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Philosophy & Public Affairs 31.1 (2003) 5-39



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What is Egalitarianism?

Samuel Scheffler


One of the most significant theories of distributive justice to have emerged since the publication of A Theory of Justice is the form of distributive egalitarianism that Elizabeth Anderson has dubbed "luck egalitarianism." 1 This theory has different variants, but the central idea is common to all of these variants. The core idea is that inequalities in the advantages that people enjoy are acceptable if they derive from the choices that people have voluntarily made, but that inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people's circumstances are unjust. Unchosen circumstances are taken to include social factors like the class and wealth of the family into which one is born. They are also deemed to include natural factors like one's native abilities and intelligence.

Luck egalitarianism overlaps with but also diverges from the prevailing political morality in most liberal societies, both with respect to the unacceptability of inequalities deriving from people's circumstances and with respect to the acceptability of inequalities deriving from their choices. Consider first the unacceptability of inequalities deriving from people's circumstances. The prevailing political morality holds that intentional discrimination based on largely unchosen factors such as race, [End Page 5] religion, sex, and ethnicity is unjust, and that distributive inequalities resulting from such discrimination are unjust as well. It also holds that people of equal talent from different social classes should have equal access to the social positions for which their talents qualify them, and that it is unjust if inequalities result from a society's failure to provide this kind of equal opportunity. Thus, the prevailing morality agrees with luck egalitarianism in rejecting certain kinds of inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people's circumstances. However, in rejecting all inequalities of advantage resulting from differing circumstances, luck egalitarianism goes far beyond the prevailing political morality, which, against a background of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, is prepared to tolerate significant distributive inequalities deriving from differences of talent and ability. By contrast, luck egalitarianism denies that a person's natural talent, creativity, intelligence, innovative skill, or entrepreneurial ability can be the basis for legitimate inequalities.

Consider next the acceptability of inequalities deriving from people's choices. If some people make more money than others because they choose to work longer hours, then the prevailing morality certainly agrees with luck egalitarianism that that is not in itself objectionable. Unlike luck egalitarianism, however, the prevailing political morality does not go so far as to say that any extra income deriving from people's choices should, in principle, be exempt from redistributive taxation. In determining one's tax burden, the prevailing morality makes no attempt to identify, let alone to shield from taxation, the portion of one's income that is traceable specifically to one's choices as opposed to one's natural abilities.

The upshot is that although there are substantial areas of overlap between luck egalitarianism and the prevailing political morality, luck egalitarianism is in one way much more willing than the prevailing morality to engage in redistributive taxation, but also in one way much less willing. In this sense at least, luck egalitarianism is both more and less egalitarian than the prevailing political morality. 2 [End Page 6]

Unlike Rawls's theory, which became the focus of intense critical scrutiny as soon as A Theory of Justice appeared in print, luck egalitarianism has been relatively slow to attract critical attention, despite the impressive level of influence it has attained and the lively debates that have taken place among proponents of its different variants. This state of affairs has begun to change, however, and in this article I wish to make a modest contribution to the project of critical examination that Anderson and others have initiated. 3 I am indebted to Anderson's discussion in many ways, some of which I will acknowledge more specifically as I proceed. But my primary emphases will be different from hers, and I hope that my main points are sufficiently independent as to be of interest in their own right.

Luck egalitarianism is often...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1088-4963
Print ISSN
0048-3915
Pages
pp. 5-39
Launched on MUSE
2003-02-27
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2003
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