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Elizabeth Anderson, University of Michigan
([email protected])

Posted 12/22/99

m-drop.gif - 1.6 Ky critics Richard Arneson, Thomas Christiano, and David Sobel offer numerous penetrating criticisms of my article, "What is the Point of Equality?"  I shall first address their criticisms of my view, democratic egalitarianism, and then turn to their defenses of luck egalitarianism, the view I criticize.

Criticisms of Democratic Equality
Arneson, Christiano, and Sobel offer a range of criticisms of democratic equality, ranging from (1) matters of fundamental moral principle to (2) challenges that require clarification on my part of the implications of democratic equality.

1. A Matter of Principle:  Is the value of equality reducible to its impact on welfare?  Of all of my critics, Arneson expresses the most fundamental disagreement with my position.  He argues that relational equality matters only for its causal impact on people's welfare.  I argue that it involves matters of principle that cannot be reduced to welfarist considerations.  To fully engage this disagreement, we would have to confront the difference between Arneson's consequentialism and my anticonsequentialist moral theory.  It would take a book to show what is wrong with consequentialism.  For those who want to know I recommend my Value in Ethics and Economics.

Instead of pursuing our disagreement at this unwieldly level, I will instead try to illustrate it with an example.  In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that racially segregated schools, even if they were provided with equal resources, violated the principle of equality guaranteed by the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  Although virtually everyone today agrees with the Court's decision in this case, disagreements remain about the grounds for reaching it.  The Court cited social scientific studies that attempted to show that racial segregation "generates [in black students] a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community" and thereby interferes with their ability to learn (387 U.S. 483, at 494).  This is to condemn racial segregation for its negative causal impact on black students' welfare.

My own view is that the system of racial segregation would still have been morally wrong and ought to have been judged unconstitutional, even if the social scientific studies had shown that black students were not harmed by segregation.  Suppose the black students had had extraordinary spiritual strength, and bore the indignities of segregation without suffering psychological trauma, low self-esteem, or the like.  It would still have been wrong to brand them as inferiors, as the system of racial segregation did.  It is morally wrong to heap indignities even on those who can "take it."  Such action is wrong on account of the principles of contempt or inferiority that it expresses, whether or not it has a negative impact on others' welfare.  Indeed, I am confident that the Court intuitively understood this, notwithstanding its appeal to the welfare impact of segregation, when it declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" (387 U.S. 483, at 495, emphasis mine).

When I say that considerations of relational equality ought to constrain political decisions as a matter of principle, not on account of their impact on welfare, I mean this in the same sense that the Court had in mind when it declared that racial segregation of schools is wrong on account of being inherently unequal.  Arneson, given his consequentialist cast of mind, is liable to interpret this to mean that I oppose the state of affairs of state-mandated racial segregation, regardless of the consequences.  Then he could pose this challenge:  suppose black and white children had radically different physiological responses to the same highly contagious flu virus, such that what caused a mere cold in black children threatened death for white children?  Could this not justify racially segregating the schools for the duration of the flu epidemic?

My answer is:  of course such an emergency could justify racially segregating the schools.  But such an action represents no compromise of the principle of racial equality.  The principle of racial equality is a nonconsequentialist principle.  This means that it does not constrain action by mandating that some specific state of affairs obtain.  Rather, it constrains action by limiting what considerations may count as reasons for pursuing an end by certain means.  Centrally, but not exclusively, it forbids considerations of contempt and hostility for racial groups from counting as reasons for engaging in racial classification.  If the state were to racially segregate the schools as a necessary means to save children's lives, this reason for engaging in racial segregation would not be based on racial contempt or hostility, and so would not violate the principle of racial equality.

Thus, equality can and does matter in principle, apart from its impact on people's welfare.  It matters, not as a state of affairs to be achieved, but as a constraint on what kinds of considerations count as acceptable reasons for the state to act.  Whatever reasons the state acts on must be consistent with regarding all persons as moral equals, that is, with expressing equal respect for all.  I do not believe that any interpretation of this principle of moral equality will yield moral precepts of a consequentialist form (e.g., to maximize welfare, treating equal units of welfare equally, regardless of who enjoys them).  But that is another story, for which you will have to read my book.

2. Clarifying the Implications of Democratic Equality.  My critics draw some implications from democratic equality with which I do not agree, although they are not unreasonable interpretations of the text of my article.  Let me here clarify some of my positions.

(a) Cash or in-kind benefits?  Sobel argues that, because democratic equality is committed to providing the social conditions for people's freedom, and therefore to provide capabilities rather than specific functionings, it should in general prefer to provide benefits in cash rather than in kind.  People who need a wheelchair to get around should not be provided with a wheelchair (a specific functioning), but rather with its cash equivalent, which would give them a wider range of options, and thereby expand their freedom.

I reply, first, that democratic equality regards freedom as a count noun, not a mass noun.  It seeks to secure specific freedoms to people--for instance, the freedoms to move about, and to appear in public without shame--not to increase the total "amount" of generic freedom people enjoy.  There is no metric of freedom that can make sense of the latter goal.  Second, the provision of a wheelchair to a disabled person is the provision of a capability, not a functioning.  That is, what wheelchairs do for people who lack full use of their legs is give them the freedom to move about.  Whether they actually decide to move around to a significant degree--that is, whether they will then exercise the functioning of mobility--is up to them. Thus, democratic equality affords no general presumption in favor of cash over in-kind benefits.  Some capabilities require the provision of nondivisible means.  Wheelchairs cannot secure the freedom to move without a public infrastructure that accommodates them.  In other cases, vouchers may be a preferred option.  Rental vouchers are usually preferable to the construction of public housing projects as a means for providing adequate shelter to the poor.  In other cases, cash is appropriate.  These are pragmatic issues to be considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the social setting and the particular freedom to be secured.

(b) A relative, or absolute measure of capabilities?  Sobel argues that democratic equality cannot avoid the charge of pitying the beneficiaries of redistribution, because it measures capabilities relative to what others have, rather than against an absolute standard.  It is true that the determination of adequate levels of certain capabilities in a given society--for example, what kinds of clothing are necessary to be able to appear in public without shame--is not absolute.  But neither is this determination relative to what others actually have.  It is relative to social norms for dignified appearance in the society in question.  Thus, to determine whether the demands of democratic equality have been met, one need not compare what the worst off have compared to the better off.  No considerations of pity or envy enter into the evaluation.

(c) Is democratic equality simply a matter of securing thresholds of specific capabilities?  Arneson interprets democratic equality as requiring the absolute guarantee of certain thresholds of capabilities, while remaining completely indifferent about all inequalities beyond these thresholds.  It is true that one implication of democratic equality is that all citizens are entitled to a sufficient level of certain capabilities that they can escape oppression by others and function as equals in civil society.  Although this is the core of the view, concerns about equality do not stop there.  As I note on p. 326 of my article, the more wealth is effectively convertible into goods such as political influence, the more of an interest democratic equality has in reducing great wealth inequalities, say, through highly progressive taxation.  Moreover, my discussion of the economy as a comprehensive system of joint production is intended to provide a way of viewing the contributions of low-wage workers that could in principle motivate redistributive policies that push equality beyond ensuring that all have a minimum income.  I just doubt whether this way of viewing the matter would motivate equalization policies as ambitious as Rawls' difference principle.  To put the matter more concretely:  although there is a spectacular wealth difference between my family and Bill Gates' family, my family enjoys such a fully satisfactory level of prosperity that I think only considerations of envy could motivate resentment on my part of Gates' superior wealth.  I see no morally compelling reason to worry about wealth disparities between the prosperous middle class and the super-rich, provided the super-rich don't use their wealth to undermine democracy--for example, by buying elections--or to oppress other people.

This does not imply that democratic equality must be indifferent between, say, a progressive income tax and a flat tax with a high personal deduction.  There are compelling reasons to prefer a progressive income tax, independent of its tendency to globally reduce distributive inequality.  Instead of viewing the tax system as a tool for achieving an independently defined global pattern of just distribution, one can view the problem of just taxation as a matter of local justice.  A reasonable principle of just taxation is that people should share roughly equal burdens for supporting state projects, where burdens are relative to people's overall prosperity.  Bill Gates will never feel the difference between a 25% and a 35% marginal tax rate on income over $60,000, but the ordinary middle class will.  Of course, the principle of equal burdens is not the only principle of taxation; incentive effects, administrative efficiency, and numerous other considerations must also be factored in.

(d) Does democratic equality absolutely guarantee threshold capabilities to all, regardless of the cost?  Arneson argues that this is an unreasonable principle, because some individuals are so handicapped that it would take a spectacular expenditure of resources to bring them up to threshold level.  Democratic equality manifests a concern for equality in two places.  First, equality is built into the contractualist framework through which questions of justice are answered.  Contractualism asks what principles of social ordering can be collectively willed by a community of equals--that is, by reasonable people who have equal rights of participation and claims to be addressed as subjects to whom principles of collective living must be justified.  Only those principles (reasons for action) that can be collectively justified to all reasonable people, regarded as moral equals, are justified.  This is the sense in which equality matters in principle, as argued above.  The community of equals postulated in answering this question is a hypothetical one.

Second, the aspiration to actually achieve a certain kind of egalitarian community represents an interpretation of what goal a contractualist political theory would yield under modern conditions.

In this second sense, the community of equals represents an ideal, not an absolute moral requirement.  There will always be some individuals who lack the basic equipment to function effectively as an equal, or whose needs are so costly to satisfy up to threshold levels that compromises must be made.  To see what compromises of this ideal are reasonable, we would have to go back to our contractualist framework and ask what compromises can be collectively willed--what compromises can be justified to everyone, especially those left worst off by them.  Sen has shown that even some very poor societies have achieved impressive threshold levels of capability for nearly everyone.  This suggests to me that, especially for very prosperous societies such as those in North America and Western Europe, it is reasonable to allow exceptions to the general demand for equality only at the margins.

(e) Does democratic equality pose an absolute bar to conditioning access to the capabilities necessary for functioning as an equal on responsible behavior?  Sobel and Arneson seem to think it does, and articulate counterexamples where the just allocation of scarce resources (organs, emergency rescue efforts) intuitively depends on judgments of how responsible people have been.  Democratic equality takes a more nuanced approach to questions of personal responsibility than either barring these considerations altogether or letting them in without constraint.

First, it is evident that no system of criminal justice can operate without making judgments of responsibility, and that convicts can justly lose some of the freedoms constitutive of equal citizenship as punishment for their crimes.

Second, no just system needs to tolerate manipulation or abuse of its rules and entitlements for purposes other than those for which the system was designed.  As I note on p. 313n72 of my article, people's right to be taken seriously in political discussion may be suspended if they keep on lying or behaving like cranks.  The same reasoning applies to Sobel's case of the alcoholic who keeps selling his medical provisions so he can buy more to drink.  In cases like these, restoration of access to the capabilities provided by democratic equality can be made conditional on a persuasive demonstration of readiness to act in good faith.  But accessible means of rehabilitation--that is, restoration of access to the means to equality--must be provided to the irresponsible.

Third, to administer this system, some limited judgments of individuals' capacities to function in the manner required need to be made.  For example, in my article I argue that in the normal case, an adult's access to a decent income will be conditional on performing some role in the productive system, whether under contract for payment or under obligation to care for dependents.  People who are capable of performing some such role, and for whom a job is available, can reasonably be expected to take it as a condition of getting a decent income, and will not be entitled to live off the dole forever.  For those suspected of abusing the worker's disability system, some determination must therefore be made of whether they are actually capable of holding down a job and just malingering, or truly disabled or otherwise effectively unemployable.

Fourth, the limitations just set forth on the proper uses of conditioning access to benefits on judgments of responsibility apply only to state provision of citizens' entitlements.  There will of course be many systems of local justice that condition access to other goods on the basis of more fine-grained and comprehensive judgments of personal responsibility.  Democratic equality does not insulate the smoker from the reproach of her friends and family for her nasty habit.

So what do I say about Arneson's choice between rescuing the children, the drunks, or the reckless climbers in a national park?  Of course we should rescue the children, since we have special responsibilities to take care of children.  And it is reasonable to give priority to those who have abided by the rules of entitlement over those who have abused them.  However, if there were no shortage of rescue workers then it would be unjust to abandon the drunks and the reckless climbers just because they abused the rules.  They don't deserve the equivalent of the death penalty, even for such irresponsible behavior.  The proper course is to rescue them, and then assess fines or other penalties for abusing their entitlements.

Sobel's case of allocating scarce organs is different.  In the U.S. today, organs are allocated strictly on a prospective basis.  If more years of life can be gained by giving a liver to an alcoholic than to an innocent patient dying of hepatitis, it goes to the alcoholic.  I believe such a purely prospective system is more just than one that tries to allocate organs on the basis of moral desert. This is because of the violations of dignity and privacy entailed by making the fine-grained, open-ended judgments of responsibility that would inevitably be invoked in the competition for moral deserts among the gravely ill.  Who should get the heart transplant, the patient who smoked or the one who ate fatty foods and never exercised?   I do not believe that the state should be in the business of judging who led the most virtuous life.  The gravely ill have enough to worry about without being pressed into such a degrading moral competition, in which they are required to show that they deserve to live more than someone else.

(f) Does private insurance make no difference to entitlements?  Christiano seems to think that democratic equality requires that we ignore differences in private insurance when deciding how to allocate the goods of concern to democratic equality.  This argument confuses what should be done in a just society with what should be done in a society that does not meet the requirements of democratic equality.  In a just society, access to adequate levels of medical care would be collectively secured.  In such a society, no one would be uninsured, so health care providers would never have to choose between giving care to an insured and an uninsured person.

In the U.S. today, access to adequate health care does depend on private insurance.  As a global matter, this is unjust.  But as a question of local justice, there may well be a contractual obligation between certain health care providers and insurance holders that entitles insurance holders to priority in service.  Moroever, while hospitals have obligations of charity, they cannot fulfill them if they lack the resources to deliver health care for free.  These resources can only come from those who pay for it.  As a practical matter, then, under present conditions hospitals cannot do their best for the uninsured without giving some priority to the insured.  This is unjust, but less unjust than the alternative, given the global injustice that leaves so many without health insurance altogether.

None of this reasoning applies to access to emergency care.  In the U.S. today, hospitals are required to treat all comers to their ER.  As in the organ transplant case, the only relevant considerations are prospective, and determined by triage.  I believe this is just.  Death's door is not the place to decide whether people have prudently or imprudently decided not to insure themselves.

Defenses of Luck Egalitarianism
My critics try to undermine two of my charges against luck egalitarianism:  (1) that it expresses pity and disrespect for the less fortunate and (2) that it unjustly abandons even the prudent to awful fates.

1. Against My Charge that Luck Egalitarian Principles Express Pity and Disrespect for the Less Fortunate.  All three of my critics argue that luck egalitarianism compensates people simply for being less fortunate than others, not for being inferior to others.  It is true, as Sobel and Christiano contend, that the bare idea of compensating people for misfortune does not itself express the view that the unlucky are pathetically inferior.  It is also true, as Arneson contends, that his prioritarianism--the idea that priority in distribution should go to those whose lives are going worst, as measured by an objective scale of well-being--does not in itself express pity or disrespect for those worst off.  Rather, luck egalitarianism runs into trouble when it combines these ideas with either of two other principles:  (a)  compensating for misfortunes that consist in the possession of personal qualities that others find repugnant or pathetic, and/or (b) "responsibility catering"--conditioning the entitlement to compensation on a demonstration that the unfortunate are not responsible for their plight.

Consider first (a).  This is the principle that inclines luck egalitarians to extend compensation to the ugly and unpopular.  Here, the source of people's disadvantage just is the low esteem in which others hold their personal qualities--it consists in the fact that others regard them as sadly inferior.  My objection is not, as Christiano supposes, that luck egalitarians must regard those they compensate as of lower moral worth.  It is that they put the state in the business of making official, humiliating judgments of estimability.  People get compensated only on condition that they are officially stamped as despicable, repulsive, or dorky.  This is deeply insulting.

Now consider (b).   Luck egalitarians distinguish between those who truly lack talent and those who have voluntarily refrained from developing and using their talents.  According to luck egalitarians, only the former--the truly inherently incompetent--are owed compensation.  To gain access to compensation, therefore, people have to demonstrate that they are inherently incompetent, not just voluntarily choosing a different labor/leisure tradeoff.  This is a humiliating exercise, for it requires people to expose themselves to the low regard with which others hold their talents as a condition of access to a decent standard of living.  It stips them of their pride by disambiguating their situation--by making it clear that their low wages are due to the inferiority of their innate talents rather than to their decision to focus their efforts on something other than paid employment.

By contrast, democratic equality calls for raising the income of low-wage workers in part on grounds of their entitlements as citizens, and in part on the ground that they play an underappreciated role in the economy, regarded as a system of joint production:  by devoting themselves to the tasks that command a low market wage, they free others to exercise their talents in more productive ways.  This rationale for narrowing income gaps does not inquire into whether people in low-wage jobs are there because they lack the talent to do better.  Even in a society where all had identical talents, it might still be most efficient to have a division of labor in which only some workers are exercising talents that command high market wages. Christiano's carefully crafted luck egalitarian rationale for compensating the deaf for the misfortune of being marginalized by the prevailing mode of communication avoids the charge of expressing pity and disrespect for the deaf by avoiding the two objectionable principles (a) and (b).  But precisely for that reason, this rationale does not stand as a model for all of the misfortunes luck egalitarians want to compensate for.  It does not even cover all of the misfortunes of being deaf for which many luck egalitarians would want to compensate.  Those who accept van Parijs' test of undominated diversity as a criterion of compensible disadvantage invite people to judge the degrees of compensation owed to the deaf in terms of how much less worthwhile living the life of a deaf person feels to hearing people.  It is hard to interpret this criterion other than as a test of how pathetic the lives of the deaf seem to the hearing.  Alternative preference-based tests, such as Arneson's criterion of equal opportunity for welfare, avoid the pity objection only at the cost of allowing private satisfactions to compensate for public marginalization.  I think the only way around this is to limit compensation to the objective goods democratic equality cares about, or to find a rationale for confining compensation to some other objective list.  Democratic equality has an internal justification for this limitation, which luck egalitarianism lacks.

2. Against My Charge that Luck Egalitarians Allow the Victims of Bad Option Luck to Fall into Dire Straits.  If luck egalitarians are committed to a sharp distinction between brute luck and option luck, and hold that only the misfortunes due to brute luck are compensable, then they are stuck with the unattractive position that even the prudent who assumed risks and lost could be left in a miserable condition.  But Christiano cogently argues that the sharp distinction between brute luck and option luck cannot be sustained within the terms of luck egalitarianism.  Between two people who responsibly assumed the same risk, where one person won and the other lost, the only difference is one of brute luck. It is inconsistent for luck egalitarians to refuse to compensate for this difference, since they agree that all differences due to brute luck are compensable.

I think this is a compelling argument against the way luck egalitarians have developed their view.  But this seems to me more a criticism of luck egalitarianism as actually developed by its proponents, almost all of whom stress the importance of the distinction between brute and option luck, than it is an objection to my critique.  I am not criticizing a straw man when I take luck egalitarians to task for abandoning the prudent to catastrophic fates.

Still, Christiano is right to wonder whether a more consistent version of luck egalitarianism, which gave up the sharp moral differentiation of misfortunes due to brute and option luck, would escape my criticism.  He suggests that the main concern that motivates the brute/option luck distinction is to make sure that egalitarian redistribution is not so comprehensive as to undermine incentives to productive risk taking--that is, the risks entailed by innovation, exploration, and entrepreneurship.  This is just an efficiency concern, and can be accommodated without resorting to the drastic principle of letting the chips fall where they may for all cases of voluntarily undertaken risk.  One simply allows for some tradeoffs between equality and efficiency, limiting egalitarian redistribution for the sake of enhancing productivity. I have two replies to this.  First, it is not clear to me that the primary moral motivation behind the brute/option luck distinction is based on a concern for efficiency.  It seems rather to be based on notions of moral desert.  As Arneson says in his commentary, "It is morally more valuable to provide a gain in well-being of a given size for a person with a given well-being prospect if she is less rather than more responsible for her present condition (if it is bad)" [emphasis mine].  I take it that Arneson's appeal to the greater moral value of improving the prospects of the blamelessly unfortunate over those whose misfortune is their fault is meant to contrast with the thought that this is merely more instrumentally valuable.  And he rigs his National Park Service rescue case to eliminate incentive effects, so that only the element of differential moral responsibility remains.  Finally, his advocacy of "responsibility catering prioritarianism" appears to be a combination of what he calls the principle of "moral meritocracy"--that people should get what they morally deserve--with prioritarianism--that, other things equal, benefits should go to the worst off.

Whether the moral concern behind the focus on responsibility is based on considerations of efficiency or desert, one could still hold, as Arneson and Christiano do, that considerations of responsibility should not pose an absolute bar to compensation for blameworthy or voluntarily risked misfortune, but merely have some moral weight.  I believe this represents a substantial softening of Arneson's position from his past published views.  It certainly departs significantly from the positions of such luck egalitarians as Rakowski and Dworkin, who tend to be hard-liners when it comes to the brute/option luck distinction.

I address my second reply to this softer position.  I agree that it represents a moral advance over the hard-line position.  But it does not specify how the tradeoff between moral desert and prioritarianism (Arneson) or between efficiency and equality (Christiano) is to be made.  How far down are (law-abiding) risk-taking individuals to be allowed to sink in the name of other values?  Democratic equality provides an answer:  in general, not so far down as to threaten the social conditions of their freedom, their ability to stand as equals before others in society.  I have provided a principled rationale for this view.  I suspect that any credible answer will have to appeal to principles outside the scope of luck egalitarianism.  But until the other side offer its own specification, it is hard to compare our views.

Perhaps there might be, as Christiano suggests, some tendency toward convergence between the views of luck egalitarianism and democratic equality.  At least we can see, in this softening of luck egalitarian positions, a potential for allowing democratic equality to step in and specify some of the parameters left undetermined in the general luck egalitarian position.  

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