Anderson on Egalitarianism

Anderson thinks that the project Dworkin (and his followers) are engaged in is completely misguided. The project begins with the question “what does it mean for a society to treat its members as equals?” It was assumed that part of the answer to that question was, “a society treats its members as equals if it devotes an equal share of its resources to each of their lives.”

Anderson thinks the assumption is wrong. She thinks that what it means for a society to treat its members as equals is that the members of the society treat one another as equals. It’s a long article and there are a million balls flying around in the air. But when you step back, that’s the point.

This means that, in her opinion, 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

The article falls into two parts. The first half is an extended criticism of what she calls “luck egalitarianism,” referring to Dworkin and those who followed him. The second half develops her own preferred account of egalitarianism that she calls “democratic equality.”

In my opinion, some of the attacks on Dworkin miss the target. For instance, Cyrus said he thought it was misleading to talk about leaving people to die by the side of the road. I think that’s right. 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.

Jesse went even farther. He thinks their two projects have nothing to do with one another, as Dworkin is talking about equality and Anderson is talking about social relationships. He has a point. Still, I take it that the thrust of Anderson’s paper is that there is no reason to care about equality of resources on its own. It is only a matter of interest to the extent that it either fosters or detracts from equal social relationships.

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. So it is, at worst, a poor choice of words rather than a confirmation that egalitarianism is driven by the spiteful emotion of envy.

Anderson’s positive story

We spent a lot of time talking about Anderson’s theory. I won’t rehearse it all but will rather concentrate on some critical questions.

First, I would like to note that the theory depends on our ability to identify unequal social relations but it does not actually give an account of what they are. What is good about Dworkin’s article is that it goes into a lot of detail about what, exactly, an equal share of resources would be. Anderson isn’t engaged in that sort of project. She is trying to explain what theories of equality should be about. But at the end of the day, it will only work if we can say what makes a social relationship unequal. That will not be easy.

Second, I remain suspicious of the section on the economy (“Participation in a System of Cooperative Production”). I think Mikayla got Anderson’s idea right (and she got it faster than I did, which is irritating, but that’s between me and Mikayla). Success in the labor market is a source of social hierarchy: people who make more vs. people who make less, people who have the more prestigious jobs vs. those who do not, people who work for wages vs. those who work at home, people who have authority at work vs. people who are subordinates at work, and so on. Anderson is concerned to establish equal social relationships, so she has to address this. Her solution is to say that we should see the economy as a cooperative venture in which workers act as the agents of the consumers who buy what they produce.

I see the goal, but I cannot accept the solution. The mining company commissions the miners to go work in the mines, not the consumer who buys the electricity that is generated by the coal. To describe them both as commissioning the workers to go into the mines as their agents is misleading because it puts the consumer’s responsibilities on a part with those of the mining company. Similarly, I think that anyone who thinks the economy as a whole is a cooperative venture will be bitterly confused when the family dry cleaning business is driven out of the market by a competitor. “How you could betray me like this? We are cooperating!” Similar remarks would apply to workers who are fired when the company drops a product line and probably a million other cases. I just don’t think it would actually be healthy to try to see the economy that way.

Finally, I have some questions about how this is supposed to work. Society is supposed to provide health care because it is supposed to ensure that its members can interact as social equals and health is necessary for that. But what about people who cannot live as social equals even with health care such as people with terminal conditions or people with mental disabilities? Maybe she should do the same thing that I suggested for Dworkin, namely, concede that equality isn’t everything and say that there are humanitarian reasons to care for people that have nothing to do with equality. At least, that is what I would do.


Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (2): 287–337.