst off cannot be identified, and that in fact there is no "authoritative" list of primary goods.

(a) There is nothing "impressionistic" about Rawls's list of primary social goods. He explicitly argues the reasons for each good. Briefly, consider his account: Social goods that are "primary" are rational for each to want to enable them to live a "rational life-plan". The primacy of social goods depends to some extent upon how people conceive of themselves in a society, and upon other cultural conditions. Rawls contends that in modern democratic societies there is an ideal of the person that informs people's conception of themselves as citizens: in our capacity as citizens we conceive of ourselves as free and equal, with the "moral powers" to cooperate with others on fair terms (the capacity for a sense of justice), and to rationally plan and take responsibility for our lives (the capacity for a conception of the good). Certain social goods are essential if we are to realize our moral powers and maintain our self-conception as "free and equal moral persons." So far as we conceive of our political relations as free and equal, it is rational to want these social goods since (1) they are necessary conditions for the exercise and development of the two moral powers that enable us to take part in and benefit from social cooperation; and (2) these goods are all-purpose means for developing other natural capacities and realizing most any permissible conception of the good in a democratic society.

Kekes says nothing to dispute this argument (indeed he does not seem to be aware of it.) He does not even contest the desirability of Rawls's primary goods, but instead contends that the list is incomplete.

(b) Why is it incomplete? Because, " 'A rational man' will want a lot of other things in addition to these primary goods, such as a satisfying sex life, an interesting job, success, no physical and psychological pain, a meaningful life, not to die prematurely, not to be bored or ridiculed, and so on." (p.665)

Why is this a problem? Some of Kekes's goods (no physical pain, no premature death) are natural, not social, goods. To the extent that they are socially influenced, they are already taken care of by Rawls's list (for example, by adequate health care which is a condition of fair opportunity [5]). "Interesting jobs" are also covered, to the extent this is legitimate and possible, by the primary goods of "powers and positions," which each is to have a "fair equal opportunity" to pursue. "Success," while largely a social good, depends on a person's efforts, achievements, and freely determined life-plan; though society can and should provide the conditions for a successful life (one role of the primary social goods), how could it distribute success? Having a "meaningful life" depends upon a person's conscientious conception of the good; again, while society can and should provide for its necessary social bases, a meaningful life is not something others can provide for you.

Moreover, achieving most of the goods Kekes lists depends upon the willing cooperation of others as they freely exercise their judgment and pursue their own life plans. Even if we could make sense of society's distributing success, meaningful lives, satisfying sex lives, etc., for any institution to attempt to do so would violate the equal basic liberties that have priority in a liberal egalitarian view.

Finally, primary social goods are conceived, not as intrinsic goods (like success, a meaningful life, interesting jobs, etc.), but as enabling goods that are essential if free individuals themselves are to develop their natural capacities and achieve life's intrinsic goods. The centrality of equal freedom to a liberal egalitarian view implies that the intrinsic goods Kekes finds lacking from Rawls' list often are goods for free and equal persons only when achieved through their free activity. How meaningful or successful can a person's life be if someone else designs and executes a life plan for her? Each competent person is responsible for achieving her own good. It is the role of liberal egalitarian institutions to provide citizens with the essential social means for living what they freely decide to be a successful and meaningful life. It is not society's role to provide this life for people. To do so would grossly infringe upon their freedom, equality, and sense of self-respect.

(c) So I do not see how Kekes's list poses any genuine challenge to liberal egalitarianism. Rawls's list of primary social goods, while it may not be "authoritative" (Rawls does not claim that it is), is surely not "impressionistic." If it does not capture all of the social goods that it is possible and within the legitimate powers of a liberal and democratic society to distribute, it does encompasses those most essential. Given the priority of basic liberties among the primary social goods, there is not much else that can be placed on Rawls's list that can be legitimately and fairly distributed by a liberal political system.

Kekes says: "A lot of inequalities...are not due to social injustice, but to personal shortcomings and misfortune." True, but this is not a problem for liberal egalitarians. A person who is denied a desirable position because he is obnoxious, or who loses his share of justly accumulated wealth gambling on the stock market, is not to be compensated in a just society. (On the other hand, he's not expected to move his family out into the streets either.) But the inequalities liberal egalitarians are concerned to rectify are not due to such personality defects or individuals' free use of their fair shares. Gross poverty in an affluent society such as our own is not mere misfortune. It results from acquiescence in the way social institutions assign legal powers and rights to income and wealth. The "welfare state" policies Kekes condemns are a haphazard effort to rectify these inequalities.

Judging from his criticisms of these policies, Kekes does not object to the current system of extensive private ownership and market distributions that precede government mandated distributions. He says egalitarian programs "involve depriving people of what they have acquired by legitimate means." (p.668) But it begs the question to contend that the small minority of people who control well over half of national wealth "have acquired [it] by legitimate means." Legally legitimate means perhaps, but this does not imply that whatever apportionment results from uninhibited markets and bequests is just. Underlying Kekes's railings against welfare state "redistributions" is the hidden assumption that apportioning benefits to those worse off violates the rights of those better off. But it is not a "redistribution" of wealth if those better off do not have a right to it to begin with. Egalitarians contend that, simply because persons come to physically possess wealth and income through gift or market exchange does not imply that they have absolute property rights in the full proceeds of market transfers.

To conclude: The main problem with Kekes's argument is that he construes egalitarianism as holding that any arbitrary difference between individuals requires correction by society. "One basic egalitarian belief is that all serious inequalities are instances of social injustice." (668-69) Kekes claims to have disproven this belief. It is simply not true that liberal egalitarians entertain it. The liberal egalitarianism Kekes attacks assigns priority to equal basic freedoms, and then to fair equal opportunities, so society is restricted in what it may legitimately do to rectify many inequalities. Second, natural inequalities in life expectancy, natural intelligence, and physical ability, are simply natural facts, and are ineradicable no matter what social efforts are brought to bear. Liberal egalitarianism does not require "compensation" to those who are worse off because of these natural accidents or misfortunes. What it requires is that social institutions (1) not be structured so as to exaggerate the effects of natural misfortune, but (2) be designed for everyone's benefit, to distribute primary social goods so that each person has fully adequate means to shape a meaningful life, given their capacities, and to exercise the powers of equal citizens. A social system set up to award the great proportion of primary social goods to those already most favored by birth only compounds the misfortune of the worse off, and doubly rewards those already naturally (or socially) favored. It is to mitigate the effects of natural and social misfortune, compatible with equal freedom and fair reciprocity, that underlies efforts to make the worse off as well off as they can be in their share of the remaining primary social goods. I fail to see the absurdity of this egalitarian position or of the policies it supports.


1. "A Question for Egalitarians," Ethics, 107 (July 1997): 658-669. See also Kekes's Against Liberalism, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp.100-109, with the same argument.

2. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992) p.186.

3. Michael Walzer, "The Big Shrug," The New Republic, vol. 218, no.5, February 2, 1998, p.9, reporting on a county by county study of life expectancy in the U.S. undertaken by Christopher Murray of Harvard.

4. A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp.100, 101. Kekes also quotes out of context Nagel's rhetorical question--"How could it not be an evil that some people's prospects at birth are radically inferior to others?"--to support his claim that egalitarians must find differences in life expectancy morally objectionable. (Kekes, p.660) The context of Nagel's query shows he is referring to inferior life prospects due to social, not natural, inequalities. Nagel's question is framed by the following two sentences: "Yet class stratification is clearly an evil: [question] And it is not like the evil that some people are born with congenital handicaps." Nagel, Equality and Partiality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p.28.

5. Political Liberalism, pp.184-85.

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