symposium.gif - 4.0 K
kekes.gif - 4.1 K
Bear4.gif - 2.6 K

Richard Arneson, UC San Diego
Posted 2/26/98

i-drop.gif - 1.2 Kn "A Question for Egalitarians" John Kekes launches a vigorous attack on egalitarian theories of justice. Kekes construes his target, egalitarianism, as the position that significant inequalities are unjustified unless they benefit the worst off. He cites John Rawls and Thomas Nagel as proponents of the view he is attacking.[1] The attack consists in pointing out that significant inequalities among persons exist that no sensible person would attempt to undo or offset. The example on which he focuses is the disparity in expectations of longevity at birth between men and women born between 1970 and 1992 (along with projected longevity differences for those born up to 2010). Kekes's hostile question for egalitarians is why on their theories justice does not require the elimination of this inequality or the full compensation to men for the loss of about seven to eight years in life expectancy. How does this case differ from cases in which egalitarians confidently condemn inequality and call for its amelioration? In the absence of some compelling answer, which he doubts egalitarians can supply, a further hostile question arises. Is the difference between this case in which the implications of egalitarianism are counterintuitive and more familiar cases for which the egalitarian recommendations are claimed to be acceptable merely that we have not previously thought through the familiar cases? After due reflection, Kekes suggests, the strangeness of all egalitarian redistribution should become apparent, along with the entire absence of pro-egalitarian arguments capable of reconciling us to this odd doctrine. Egalitarianism then is unlikely to find a place among our considered judgments in wide reflective equilibrium.

Kekes's example is problematic in several respect that render it an unpromising vehicle for arriving at a definitive judgment concerning egalitarian theories of justice. I briefly discuss some of these problematic features.

1. Inequality between groups and persons. Insofar as we are concerned with inequalities in benefit levels among persons, what should move us are disparities between individuals, not disparities between groups. Suppose that women live seven years longer than men on the average. This could be true even if some women live shorter lives than any men, and some men live longer lives than any women. In this situation we could equalize the average life expectancy by bringing it about that the women whose life expectancies are lower than those of any men come to have even lower life expectancies, and by bringing it about that the men whose life expectancies are already higher than those of any women come to have even higher life expectancies. But the fact that equalizing average life expectancy between groups might occur without either raising the life expectancy of a single individual who is below the average life expectancy or lowering the life expectancy of a single individual who is above the average of all individuals indicates that inequality between groups is not per se undesirable according to the egalitarian.

In order to reorient Kekes's argument so that we need not judge it misdirected from the start, let us assume away the difficulty just raised. Let us suppose we are considering a world in which the group inequality between the average life expectancy of men and of women arises because each individual man has a life expectancy at birth lower than the life expectancy of every woman. We can represent Kekes as supposing that in this imaginary world, an egalitarian is bound by her egalitarian commitment to favor measures that reduce the inequality in life expectancy at birth among persons, and thereby equalize life expectancy between men and women.

2. Deep and shallow inequalities. Let's introduce a distinction between deep and shallow inequalities. I borrow the distinction from some remarks by John Rawls in chapter one of A Theory of Justice. Deep inequalities are inequalities among people's initial life prospects that are caused by factors entirely beyond individual power to control. Put another way, these inequalities are entirely brought about by differences in people's unchosen circumstances. In contrast, shallow inequalities are brought about by differences in the choices that individuals make that might render them differentially deserving or meritorious.

The inequality between the life expectancy at birth of men and women as presented by Kekes could be either a deep or a shallow inequality or a mixed case. Consider a simple conceivable scenario. The difference in life expectancy between men and women could be entirely attributable to anticipated differences in the lifestyle choices of men and women that affect longevity. Men might on the average consume more alcohol and tobacco products than women do, commit more acts that risk violent encounters, be less disposed to cooperate in interactions that are representable as single-play prisoner's dilemmas, and so on. On the face of it, an inequality in life expectancy attributable to these factors would be a shallow not deep inequality, and an egalitarianism sympathetically construed would be sensitive to this difference, so that the moral imperative of egalitarianism urges the elimination only of deep inequalities. Larry Temkin proposes that what defines one as an egalitarian is holding that it is undesirable that some people are worse off than others through no fault or voluntary choice of their own.[2] Along the same line, Nagel writes, "What seems bad is not that people should be unequal in advantages or disadvantages generally, but that they should be unequal in the advantages for which they are not responsible."[3]

Of course, if men's imprudent lifestyle choices accounted for the disparity in life expectancy between men and women, this would not be dispositive of the issue, whether the inequality is truly shallow. These differences in behavior might themselves be partly or even entirely attributable to genetic or socialization influence differences between men and women. In this case what had seemed an inequality due to choice for which individuals would be properly held responsible would have turned out to be an inequality due to unchosen circumstances manifesting themselves through choices. My point is simply that before one can assert that the egalitarian is committed to eliminating an inequality one must be in a position to determine that the inequality is deep not shallow. Kekes ascribes to egalitarians the (as he sees it, absurd) position that the difference between deep and shallow inequalities matters not at all from the standpoint of assessing the justice of redistribution. Rawls's views on responsibility and deservingness are complex,[4] but Kekes's characterization of the doctrine he is attacking clearly does not fit Nagel, one of his two announced targets. Moreover, it is beyond question that some egalitarians, notably Ronald Dworkin, make the distinction between deep and shallow inequality central to the formulation of the egalitarianism that they endorse.[5] So at most Kekes would have given us "A Question for Some Egalitarians." Kekes has not sought to find the extant version of egalitarianism that he finds most plausible in order to be in a position to show what is defective in the doctrine at its strongest.

In passing, I want to register some misgiving about taking the core egalitarian idea to be that it is undesirable that some people are worse off than others through no fault or voluntary choice of their own. I would have supposed that an egalitarian should not be neutral between two possible states of the world: one in which some people are far worse off than others, but the inequality arises entirely from fault and voluntary choice, and another world in which no one is worse off than anyone else, and no one's quality of voluntary choices and level of faulty conduct differ from anyone else's quality and level, so inequality does not exist and would not be warranted. I would suppose that any doctrine that is rightly called egalitarian should favor the second world over the first. But the task of formulating an acceptable canonical principle need not be completed to see that Kekes's dismissal of the egalitarian rests on misunderstanding.

3. Interpersonal comparison and the need for an index of benefits. Another doubt that might be raised about Kekes's presentation of the puzzle case for the egalitarian has to do with the overall benefit levels enjoyed by men and women. Suppose that men on the average do better than women along many significant dimensions of unchosen advantage. They also do worse than women in terms of longevity. In order to know whether the disparity between men's and women's longevity indicates a prima facie case for redistribution in favor of men, one has to know whether this particular disparity exacerbates or offsets the overall inequality in levels of expected benefit between men and women.

To his credit, Kekes calls attention to this complication, but his way of addressing it is odd. He notes that an egalitarian theory of justice requires a standard of interpersonal comparison. I agree. He observes that if individuals differ along several dimensions of advantage, one then needs an index: a way of determining, for any individuals who have different amounts of different kinds of advantage, how to attach weights to the disparate goods so that one can nonarbitrarily tell whether one individual enjoys a higher overall benefit level than another. Again, I concur. He asserts that egalitarian theorists have tended to underestimate the significance of the index problem, and once again I agree,[6] but he goes further yet, expressing global skepticism that the index problem is solvable without citing any reasons for this opinion.

My own view is that the best move for the egalitarian in the face of the interpersonal comparison problem is to embrace what has been called an "Objective List" measure of well-being,[7] but a discussion of the problems and prospects of this gambit is beyond the scope of this comment. Kekes does the egalitarian a service by calling attention to the difficulty.

Natural and social inequalities. One final presentation issue deserves mention. One might object to inequalities that are socially created without subscribing to the thought that inequalities in the talents and susceptibilities that people gain through their genetic endowments demand elimination or compensation. This distinction between social and natural inequalities is not especially clear as just stated, but I doubt that it would collapse under scrutiny and attempted refinement. Contrast (1) the status, power, and wealth inequalities of a caste hierarchy produced by major institutions and officially established practices and (2) the inequality in expected happiness, other things being equal, between someone with an inherited disposition toward cheerfulness and another person born with a grouchy and cheerless disposition. The latter difference will manifest itself in virtually any type of human society, it is not an artifact of social arrangements, even though social policy could offset it (e.g., tax breaks for the congenitally morose). This distinction between natural and social inequality matters for the appraisal of Kekes's polemic because his sample inequality between men's and women's life expectancy could turn out to be a purely natural inequality—a genetic difference between men and women that will express itself in any feasible social environment. Yet at least one of his target egalitarians, John Rawls, clearly limits the scope of his egalitarian concern to a type of socially created inequality, what Rawls refers to as inequalities in the basic structure of society. Here also the arrow that Kekes aims at egalitarianism flies wide of its target.

Despite the last sentence, I myself am sympathetic to the broader egalitarian position that Kekes criticizes. To borrow an example introduced by Robert Nozick, suppose you and I inhabit separate islands. No interaction of any type is possible between us; we are neither fellow members of society nor joint participants in a scheme of social cooperation. Through a spyglass I can see that the soil on your island is poor and that you will in consequence live badly. The soil on my island is excellent, so I will live well. I could place some resources in a boat that would float with prevailing currents to the shore of your island. With the transfer of these resources, you would live better, and I would live worse, though still better than you. Rawlsian egalitarian justice principles would not call for any redistribution in this setting. But according to egalitarian justice as I conceive it, I am obligated to transfer resources in these circumstances provided that the ratio of the cost that I incur from this transfer to the benefit that you gain by it is sufficiently favorable.

To sustain this judgment, you must be worse off than I am all things considered, according to a reasonable interpersonal measure of well-being. In calling this obligation a justice obligation I mean to convey the idea that other things being equal it would be appropriate for a third party to force me to comply with the obligation if I were disinclined to fulfill it. This is a case of obligation that is generated just by your suffering significant bad luck that is beyond your power to control.

Kekes evidently finds this idea that misfortune demands compensation to be absurd. What I do not yet see is how the longevity example, once its ambiguities are clarified, suggests any new argument in support of this finding.


1. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); also Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

2. Larry Temkin, Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 17.

3. Nagel, Equality and Partiality, p. 71.

4. See Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), chapter 3; Samuel Scheffler, "Responsibility, Reactive Attitudes, and Liberalism in Philosophy and Politics," Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 21, no. 4 (Fall, 1992): 299-323.

5. See Ronald Dworkin, "What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources," Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 10, no. 4 (Fall, 1981): 283-345.

6. On the index problem , see Richard Arneson, "Primary Goods Reconsidered," Nous, vol. 24 (1990): 429-454; also John E. Roemer, Theories of Distributive Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1996, pp. 167-172.

7. By Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 499-501.

back-symp.gif - 1.6 K