Richard J. Arneson, “Rethinking Luck Egalitarianism and Unacceptable Inequalities

In a nutshell, luck egalitarianism is the claim that it is morally bad, unjust and unfair, if some are worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own.  Another formulation: Unchosen and uncourted inequalities should be undone, not other types.  The ideas admit of various elaborations.   The luck egalitarian family of doctrines has attracted strong objections from many theorists including Elizabeth Anderson, Samuel Scheffler, and Marc Fleurbaey.  In response, some luck egalitarians have retreated from the doctrine, or abandoned it altogether.  G. A. Cohen was a stalwart advocate who retreated hardly at all.  He proposed tempering luck egalitarianism with a principle of community.  In this essay I criticize this line of response and challenge the institutional design implications some have tried to draw from it.

Miles Corak, Inequality and Equality of Opportunity: How to slide down the Great Gatsby Curve

The Council of Economic Advisors published the 2012 edition of the President’s Economic Report earlier this year, which highlighted among other things the importance of inequality in the American labour market and its long term consequences. It gave the name “The Great Gatsby Curve” to the relationship between the degree of cross-sectional inequality at a point in time and the degree of earnings mobility across generations: countries with high levels of inequality also tend to be countries in which a greater fraction of inequality is transmitted between parents and children.

This relationship underlines much current public policy discussion on the decline of the “American Dream” in the United States, but also discussions of the degree of “social mobility” in the United Kingdom. The United States and the United Kingdom are among the most unequal societies in the OECD, and also the least generationally mobile; the Nordic countries are the most equal and also the most mobile. Canada is among the most generationally mobile countries with moderate levels of inequality.

The objective of this paper is to clearly explain the nature of this relationship, what it means, and how it should be interpreted in the context of other measures of generational mobility. But more importantly the paper offers a framework for understanding the underlying determinants of generational mobility and how they relate to the degree of earnings inequality. The paper uses a modification of a standard economic model of intergenerational mobility due to Gary Becker and Nigel Tomes, and offers cross-country empirical evidence to support in a stylized way some of the structural dynamics highlighted by the model. In particular, the paper highlights the role of family investments, the labour market returns to human capital, and the degree to which public policy is progressive to draw specific recommendations for public policy.

Jay Drydyk, “Two Approaches to Inequality, and some Exotic but Important Cases”

I’ll begin with a pretentious distinction between two approaches to inequality: neo-Aristotelian and neo-Kantian. The former is more descriptive and focuses on maldistributions; the latter is more concerned with stuff we can’t condone, lest we violate impartiality towards everyone’s good (humanity principle). My question is which approach is more likely to succeed, given the ever more exotic inequalities that the world presents us with, that require judgment within public reason.  (2) I give some examples of displacement by climate change and also displacement by development, which has been studied more extensively. (3) I find that there are three categories of concerns: (a) the losses/impoverishment risked by people who face displacement; (b) disempowerment, being less well able individually or collectively to shape their own lives for the better; (c) ‘contributive inequity’ in that they are risking or sacrificing disproportionately for the sake of development. (4) Then I ask which if any of these can be considered ‘inequalities’ that matter, beginning from a modified Aristotelian conception of inequality as disproportion or maldistribution. The first modification is to say this is a maldistribution not ‘according to merit’ as A would have it, but according to public reason. Further minor adjustments allow this to capture contributive inequity and collective (dis)empowerment. However, the primary concerns, with the losses and personal disempowerment, seem more like sufficiency issues than inequality issues. There is a tension between this and human rights doctrine, which holds that ‘security of tenure’ for habitation is a universal right, implying that violations are unacceptable inequalities. (5) I leave the readers with a choice. The neo-Kantian approach will absorb all of these exotic inequalities, but it may become too broad, accepting as an inequality all states of affairs that cannot be accepted without violating impartiality towards everyone’s good. The neo-Aristotelian approach will involve endless ‘fixes’ to a too-rigid standard, something like adding epicycles to an Earth-centric planetary model.

Alex Gourevitch, “Debt, Freedom and Inequality”

Over the past decade, inequality and indebtedness have grown hand-in-hand, especially in the United States. To some, the greater availability of credit in the US relative to other industrialized countries has been seen as a good thing. While the costs of certain social goods – especially housing, education, and health care – have risen faster than median incomes, households have been able to debt-finance basic needs. Thus, on the one hand, cheap credit has increased the freedoms of the poor by making access to basic social goods available. On the other hand, some freedoms have come at the expense of others. Debt introduces new constraints and unfreedoms – from immobility (stuck in houses with underwater mortgages) to the narrowing of educational and career ambitions (to pay back student loans). These freedom-constraining aspects of debt have to do with the conditional nature of the freedom that debt makes possible. These aspects of debt point to three philosophical concerns, and a surprising conclusion about not just debt but earned income. First, the inequalities we care about are not in income and wealth, but in the freedoms people have. Income and wealth matter insofar as they are instruments for increasing freedoms. Second, there are alternative ways of dealing with inequalities in economic freedoms, especially those related to basic needs like housing, education, and health care. Cheap credit is one way, welfare rights another, increased bargaining/earning power yet another. And each way of reducing inequality with respect to certain economic freedoms necessarily reduces other economic freedoms. Debt means repayment, welfare requires taxation. Third, the evaluation of these trade-offs should assess not just which freedoms are lost and which gained, but the distribution of these losses and gains. With respect to these considerations, the paper argues that debt-financed consumption, at least of basic social goods, is the most unjust way of addressing unequal economic freedoms because it imposes the most unfreedoms on the disadvantaged. Even more interesting, what makes debt-financed consumption of basic goods unjust – its conditionality – also suggests that unconditional welfare rights are superior to increased wages, or job-conditional access to basic goods.

Erin Kelly, Blame and Responsibility in Criminal Justice

This paper discusses the difficulty of drawing a distinction between individual and collective responsibility in the context of unjust socio-economic inequalities, and how social injustice bears on the function of punishment to express blame.

Eszter Kollar (Munster/John Cabot), Daniele Santoro (LUISS), Not by bread alone: Inequality, relative deprivation and ‘self-respect’

Inequality is bad for us because it undermines people’s fundamental moral capacity of self-respect. Our goal in this paper is to explore this connection through the concept of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation refers to the perception of deprivation people feel when they compare their condition of income, wealth, or status with that of a reference group they aim to be part of. Although the concept has a reputable legacy in the sociological literature of the after-war period, it is somewhat neglected by theorists of distributive justice. Our aim in this paper is to show that this neglect is unjustified. We argue that the lack of self-respect caused by the perception of deprivation impairs people’s ability to actively choose and pursue their ends, and thereby undermines the significance of their choices. We will take this particular angle to evaluate the normative dimension of relative deprivation and its relevance for justice.

First, we analyse the notion of relative deprivation distinguishing the ‘subjective
perception’ from the ‘objective condition’ of deprivation, usually associated
with ‘relative poverty’. Second, we identify its ‘normative’ dimension, exploring the perception of unfairness caused by unjust institutions and unequal treatment. Third, we explore the Rawlsian idea of self-respect showing how relative deprivation arises when we relax the ideal conditions that provide its social bases. In the final part, we argue that, under non-ideal conditions, relative deprivation affects self-respect in a crucial aspect by eroding the value that people attach to their choices.

Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Social Relations Egalitarianism versus Luck Egalitarianism: What Is at Stake?

The last fifteen years has seen the emergence of a divide within the egalitarian camp between two different strands of egalitarianism: (1) social relations egalitarianism, according to which justice enjoins a society in which individuals relate to another as equals, and (2) luck egalitarianism, according to which justice requires that no one is worse off than others through no responsibility of her. These two strands of egalitarianism may well have importantly different implications regarding the assessment of the last decades’ rising economic and social inequality within much of the world’s industrialized states. Arguably, it is less clear that this trend is a trend towards more injustice according to social relations egalitarianism than that it is according to luck egalitarianism. After all, social relations egalitarians stress that people may relate to one another as equals even if they are unequally well off in terms of whatever luck egalitarians think individuals should have equal amounts of, e.g. resources or welfare. This paper explores the nature of social relations egalitarianism and its relation to luck egalitarianism. So far social relations egalitarianism has not been specified in as much detail, and with as much precision, as luck egalitarianism has been and, accordingly, I shall seek to unfold the idea of relating to one another as equals. I then argue that ironically some central features of the work by the influential luck-egalitarian and, accordingly, favorite target of social relations egalitarians, G. A. Cohen—notably, his idea of a justificatory community and his reluctance to compensate for welfare deficits due to frustrated, involuntarily held offensive or snobbish preferences—makes most sense from the point of view of social relations egalitarianism. Finally, I discuss, in a more systematic way, the relationship between social relations egalitarianism and luck egalitarianism. In particular, I critically assess the ecumenical view that the two views are compatible, and that each of them captures an important component in the idea of justice.

Kristi Olson, Our Choices, Our Wage Gap? Philosophical Reflections on Recent Empirical Research on the Gender Wage Gap

Recent empirical research in Canada and elsewhere has attributed much of the gender wage gap to the choices women make. This has led to the widespread perception that the gap does not require rectification. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor recently concluded that “there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

This view presupposes choice-sensitive egalitarianism: if the inequality reflects individuals’ freely-made choices, the inequality is unobjectionable. Yet, precisely because the view presupposes choice-sensitive egalitarianism, philosophical analysis is unavoidable.

In this essay, I show, first, that choice alone does not justify inequalities. To illustrate, suppose an executrix is dividing between two nieces a painting, an armchair, and $100,000. Although the painting and the armchair have no monetary value, Anna attaches so much sentimental value to the painting that she would prefer a bundle with the painting in it to any other bundle; Beth attaches the same value to the armchair. If the executrix—because she favors Amy—divides the goods into {armchair and $1,000} or {painting and $99,000}, the fact that Beth freely-chooses the former and Anna the latter does not suffice to make the outcome fair.

Thus, we cannot end our inquiry by looking at whether women tend to choose occupations that pay less. Instead, we must also ask whether the job market options themselves are fair. Although answering that question is beyond the scope of this paper, even in the absence of a full answer, there is good reason to think the options are not fair. Indeed, even if one believes that market prices are, by definition, fair, occupational regulations have tended to increase the wages of male-dominated occupations while decreasing the wages of female-dominated occupations. Thus, contrary to the U.S. Department of Labor’s conclusion, the state itself might be implicated in creating and sustaining the gender wage gap.

Fabian Schuppert, Suffering from Social Inequality. Normative Implications of Recent Empirical Research on the Effects of Inequality

Recent empirical research shows the significant negative effects inequality has on aspects such as public health, vulnerability to violence, and social trust. The question is, which normative implications do these empirical findings offer for philosophers working on equality.

This paper argues that the first lesson philosophers should take away from recent empirical findings is that the issue which needs to be addressed is harmful social inequality, rather than unequal material distributions, or unequal opportunities and starting gates as such. That is to say, inequality with respect to a specific feature X (such as material distributions, or opportunities) is not – in itself – the problem, but the problem are the negative effects of certain harmful forms of complex social inequalities. For our normative analysis of the nature and value of equality this entails that we should focus on the conceptualization and analysis of social equality, instead of restricting the debate to the currency of justice discussion and controversy over the role of moral luck, which have tended to dominate political philosophy in recent years. This shift of focus, which has been advocated by philosophers like Sam Scheffler, Martin O’Neill, Cécile Laborde and Liz Anderson, is no easy task, though, since we need a firmer understanding of what makes certain inequalities bad and harmful, while other inequalities seem harmless.

The paper will investigate various forms of social inequality and offer a preliminary taxonomy for distinguishing harmful from unobjectionable inequalities, arguing for an agency-centred social-relational reading of social equality, which draws on republican, recognition and capabilities theories. Getting a better normative understanding of social equality will then also help us in addressing harmful social inequalities at the policy level.

Lucas Stanczyk, Equality of Opportunity, Education, and Socioeconomic Outcomes

In recent decades, two remarkable trends have taken place in Britain, Canada, the United States and other developed societies to a lesser extent. On the one hand, the educational attainment of the working class has improved dramatically. An unprecedented share of the working population is now college-educated, and even in the least skilled occupations the average educational attainment of workers is at a remarkable, all-time high: in every industrialized country, many more workers have completed secondary school and even post-secondary training than ever before. On the other hand, the share of the working population holding “unskilled” and “low-skilled” positions has not declined. Instead, today more than a third of university graduates in the United Kingdom work as hotel porters, bar staff, retail clerks and in similarly low-skilled, low-paying jobs.  Against the background of continuously rising labor productivity and decades of economic growth, these contrasting trends force us to rethink the meaning of equality of opportunity, as well as the family of choice-sensitive egalitarian doctrines that currently compete to supply the content of this widely affirmed ideal.

According to the family of opportunity-egalitarian views, inequalities of income, wealth, and occupational status that arise from people’s different choices against a background of equal opportunity to compete for jobs are generally fair. Thus, the central egalitarian task is not to eliminate or reduce inequalities per se, but rather to ensure that some meaningful form of equality of opportunity is continuously maintained in the competition for jobs, income, and other important sources of social advantage. Under the broad banner of this ideal, governments in industrial societies have long focused on improving access to educational opportunities for the working class, since this is by far the most important institutional means of promoting equality of opportunity in the competition for jobs. And yet while these efforts to improve educational access and outcomes have on the whole been remarkably successful, dramatically raising the average educational attainments of less skilled workers, from any plausibly egalitarian point of view the effect on their earnings and occupational prospects has been perverse: today, it takes more education than it did thirty years ago to land a comparably menial and badly-paid job, such jobs continue to abound, and the majority of workers who fill them for want of a better alternative are overqualified to perform the simple tasks involved.

This state of affairs constitutes a challenge to the broad family of opportunity-egalitarian views and to the related, even more widely affirmed notion that the most important egalitarian task is to improve educational opportunities for the less advantaged. In my essay, I articulate the nature of this challenge in detail, and I argue that it forces us to revise our thinking about equality in two ways. First, in the articulation of the components of the egalitarian ideal, equality of opportunity and related choice-sensitive egalitarian ideas should be assigned a much less fundamental role than is typically supposed. Second, our focus should shift to the minimum socioeconomic outcomes to which every worker has an equal claim whatever his or her job. Once these morally required outcomes are properly taken into account, there is less inequality that an opportunity-egalitarian doctrine can ever justify.

Gopal Sreenivasan, Equality, Opportunity, Ambiguity

This paper will discuss comparative versus non-comparative definitions of health and the difference this makes to evaluating the contribution health care makes to health.  It will set this difference in context of four different interpretations of ‘equality of opportunity,’ which arise from joining comparative versus non-comparative definitions of ‘equality’ with substantive versus non-substantive definitions of ‘opportunity.’  These two points are mediated by Daniels’ equal opportunity rationale for universal access to health care.

Derrick Darby and Nyla R. Branscombe, Egalitarianism and Perceptions of Injustice

We draw upon recent empirical research concerning group differences in appraisals of social inequality to argue against a choice sensitive conception of egalitarian justice. Choice egalitarianism holds that distributive inequalities are just when they stem from voluntary choices and not from unchosen circumstances. Recent critics of this approach contend that egalitarian justice is achieved by establishing equal social relationships not structured by differences in status, power or privilege and not by making distributive schemes sensitive to choices and insensitive to circumstances. The social relationships highlighted by these relational egalitarians are not only ideals that identify the aim of egalitarian justice they also call attention to potentially differing perspectives from which social inequalities are appraised. For example, empirical research in social psychology shows that advantaged and disadvantaged groups employ different standards for judging the unfairness of wage inequality. Based on this research we claim that choice sensitive egalitarianism is an unworkable ideal for distinguishing just from unjust inequality.

Joey Fishkin, The How of Unequal Opportunity

Inequalities often cause inequalities of opportunity.  Even an observer unconcerned about large differences in wealth or income, considered on their own, ought to be concerned when those inequalities lead to large differences in the developmental opportunities and life prospects of children growing up in different families.  Such inequalities of opportunity have long been central to research questions posed by sociologists, economists, and some political theorists.  Most of this work on unequal opportunity tends to focus on the largest-scale questions of correlation and causation: to what extent does poverty limit one’s prospects?  How much of socioeconomic status is intergenerationally transmitted?  The mechanisms of that transmission are often either a black box or a simple model with a handful of variables.

Some new work in sociology and economics makes it possible to approach these questions from a different starting point.  Rather than focusing on the broad relationship between, say, class origins and class destinations, we can ask, in a more granular way, for instance, how likely different groups of children are to follow in their parents’ occupational footsteps.  Rather than starting with a single scale of advantage and disadvantage, we can examine specific kinds of advantages that different families provide, some of which may be incommensurable with one another and useful for pursuing different sets of paths.

Asking these questions is useful because it helps us identify the specific bottlenecks through which individuals must pass if they wish to pursue various careers and roles in life.  The opportunity structure of every society entails such bottlenecks.  But many institutional and public policy choices can make them more or less severe.  This essay, which is drawn from a broader book project, argues that thinking through these specific bottlenecks—the how of unequal opportunity—may be a more useful approach to the problem of inequality of opportunity than the more typical approach, which begins by imagining what perfect equality of opportunity might look like and then works backward to address the many ways any real-world society falls short of this ideal.

Paul Kelleher, “Egalitarianism, Equal Concern, and Health Inequalities”

If one does not believe that distributive equality is of (much) intrinsic moral importance, what other moral ideals should take its place? Richard Arneson criticizes those who seek to replace the ideal of distributive equality with the more abstract egalitarian ideal of equal concern. He claims that in order to render the abstract ideal of equal concern more concrete, one must invoke outside moral premises that will inevitably be doing most of the normative work. This paper defends the central moral importance of the ideal of equal concern by responding to Arneson’s challenge. First, I argue that the ideal of equal concern offers a better account of when and why a prioritarian response to needs is warranted than does Arneson’s own consequentialist version of prioritarianism. Second, I argue that the ideal of equal concern for persons provides the best unifying explanation of otherwise conflicting judgments about the permissibility of providing tiny benefits to many people instead of giving large benefits to fewer people. Finally, since the examples I shall use are most relevant to health policy, I shall conclude by discussing the implications of my view for the assessment of health inequalities, especially in light of recent empirical work on the determinants of population health.


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