Luck Egalitarianism

Philosopher Daniel M. Hausman on social equality, luck egalitarianism, and people’s relations

videos | August 31, 2016

What is an egalitarian point of view on a social equality? What is objectionable about the inequality among people? Are we responsible for our well-being? These and other questions are answered by Herbert A. Simon and Hilldale Professor of philosophy Daniel M. Hausman

There has been the view that what we should be concerned about with respect to equality is ultimately how well people’s lives are going. But that’s just ultimately. We shouldn’t attempt directly to make people’s lives equally well off for one main reason. And that reason is that we really think that people are responsible themselves for how well their lives are going on. Now clearly someone who is born in utterly destitute circumstances is malnourished, winds up with cognitive limitations. The notion that we say that person is responsible for their lives not going on well is absurd. On the other hand, you can have two people born in very affluent circumstances and one makes very bad choices and lives very badly and the other makes good choices and lives well. And in that case we think that that’s really up to the individuals that there really is no objectionable inequality there.

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The view came to be, and one can trace this back to other philosophers, but Ronald Dworkin has really began this literature, is saying that what we need to do is to draw a distinction between those important features of people’s lives that affect how well their lives go over all, for which people are responsible and those features for which people are not responsible. And what we should do is to equalize those factors which contribute to people having good or bad lives for which people are not responsible.

From my perspective, what we should be concerned about are the relations among individuals. What I want of this society, and I consider myself to be an egalitarian, so, I want a society where no one is subservient to other people, where people do not dominate one another, where people have equal voice, where everyone, unless they forfeited of respect by doing despicable actions, everyone is equally worthy of respect. It is the relationships among individuals that we want to be equal. The goods, the resources they have, if they are too unequal, clearly we won’t have equal relations among people.

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Suppose that the Earth just had two big islands on it, where there was no communication between the islands, people didn’t even know of the other islands, and each of the island was perfectly egalitarian in terms of the relationships, in terms of the relevant goods, resources, it satisfied everything that egalitarian wants, each of the island separately. But in one of the islands people were living better than in the other. In the view of the luck egalitarian, unless it is something people are responsible for (which, by assumption, isn’t), this is morally objectionable, that there is something wrong with this divided world. In my view, if the relations among people are perfectly equal, there is nothing to object to from egalitarian perspective. I see there is a kind of fetishism with to what extent do people have equal resources or exactly equal opportunities. Where what we need to be concerned about is to what extent are people equal to one another, in their relationships to one another.

Herbert A. Simon and Hilldale Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin
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