The future of the left since 1884

The Fair Society

It’s encouraging to see that fairness is back on the political agenda. Until recently, it might have looked to some observers as though there were only two sets of questions across which political lines were drawn. Questions, first, about how...


It’s encouraging to see that fairness is back on the political agenda. Until recently, it might have looked to some observers as though there were only two sets of questions across which political lines were drawn. Questions, first, about how to keep the economy booming and, then, about how to reinvigorate it after the crash. And second, there were questions about what the electorate would vote for, about how political parties should position themselves in order to remain or become electable. Of course these questions are still very much live, and it’s important that they remain so, but somewhere along the way we seemed to have forgotten why these questions were ever worth posing in the first place.

We’d begun to see the answers to these questions as political ends in themselves, not as a means to the real end. It was as if we’d built a train to take us somewhere, but we’d become so obsessed with the project of keeping the train moving that we’d forgotten where we were aiming to get to. In the wake of the crash, that now seems to be changing. Once again, there is room to discuss not only how to get elected or how to keep the economy afloat, but also, what the point of get elected or managing the economy is.

What’s also exciting to discover is that, on this occasion at least, Hegel appears to be wrong. Philosophy does not, as Hegel would have had it, just paint its grey on grey, telling us what has already happened and what we already know, without offering anything new. Instead, philosophical theories of fairness seem to have had a strong influence on the political debate that’s now in progress about what sort of society we should be trying to build.

Much of the political debate about fairness – about equality of opportunity, about holding people responsible for their choices, about helping people out when they suffer from underserved bad luck – reflects a radically new view about fairness that’s come to dominate theoretical debates over the last couple of decades. That view has been dubbed ‘luck egalitarianism’, and at its core is the thought that that we care about both equality and about responsibility, and that we need to make room for both in our thinking about fairness. More precisely, luck egalitarianism says that inequalities are unfair when, and only when, they’re the result of circumstances for which people are not responsible. So, on the one hand, if someone is disadvantaged by their own bad choices, then society has less of an obligation to help them out than if someone is disadvantaged by bad luck. And likewise, if someone is advantaged by their own efforts, then they owe less back to society than someone who is advantaged through unearned good fortune. For the past four years, this theory – luck egalitarianism – has been one focus of the Arts and Humanities Research Ccouncil-funded project that organised the AHRC Fairness and Responsibility in an Unequal Society conference.

It’s a very good thing that fairness is back on the political agenda and it’s also a good thing that the views about fairness being advocated are well-grounded in theories that have been subjected to a long period of scrutiny. But there are reasons to be wary at the same time. It’s well-known that theories in any field come and go, and there are signs already that cracks are appearing in luck egalitarianism’s moral armor. Second, it’s also well-known that when philosophical theories make the transition from paper to practice, they often emerge in a quite different form to that which was originally intended. To some extent this is exactly as it should be – philosophical theories aim to describe fundamental values, not to offer finished policy proposals, but at the same time the transition can be dangerous.

Whether intentionally or accidentally, moral theories can be abused as much as they can be used, and the proposals that they give rise to can end up quite alien to the motivations that generated the original theory. As much as the thoughtful use of luck egalitarian ideas can help us to create a better, fairer society, so too the potential certainly exists for the inappropriate application of luck egalitarian thinking to make things very much worse for all of us. So while I certainly do think that it’s a good thing that luck egalitarian views about fairness are beginning to have an influence on policy, I nevertheless want to offer three notes of caution, in the hope that there will be more in the way of use, and less in the way of abuse, as the story of luck egalitarianism’s engagement with policy continues to unfold.

First, on fairness. One core view about what fairness demands is that it demands equality of opportunity. If there are a limited number of positions of economic privilege available then fairness demands that everyone should have an equal chance to achieve them, regardless of their gender, religion, race, or the financial circumstances of their birth. Luck egalitarianism endorses equality of opportunity, although the roots of this conception of fairness go back much further. But there’s still a vital question here that hasn’t been answered, about why equality of opportunity is so important to fairness.

Some people think that equality of opportunity matters for its own sake – that it just is fair that everyone has an equal chance to secure a position of economic privilege, and it just is unfair if they do not. Those who think this won’t necessarily mind if there is inequality of outcome in society – that is, inequality in people’s income or in the amount of wealth that they accumulate over their lifetimes. They just want to ensure that, if there is inequality of outcome, everyone started with an equal chance to end up amongst the privileged group.

We found that this view is basically indefensible. Insofar as equality of opportunity matters to fairness, we found that it matters only as a means to securing equality of outcome. That is, equality of opportunity matters only in order to help to reduce inequalities of wealth and of income. We should only start from the same place in order to try to end up at the same place, not because the starting point matters in itself. So although we should support efforts to open up access to things like education, and so on, we shouldn’t make this the exclusive focus of our efforts in the direction of equality. Instead, we should be aiming for a society where the gap between rich and poor is drastically reduced. Of course this isn’t a new view, and it’s encouraging to see that political debate about fairness is already moving in this direction. But what has often been lacking has been a clear understanding of the moral foundations of the view, and the moral case against the equality-of-opportunity-for-its-own-sake view.

Second, what types of inequality should we aim our sights at? Most of what I’ve just said about inequality is about wealth and income inequality, and that’s in large part the focus of luck egalitarianism. Reducing those inequalities is vitally important. It seems obviously morally repugnant that wealth and income inequality has reached the proportions that it now has. But it’s easy to forget that there are also other no less important, but less tangible ways in which society is pervaded by inequality. I’m thinking in particular of things like unequal status and unequal power. Of course these inequalities are closely connected, both by cause and by effect, to inequalities in income and wealth. But they’re not the same thing. Even if we were able to fix all the unfair wealth and income inequality, we’d still be left with a great deal of unfair inequality in status and power, which is as much the fault of cultural norms as it is the fault of wealth and income inequalities. These hierarchical norms will not disappear overnight, but there are steps that we can take to expedite their exit. We could begin, for example, by promoting more co-operative forms of decision making as both an effective way to run firms and as a method for breaking down entrenched inequalities in status and power within them.

Finally, responsibility. There’s been a lot of talk of responsibility in politics recently, which has been a bit confusing, because the term has been used in two very different ways. In one sense, which I don’t think is problematic, the term is used to say that we should act responsibly towards our fellow citizens – that we should bear their interests in mind alongside our own. In the other sense, which is rooted in luck egalitarian thinking, the term is used to say that we should hold people responsible for their choices when thinking about how to allocate resources – how to tax people and how to provide public services and welfare payments, and so on. Even though luck egalitarians think that inequalities for which people are not responsible are unfair, they do think that inequalities for which people are responsible can be treated as fair.

Appealing to responsibility in this second sense when making policy recommendations is a dangerous political strategy to take. For one thing, it is very difficult to give a robust account of what it might mean for someone to be responsible for something. Various theorists have tried, and various accounts are implicit in political discussions about responsibility. But as soon as you begin to scratch beneath the surface, many of these accounts start to crumble. And second, it’s clear that most outcomes are the result of a jumble of causes, some of which people might be responsible for, others of which they are clearly not responsible for. So, for example, if someone became rich through their own entrepreneurial efforts – were they really responsible for possessing the entrepreneurial skills that allowed them to do so? Against this vague background, it is all too easy for those who want to defend the status quo to do so, by using appeals to responsibility in ways that suit their own purposes. The rules of the responsibility game are rigged in favour of those who want to defend the status quo – for any outcome, it’s nearly always possible to make the case that the person affected by it is responsible for it, if you want to.

So I agree with people like Stuart White, who think that rather than emphasising responsibility, progressive voices should be emphasizing the many ways in which people’s lives are affected by structural inequalities beyond their control. And I agree with people like Jerry Cohen, who think that it’s ultimately a source of political strength for progressive voices to confidently reaffirm those distinct egalitarian moral values that set them apart from those who want to defend the status quo. Far better to do so than to play an away game, by letting others set the moral agenda on the turf of responsibility. [1]

[1] Edward Lewis and Stuart White, ‘Political Philosophy and the Left’, interview published online on 28 July, 2010, (accessed 5 June, 2012); G. A. Cohen, On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. Michael Otsuka (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), ch. 10.

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