Anderson on luck egalitarianism

Notes for Thursday, October 23, 2014

Main points

Anderson thinks that the project Dworkin (and his followers) are engaged in is completely misguided. The kind of equality worth caring about is equality in social relationships. Equality of resources is not important on its own. The distribution of resources in general is a matter of social importance only insofar as it effects social relationships.

Criticisms of Dworkin

Anderson fires what feels like hundreds of shots at those who advocate variations on Dworkin’s views; she calls them “luck egalitarians.” It is not obvious to me how many of these strike Dworkin’s own position.

I’m not so concerned about that, however, because I think Anderson has an excellent general point about Dworkin. If you look at the beginning of his article, you’ll see that he introduces his project by saying that he is interested in how a society treats its members as equals. Then he asserts that one part of treating people as equals is to devote an equal share of resources to their lives. The rest of the theory, with the auction, insurance plans, and so on, is all devoted to spelling out what an equal share of resources would be.

Anderson is questioning why treating people as equals involves devoting equal resources to their lives. She argues effectively that a society treats people as equals if its social institutions and customs all incline people to, well, treat one another as equals.

It seems obvious when you write it out. Most of the best philosophical arguments seem that way.

Anyway, I do think that some of the attacks on Dworkin miss the target. One thing that Prof. Brown pointed out was that Dworkin and Anderson are frequently talking about different things. Dworkin is concerned with how to define an equal share of resources. Anderson notes that this could mean that someone is left to die on the side of the road if he didn’t buy the appropriate level of health insurance with his share of resources. Of course, that would be monstrous. But Dworkin never said that equality encapsulated every value, norm, or obligation. If I were him, I would say that what the example shows is that we have good reasons to care for those in desperate need that are not driven by considerations of equality. Anderson seems to want to come up with a comprehensive statement of social values; Dworkin was just interested in defining equal shares of resources. Those projects are pretty different even though they both talk about equality.

I would also like to note that Dworkin’s use of the term “envy” (as in, the envy test) does not refer to the emotional state of envy. It is a term of art with a precise technical meaning concerning people’s willingness to trade bundles of goods. It has no emotional content at all. This is a reason why it’s a bad bad bad idea to take words from ordinary English as your technical terms. It’s too easy to mislead your readers. In addition to “envy,” I’m thinking of “fair bet,” “efficient,” and “optimal.”

Anderson’s positive story

We talked at some length about the differences between Anderson’s theory of democratic equality and Dworkin’s theory. This centered on an example she gave of someone with a distracting deformity (335–36). As she pointed out, the optimal solution to the problem on her view would be for social norms to change, such that the disfigured person could participate in society as an equal. Dworkin and the other luck egalitarians, by contrast, are committed to distributing privately held goods, like compensatory payments.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted October 24, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being