Egalitarian Justice and Innocent Choice

By Eyal, Nir | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Egalitarian Justice and Innocent Choice


Eyal, Nir, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


THIS ARTICLE ARGUES THAT, in its standard formulation, luck-egalitarianism is false. In particular, I show that disadvantages that result from perfectly free choice can constitute egalitarian injustice. I also propose a modified formulation of luck-egalitarianism that would withstand my criticism. One merit of the modification is that it helps us to reconcile widespread intuitions about distributive justice with equally widespread intuitions about punitive justice.

Before laying out my criticism, let me briefly describe luck-egalitarianism and why some of its existing criticisms are off the mark.

1. Standard Luck-Egalitarianism

In the past, many egalitarians considered any inequality in people's lots to be unjust. By contrast, contemporary luck-egalitarians acknowledge the potential justice of inequalities that result from free choice. For example, luck-egalitarians would say that standard gambling losses do not diminish the justice of the resulting distribution and that such losses do not generate just claims for compensation. Luck-egalitarians contrast such disadvantages with disadvantages that do not result from the victims' choices or that result only from their un-free choices, such as genetic disease and structural unemployment. According to luck-egalitarians, the latter disadvantages are unjust.

For a few luck-egalitarians, these claims determine when the state should compensate for disadvantage. But for most luck-egalitarians, they determine only when the end-state distribution is in an important way unjust. Whether human-induced or "cosmic," such unjust distribution always gives the state a prima facie--but not always an actual--duty to compensate the disadvantaged. Luck-egalitarian injustice worsens things and often translates into an actual duty of the state to compensate victims whose fates are less than fully just. But few luck-egalitarians assume that such a duty is absolute and that it always exists. Compensating victims would sometimes be prohibitively expensive, unjust toward other people, self-defeating, contrary to deontological constraints or beyond the state's responsibility.

For example, it might turn out that the only way for the state to compensate for a disadvantage was by practices that would be humiliating to the recipients. If the need to avoid such humiliation were stronger than the need for compensation, most luck-egalitarians would object to the state's compensating recipients for the disadvantage. Luck-egalitarian injustice is but one important component of the complex web of considerations that together determine what would constitute correct conduct for the state.

Contemporary criticisms of luck-egalitarianism sometimes overlook this complexity. Critics point out that compensation can be a bad policy, as if luck-egalitarians deny that it ever is. In the critics' caricature, luck-egalitarianism effectively assigns the state an absurd, categorical duty to compensate citizens for all disadvantages for which these citizens are not responsible. A great many considerations bear on normative compensation policy. No short formula purporting to define when compensation is a duty all things considered may succeed--whether that formula resembles luck-egalitarianism, democratic equality or still other theories.

I shall call the complex view that encapsulates these luck-egalitarian ideas standard luck-egalitarianism:

   That someone incurs a disadvantage without having chosen freely to
   risk incurring it is, in a central respect, unjust. If, however,
   that disadvantage results from that person's own free choice to
   take that risk, then (barring prioritarian considerations) that
   disadvantage can remain perfectly just.

Jerry Cohen, John Roemer, Richard Arneson, Larry Temkin and many other luck-egalitarians are committed to standard luck-egalitarianism or to something very much like it. Many anchor it in the ideal of equality of opportunity.

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