Against Equality of Opportunity (Oxford Philosophical Monographs)


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Richard J. Arneson

Public Health Ethics and Liberalism

The hard issue of how much priority to accord to the achievement of gains for the worse off must be faced. At the other end lies utilitarianism, which accords no extra weight at all to achieving a gain for a person depending on the prior goodness or badness of her condition. The distinction between valuing priority and valuing equality has been clarified in work by Derek Parfit Counterintuitive or not, the difference principle and the broader maximin conception might be derivable by iron logic from undeniable premises. Rawls gestures at provision of this sort of support in his original position argument, but in the area in which Rawls is pointing I submit that no good argument is to be found see the critical discussions cited in footnote 2.

In my view the underlying reason for the relative neglect of original position arguments is that the basic hunch that motivates the project is wrong.


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Recall that the idea of the original position is that the principles of justice are whatever would emerge from an ideally fair choice procedure for selecting principles of justice. The presupposition is that we have pretheoretic intuitions, which can be refined, concerning what are the fairest conditions for choosing basic moral principles.

But why think this? Perhaps one should say that the fair set-up of a procedure for choosing principles of justice is whatever arrangement happens to produce the substantially best principles. We have commonsense beliefs about the conditions under which contracts and private deals are fairly negotiated, but there is no intuitive content to the idea of a fair procedure for choosing basic principles of social regulation.

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This takes us back to a conflict of intuitions that needs to be clarified and perhaps resolved via theory. Some affirm equality: it is good if everyone has the same, or is treated the same, in some respect Temkin Others affirm doing the best that can be done for the worst off.


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  6. Priority weakens this strict maximin tilt in favor of the worst off. Another option worth mention is sufficientarianism: What matters morally and what justice requires is not that everyone has the same but that everyone has enough. Each should achieve, or be enabled to achieve, a threshold level of decent existence, the level being set by whatever we had better take to be the best standard of interpersonal comparison for a theory of justice primary goods shares, or capabilities to function in valuable ways, or utility construed as pleasure or desire satisfaction, or well-being corresponding to achievement of the items on an objective list of goods, or whatever.

    Expressions p. Miller ; Nussbaum , but the doctrines other than the difference principle mentioned in this paragraph need further elaboration and interpretation before we would be in a position definitively to gauge how compelling they are. According to Rawls, the choice of economic systems—capitalist, socialist, or some other—need not reflect a fundamental moral commitment. At least, either a liberal capitalist or a liberal socialist regime could in principle implement the Rawlsian principles of egalitarian liberalism.

    Against this view Robert Nozick developed a powerful response of right-wing inspiration Nozick His starting point is the idea that each person has the moral right to live as she chooses on any mutually agreed terms with others so long as she does not thereby harm nonconsenting other people in ways that violate their rights. These latter rights not to be harmed form a spare set.

    Nozick finds antecedents for these ideas in the writings of John Locke, who does not fully commit to them. The idea that society has the right and obligation to redistribute property to achieve a more fair distribution cannot find a place in Lockean natural rights theory. Property is owned by people, and the state, acting as agent of society, has no more right to take from some and give to others than a robber does.

    The right of each person to act as she chooses has as its core a universal right of self-ownership: Each adult person is the full rightful owner of herself, possessing full property rights over her own person. The next question that arises here is how an individual may legitimately come to acquire rights to use or own particular pieces of the world.

    Without some such rights self-ownership would come to very little. The Lockean project is to specify how legitimate private ownership of property arises in a world in which objects are initially unowned, and what the terms and limits of such legitimate ownership are. The main stream of Lockean views defends the idea that private property ownership can be fully legitimate, given certain conditions, no matter how unequal the distribution of privately owned property.

    Left-wing Lockeans demur Steiner They try to defend the view that each person is the full rightful owner of herself but that the distribution of ownership of the world must be roughly equal. We are not yet in a good position definitively to compare Lockean versions of liberal justice with their more egalitarian rivals.

    Surprisingly, Rawls rejects the platitude that justice is giving people what they deserve Rawls a. He argues against the idea that notions of desert belong in fundamental principles of justice although, of course, norms of desert might serve as means to implement justice goals.

    Of Liberty and Necessity : James A. Harris :

    Dryzek, B. Honig, and A. Phillips Oxford: Oxford University Press. One line of objection holds that a sharper line needs to be drawn between what we owe to one another and what each individual must do for herself. What we owe to each other is compensation for unchosen and uncourted bad luck. Some bad events just befall people in ways they have no reasonable opportunity to avoid, as when a meteor strikes. Some bad events are such that one does have reasonable opportunity to avoid them.

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    A paradigm case would be losses that issue from voluntarily undertaken high-stakes gambling. Social justice demands a differential response to bad luck, depending on how it arises. But my later, substantially voluntary choice to embrace bad values and make unwise decisions about how to live may simply express my initial unchosen bad luck in inherited traits and socialization experiences. Does justice then demand some compensation for courted bad luck traceable in part to uncourted earlier bad luck, paternalistic restriction of individual liberty to limit the harm to self that my lack of intelligence generates, or what?

    Ronald Dworkin has done the most to clarify these tangles and develop a coherent position concerning distributive justice on the basis of this line of thought Dworkin Some sympathetic to this general line are trying to refine it Roemer Luck egalitarianism is said to be too unforgiving to individuals who make bad choices. Its critics accuse it of exaggerating the significance of choice and of giving undue weight to the distribution-of-resources aspect of social justice. How much more? If we must live our lives in ways that maximize justice fulfillment, the demands of justice on the conduct of individual lives will be very stringent and likely counterintuitive.

    Rawls suggested that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are stringently egalitarian but that individuals are free to live their lives as they choose so long as they abide by the rules of just institutions. Cohen finds this position to be unstable Cohen If well-off persons accept the difference principle which holds that inequalities that are not to the maximal benefit of the least advantaged are unacceptable , they cannot benefit in good conscience from hard bargaining. Instead of threatening to strike for higher wages, already well-paid medical doctors, committed to the difference principle, could agree to work extra hours for no extra pay, or voluntarily to embrace pay cuts, for example.

    A large question arises here concerning the degree to which a modern liberal theory of justice can or should be libertarian in the sense of embracing some close relative of the principles defended by J. Mill in On Liberty. Liberalism in normative political theory is more an attitude or stance toward politics than a specific set of doctrines. Liberalism is strongly associated with strong protection of freedom of speech and assembly and related liberties.

    One argument is good-based: If what I fundamentally want is to lead a life that achieves truly worthwhile and valuable goals, I will want not just to satisfy whatever preferences I now have, but to enjoy a sound education and a culture of free speech, which has some tendency to undermine my false beliefs and bad values. Of course free speech can also cause a person to abandon true beliefs and good values; the liberal position involves a broad faith that the free use of reason by ordinary persons will tend over time to lead to improvement rather than corruption.

    Rawls appeals to the interest that persons as such are assumed to have in developing and exercising their moral powers to adopt conceptions of the good and to cooperate with others on reasonable terms Rawls These arguments have some force, but they are also in some tension with each other, and it is not clear that either one or both can be worked into a doctrine that picks out privileged liberties and justifies according them strict priority.

    Civil liberties traditionally understood strike some as insufficient to resolve problems of diversity in contemporary society. Women, members of minority ethnic groups and supposed races, people with nonheterosexual sexual orientation, and others who experience themselves as unfairly pushed to the margins of society seek recognition of their differences and common humanity see Markell and Squires, both in Oxford Handbook of Political Theory , ed.

    Uwe Steinhoff

    Democratic rights are not central in the Lockean tradition. One might suppose that egalitarian liberals will hold democratic rights to be of mainly instrumental value in securing other more fundamental rights. An egalitarian might hold that whatever political arrangements are most likely to achieve a fair distribution of good quality lives or opportunities for good quality lives to people should be instituted and upheld. Advocates of democratic equality e. Anderson ; J. Cohen hold a sharply contrasting view.


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    A society can be more or less democratic along several dimensions of assessment. How democratic should society be? Rawls stakes out a demanding position in answer to this question. A kind of fair equality of opportunity is to operate in the political sphere that is close in spirit to the fair equality of opportunity that he holds should prevail in the competition for positions conferring economic and social advantages.

    Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity is a strong, controversial doctrine.

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    Rawls pushes to its logical limit an ideal that others either reject outright or hold should be constrained by conflicting values Nozick ; Arneson Do we owe more to fellow citizens than to distant needy strangers Chatterjee ? Should we embrace a two-tier theory of justice, which imposes demanding egalitarian requirements within each society but much less demanding requirements on members of one nation toward the members of other nations? This cosmopolitanism can take a right-wing form, which asserts that duties are minimal in both the national and the global context, and a left-wing form, which affirms strong duties within and across borders.

    Many of us intuitively feel that we have especially strong moral obligations to those who are near and dear to us, to family members, friends, members of our community, and perhaps fellow citizens, but it is unclear to what extent a sound theory of justice will vindicate or repudiate these pretheoretical feelings. And what about putative special obligations to fellow members of our own social class, ethnic group, or racial lineage?

    click here A related issue arises if we imagine a society that is just internally by our lights, and faces the task of choosing a just international relations policy. Should the just foreign policy of such a society press for ideal justice everywhere or rather extend strong sincere toleration and respect to any political regime that meets a threshold standard of decency? But the doctrine of egalitarianism within national borders and minimal duties across borders may ultimately prove to be unstable under examination.

    The arguments that urge minimal duties toward outsiders, if found acceptable, may undermine the case for egalitarian arrangements among insiders, and the arguments that urge egalitarian arrangements within borders, if found acceptable, may compel a similar egalitarianism across borders.

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