Equality : Collaboration

3.1. The Distributive Paradigm of Equality

One of the predominant approaches to the question of equality in the contemporary liberal discourse is the one known as Luck Egalitarianism. Simply put, it states that the demarcation line between scandalous inequalities and naïve differences has to do with whether the inequality in question is the product of an autonomous decision by the parties involved or something that is outside their control, namely a matter of sheer luck: genetic makeup, circumstances of birth, unforeseen calamities, or any other factor that cannot be attributed to conscious, informed decisions.22

The concept of equality underlying this approach seems to rely on the idea that those advantages people enjoy that are not the product of their prudent decisions or personal effort are basically undeserved, which is to say that those individuals cannot claim they are truly entitled to these advantages (and thus to claim that others have no right to demand that they forfeit these advantages). This is what we might call the “scandalous root” of inequality according to Luck Egalitarianism.

Elisabeth Anderson, one of the sharpest critics of Luck Egalitarianism, adds that this approach relies on a “humanitarian intuition,” according to which those who enjoy advantages that are not the product of their own effort have a moral duty to share the presents showered upon them by Fortuna with those who have not been so fortunate.23 Although we generally accept Anderson’s critique of Luck Egalitarianism, we nonetheless believe that it relies on a political rather than humanitarian intuition, seeing itself as an interpretation of the idea of a political community of equals. The “negative scenario” Luck Egalitarianism would like to prevent is one in which, as a result of brute luck or sheer circumstances, some group of people comes to win advantages that are translated over time into political power over their fellows—a kind of “luck aristocracy,” so to speak. Seeing as we are all equally likely to either enjoy such good fortune or to suffer from bad luck, a decent political community, according to Luck Egalitarianism, ought to assume the task of offsetting such differences precisely in order to prevent such potential scenarios.

Anderson’s main criticism against Luck Egalitarianism is that it fails to provide a proper interpretation of the very motivation and idea of egalitarianism. What people find outrageous about inequality—a point that Anderson believes is confirmed by looking at the history of various egalitarian movements—is not the fact that some are fortunate whereas others suffer bad luck, nor that the advantages enjoyed by the first are undeserved. What egalitarianism is driven by is not the offsetting of chance differences or accidental gaps, but rather the abolition of unequal social relations—relations that are oppressive, exploitative, repressive, and so on.

At the heart of Luck Egalitarianism Anderson diagnoses what she calls, following Iris M. Young, “the distributive paradigm” of equality: the view that the very meaning of equality is an equal distribution of some good, be it resources, capabilities, opportunities, rights, positions, and so on. Luck Egalitarianism then interprets this paradigm as the question of who is and who is not entitled to their share in the distribution of fortunes and misfortunes.

Unlike Anderson, Young also includes the work of John Rawls and his followers under the distributive paradigm. Rawls’s approach to equality is indeed quite distinct from that of Luck Egalitarianism, seeing as he interprets equality not as the question of which goods each person is entitled to, but as the question of whether or not what he calls the “basic social structure” is such that each person is treated as an equal among equals.

Young argues that, despite this shift of emphasis towards social structures, which would appear to distance the Rawlsian approach from the distributive paradigm, it nonetheless still regards these structures as chiefly responsible for the distribution of goods, power, position, and influence. In other words, Rawls evaluates the equality of such structures on the basis of their distributive patterns of freedoms, rights, opportunities, or goods, and not on the basis of the question of whether or not the social relations instituted by these structures are egalitarian or inegalitarian, oppressive or non-oppressive.

Young also makes the point that the Rawlsian approach fails to pay sufficient attention to the fact that social structures tend to institutionalize a certain pattern of relations among social groups—relations that are often relations of mutual dependence. It thus fails to note that the ongoing operation and maintenance of these social structures is itself often the source of various inequalities between groups. Thus, while Young finds that Rawls does move away from the more individualistic view of equality characterizing many Luck Egalitarians, his approach nonetheless fails to develop an adequate conception of structural inequality.24

Both Young and Anderson argue that the task is to drop the distributive paradigm of equality in favor of an approach often labeled Equality of Relations, Relational Equality, or Democratic Egalitarianism: one that relies not on a notion of more equal distribution but on the removal of relations of subordination, relations of superiority and inferiority between people (the product of which might very well be an unequal distribution of resources, capabilities, welfare, etc). The very ideal of a society of equals ought to be interpreted not as a society in which each gets only what he or she deserves, nor one in which we compensate those among us who did not get what they deserve, but a society in which no one oppresses or dominates other people, thereby violating the fundamental idea of a polity of equals.25

22. For different versions of Luck Egalitarianism and the debates between them see Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue; Larry Temkin, Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Richard J. Arneson, “Luck Egalitarianism and Prioritarianism,” Ethics 110 (2000): 339-49; Gerald. A. Cohen, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics 99 (1989): 906-44; John Roemer, “A Pragmatic Theory of Responsibility for the Egalitarian Planner,” in Egalitarian Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Nicholas Barry, “Defending Luck Egalitarianism,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 23 (2006): 98-107.

23. Elizabeth S. Anderson, “What is the Point of Equality?,” Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337.

24. See John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 10-12. For Young’s critique of Rawls see her Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1990), 35; and Responsibility for Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011), Ch. 2. Rainer Forst, who agrees with Young’s critique of the distributive paradigm, argues it does not apply to Rawls, who, in his view, places the emphasis not on the end-result of the distribution but on what he calls the scheme of distribution. See Rainer Forst, “Radical Justice: On Iris Marion Young’s Critique of the ‘Distributive Paradigm’,” Constellations 14:2 (2007): 260-65. Anderson’s position vis-à-vis Rawls is more ambivalent. On the one hand, she regards him as belonging to the camp of “equality of relations” rather than Luck Egalitarianism. On the other hand, she advocates Amartya Sen’s equality of capabilities rather than Rawls’s equality of resources. The result is what she calls equality as equal participation: an interpretation of the egalitarian principle as the demand to guarantee social conditions that allow every person to participate as equally as all others in every aspect of public life. Compare this also with Nancy Fraser’s development of what she calls “parity of participation” in her Scales of Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), Ch. 2, 4. For a defense of Rawls from Anderson’s critique see Samuel Scheffler, “What is Egalitarianism?,” in Equality and Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 175–207.

25. See Anderson, “What is the Point of Equality?,” 336: “Democratic equality conceives of equality as a relationship among people rather than merely as a pattern in the distribution of divisible goods.”

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