Dworkin on equality of resources Notes for September 21

Main points

Dworkin’s article is interesting for at least two reasons. First, he gives a philosophical account of the welfare state that matches the way it is often described in real political discourse: as social insurance. Second, he gives a surprising rationale for the market as an institution. It’s surprising because it holds that the market is essential for equality. The two are usually thought to be opposed to one another.

We spent most of our discussion talking about how Dworkin decides what is eligible for a hypothetical insurance market and what is not. We know he thinks that the following are eligible: physical and mental handicaps and a lack of marketable skills. He thinks that what he calls ambition and taste are not eligible.

What’s eligible for hypothetical insurance?

It is less clear how the line is to be drawn. Dworkin refers to a distinction between person and circumstance on p. 302. But we weren’t sure that the items lined up in the right way. Why are my abilities not part of my person but my ambitions are? There are also strong suggestions that the line falls between what we can exert considerable influence over or, at least, endorse, and what is beyond our control.

The line seems to be an ethical one: some deficits are a matter of social concern whereas others are not. And to be consistent with his overarching theme, it should have something to do with treating people as equals. Dworkin tried to explain our ethical distinction by appeal to the two distinctions I mentioned. We weren’t sure that we fully understood it, but I think we have to applaud the effort. Just saying, as I did, that there are some things we don’t want to pay for, is not saying much at all.

Remy proposed a different way of drawing the line. She claimed that health is necessary for functioning whereas satisfying one’s tastes is not. We’ll talk about that kind of idea when we discuss Nussbaum next week.

Does it matter?

In thinking about our session, I worry that in spending so much time on what I find difficult, I didn’t do enough to emphasize Dworkin’s achievements.

Specifically, I think the idea of a hypothetical insurance market to settle how much a society should spend on health is an interesting one. I don’t think we got a good sense today of how it might have teeth. That is, we didn’t really see how we could apply it to a real question about health care. We’ll see that on Wednesday.

On the graduated income tax

Professor Brown’s comments on the underemployment part of the article in last year’s class are quite great. I’ll just point you to our notes from last year.

This page was written by Michael Green for PPE Senior Seminar, PPE 190, Fall 2009. It was posted September 21, 2009.
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