Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Distributive Luck1

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Distributive Luck1

Article excerpt


This article explores the Rawlsian goal of ensuring that distributions are not influenced by the morally arbitrary. It does so by bringing discussions of distributive justice into contact with the debate over moral luck initiated by Williams and Nagel. Rawls' own justice as fairness appears to be incompatible with the arbitrariness commitment, as it creates some equalities arbitrarily. A major rival, Dworkin's version of brute luck egalitarianism, aims to be continuous with ordinary ethics, and so is (a) sensitive to non-philosophical beliefs about free will and responsibility, and (b) allows inequalities to arise on the basis of option luck. But Dworkin does not present convincing reasons in support of continuity, and there are compelling moral reasons for justice to be sensitive to the best philosophical account of free will and responsibility, as is proposed by the revised brute luck egalitarianism of Arneson and Cohen. While Dworkinian brute luck egalitarianism admits three sorts of morally arbitrary disadvantaging which correspond to three forms of moral luck (constitutive, circumstantial, and option luck), revised brute luck egalitarianism does not disadvantage on the basis of constitutive or circumstantial luck. But it is not as sensitive to responsibility as it needs to be to fully extinguish the influence of the morally arbitrary, for persons under it may exercise their responsibility equivalently yet end up with different outcomes on account of option luck. It is concluded that egalitarians should deny the existence of distributive luck, which is luck in the levels of advantage that individuals are due.

1. Introduction

In a key passage of his classic work A Theory of Justice, John Rawls makes this observation:

once we are troubled by the influence of either social contingencies or natural chance on the determination of distributive shares, we are bound, on reflection, to be bothered by the influence of the other. From a moral standpoint the two seem equally arbitrary (Rawls 1999: 64-5).

Rawls sought to harness the morally arbitrary distributive influence of such things as class and native ability for the morally compelling objective of improving the condition of the worst off group. Much recent work on egalitarian justice has, however, been concerned with a different response to the bothersome distributive influence of variations in social circumstances and natural talent. Rawls says little about why such influence is morally arbitrary, or why it is that '[n]o one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society' (Rawls 1999: 87). One obvious answer, which Rawls himself does not offer, is that the influence is not the upshot of choice on the part of those who benefit or lose out from it. The resulting inequality people suffer is therefore a matter of luck for them - it results from something other than their choices. This explanation of the problem with distributions that are influenced by differential social circumstances and natural talents takes such distributions to be morally arbitrary, and hence unjust, because they are influenced by luck in one way or another. We may fill out this explanation in several ways.

Ronald Dworkin suggests that inequality might be acceptable were it the upshot of option luck: were it, that is, 'a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn out - whether someone gains or loses through accepting an isolated risk he or she should have anticipated and might have declined' (Dworkin 2000: 73). But where social circumstances and natural talent have created inequality, it is the upshot of brute luck - 'a matter of how risks fall out that are not in that sense deliberate gambles' (Dworkin 2000: 73). The view that inequalities traceable to choice are justifiable, but that inequalities not so traceable are objectionable, might be called brute luck egalitarianism. Where there are no deliberate gambles, and distributions are only affected by brute luck, it demands equality. …

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