More Dworkin

Notes for October 3

Main points

We talked about a variety of topics raised by Dworkin’s theory of equality of resources.

Rawls vs. Dworkin on choice

Dworkin thinks that individuals are responsible for their ambitions and tastes. His aim is to make it possible for people to live the lives they choose, provided they bear the costs of their choices. So those who are more ambitious or who take greater risks can keep what they get if their ambitions pay off. And they have to accept their losses if they don’t.

Rawls, by contrast, does not think much of individual responsibility. All of our tastes and choices are formed by natural or social influences beyond our control. So no one can deserve the advantages that come from greater ambition or risk taking. Those who work harder will usually get more because the rules give incentives to those who work hard: that’s the way they raise the position of the worst off class in society. But the rules themselves won’t aim to make it possible for people to live out the lives they choose. They are formulated solely to improve the position of the worst off class.

On the face of it, Dworkin’s view is more appealing to many of us. That said, Arianna raised a good point about the social influences on our tastes and ambitions. That suggested that they might be more arbitrary, or even malign, than we think. Rawls tries to address the problems posed by the social influences on our personalities while Dworkin does not. That appears to be a point in favor of Rawls.

The envy test

We went back over the territory that I covered in my last note about handicaps and the envy test. Professor Brown put on a spirited defense of Dworkin here while Madeline and Robert raised some sharp points on the other side. This was easily the toughest, most fundamental question we have ever raised about Dworkin’s article in all our years of doing this class. Well done!

First, she showed how the hypothetical insurance market might actually be more generous to the handicapped than I had thought.

It is worth bearing in mind that an insurance policy could have a phenomenally high payout. Preserving even the basic well-being of a badly handicapped person could require a lot of resources, perhaps exceeding those earned by someone with a very high paying job. And such a person is unlikely to make economic contributions to society by working (which is not the same thing as making no contributions at all, mind you). In other words, in an admittedly crass sense, the handicapped person who collects on the hypothetical insurance policy is getting money without work whereas those who earn an income have to work for it; that may have some relevance in thinking about how to apply the envy test to these cases.

(But be careful. That observation about the handicapped getting money for nothing really is crass, meaning it lacks refinement, sensitivity, and intelligence. That is because working is a condition of being a full member of our society. There are many social benefits to work that the handicapped are shut off from. They would love to work if they could. Thus the handicapped may well envy, in Dworkin’s technical sense of the term, both the work and the income of the non-handicapped.)

Professor Brown’s second broad point was that Dworkin’s way of handling the problem of handicaps is more consistent with his theory than I had said. The fundamental idea of the theory, she said, is that the auction defines an equal share of resources. The insurance schemes are supposed to allow people to use their shares to protect against brute luck of various sorts.

My idea was that the envy test should have been applied to the resources available to the handicapped and those available to those who are not handicapped. But as Professor Brown sees it, that would involve taking from the non-handicapped people’s equal shares, making the distribution of resources unequal. Equality of resources means you get your initial share in the auction plus whatever insurance policy you would have bought under the hypothetical circumstances Dworkin describes. Changing the distribution of resources from that means departing from equality.

I agree that this is the way that Dworkin saw it. However, I continue to have reservations about the consistency of doing it this way. But, as I said earlier, this is the hardest question we have ever raised about Dworkin. So I’m going to reserve the right to mull it over.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted October 3, 2013 and updated October 5, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being