Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

Anderson on Luck Egalitarianism


We discussed Elizabeth Anderson’s essay “What is the Point of Equality?” (Anderson 1999). Anderson wrote her article in reaction to the project that Dworkin launched (Dworkin 1981). While she has detailed criticisms of Dworkin and other “luck egalitarians,” her chief point is that the project is fundamentally misconceived. This is because the kind of equality that they labor to define is not important. In its place, Anderson proposes an alternative that she calls “democratic equality.”

Anderson’s Criticism of Dworkin

Generally speaking, if you’re going to find a problem with a well-written philosophy article, it will be in the first few pages. A good paper will be internally consistent and have only a few minors errors at most. So your best bet for finding a point to contest it will be by paying careful attention to the way that it frames the problem.

That is what Anderson does.

The question Dworkin seeks to answer is: what does a society have to do in order to treat its members as equals (Dworkin 1981, 283)? He thinks that part of the answer is that a society treats its members as equals only if it devotes equal shares of its resources devoted to each one’s life (Dworkin 1981, 289). This is what leads him to the project he carries out in the article we read, namely, specifying how we determine what counts as an equal share.

Anderson, by contrast, thinks that a society treats its members as equals if and only if its members treat one another as equals. The kind of equality that really matters, according to her, is equality in social relations. The distribution of resources is a secondary concern and there is no particular reason for thinking that equal social relations require equal resources.

Speaking for myself, I’m persuaded that she is right about this basic point. At the very least, I think she exposed a gap in Dworkin’s reasoning. He has not explained how he moves from “how does a society treat its members as equals?” to “what is an equal distribution resources?”

Anderson vs. Dworkin

I said that I did not think her criticisms of the luck egalitarians were always fair but I didn’t go into why I think that. Generally speaking, I think that her criticisms mostly show that a single-minded pursuit of equality would have the flaws of a single-minded pursuit of any social goal: it would lead one to trample on other values. But Dworkin was only trying to define equality as one important social value among others and so I don’t think he was recommending a single-minded pursuit of equality.

Remy thought that Anderson had done a good job of articulating a goal but that Dworkin had done a better job of developing a theory. Dworkin has taken the pains to work out the details whereas Anderson really hasn’t; Kamyab later raised a similar point. That seems like a fair point to me.

On the other hand, Remy also thought that Anderson was closer to explaining how her favored understanding of equality might be maintained. As he said earlier in the term, he doesn’t fully see how a society could maintain equality of resources for very long without having to constantly redo the auction.

Discussion of Anderson’s Democratic Equality

I asked what Anderson would think about Piketty. Jeremy and Jonah thought that she wouldn’t think much: he’s focused on the distribution of wealth and she is committed to saying that doesn’t matter very much.

Peter T. pushed back a bit. Drawing on the section on disabilities that I had you skip, but Peter read anyway, he said that it would matter how the distribution of wealth affected social relations. Kamyab added that one thing he took away from Piketty is that with the rise of inherited wealth, the rich won’t understand the poor (and vice versa?). A class system like that would certainly make it hard to establish equal social relations.

Are Equal Social Relations Possible?

Professor Brown expressed skepticism about the possibility of achieving equal social relations. Or, perhaps, she expressed skepticism about our ability to intentionally move society more towards equal social relations. As always, there is a study. This one maintains that men divorce their wives when the wives make more money than they do. If men are willing to give up that much household income just to remain the dominant partner, why think that there is anything we can do to get them to treat women as equals?

Autumn was more optimistic. She said that this will pass as people get used to women earning more. Jeremy thought society could goose the process along by taking affirmative steps to promote women into more prestigious and higher paying jobs.

Anikka mentioned a Black Mirror episode involving likability rankings that I still find disturbing, over a week later. The idea was that we could use something like that to get people to treat one another as equals … for good or ill.

Having been taught my lesson by Peter T., I went back to the disability section and asked what things people with disabilities might need in order to participate in society as equals. Just think about simple things like being able to open the door to a building or punch in the floor you want in an elevator all by yourself. It seems to me that these examples show that Anderson’s theory isn’t empty: it points us to lots of things that we can do. At the same time, I think Prof. Brown could say that we would still have a long way to go even after picking all the low hanging fruit of wheelchair ramps and braille on the elevator doors.

We ended up by talking about what sorts of social hierarchies are acceptable, using our own college community as an example. We are very hierarchical, after all. Does that run afoul of Anderson’s Democratic Equality? Diana proposed a distinction between some basic social rules that should be followed with everyone: greetings, looking people in the eye, and so on. Kamyab proposed that hierarchies are acceptable only if they have a purpose. Since at least some of our hierarchical structures do have a purpose that those on the bottom desire, we might pass the test. (E.g. students want to have classes run by people who know more than they do; otherwise, what’s the point? That’s a hierarchy that the people at the bottom desire.)


Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (2): 287–337.
Dworkin, Ronald. 1981. “What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 10 (4): 283–345.