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Helen McCabe considers problems with different ideals of equality.

If it is indeed self-evident that all people are created equal, as the writers of the US Constitution declared, how then can we justify the inequalities we see in the world today? This question has puzzled philosophers from long before the Founding Fathers drafted their bold claim, but has been of particular interest to political theorists in the last forty years. Much work has been done on what a meaningful and justifiable understanding of equality would look like – not just what an equal distribution of welfare or of the social surplus (resources, wealth, rights, liberties and opportunities) would look like, but also what it would mean to treat people as equals.

Very few philosophers now would advocate what is known as ‘strict equality’, where everyone would receive exactly the same resources, liberties, opportunities and rights. Although perhaps intuitively appealing (the fairest way to divide many things, after all, is to split them into equal portions), this idea seems to fail on several counts: an equal distribution of wheelchairs, for example, either neglects needs and desert (if no wheelchairs get distributed), or is wasteful (too many wheelchairs are distributed), or gives people what they neither deserve nor need (if everyone gets one). Because of problems like this, contemporary political theorists tend to defend different versions of egalitarianism, where some things are distributed unequally, and yet the whole outcome or process could be regarded as equitable. When these theorists do justify inequalities, they do so on the basis of differing needs, or on the basis of people deserving different things (which in turn implies considerations of responsibility and choice), or in terms of welfare or rights. Considering these factors in different ways can result in different outcomes, and yet it can be hard to dismiss the differing claims. For example, the power of the ‘luck egalitarian’s’ thesis, which we will come to below, seems to be in the fact that there are some things we think people do deserve – and sometimes those things are inequalities, even bad ones. On the other hand, Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of luck egalitarian seems strong: if luck egalitarianism means leaving people to die by the side of the road, this doesn’t seem just – and one of the reasons why we might think it seems unjust is that it doesn’t respect their fundamental needs. Any justifiable account of equality, then, is going to have to take on board at least some of these differing claims.

Given that we are not going to be concerned with a perfectly equal distribution of resources, rights, liberties and opportunities, but we are still concerned with equality, what are we equalising? There are five main options: equal welfare (or utility, or happiness); some sort of equal distribution of resources which recognises choice and responsibility; equally meeting everyone’s needs; equally respecting their rights; and equalising opportunities.

Equality of Utility

Let’s start, then, by considering the question of whether we ought to try to equalise welfare or utility (for ‘utility’ read ‘happiness’, or better, ‘wellbeing’). The claim goes something like this: if people are morally equal, then they’re entitled to have equal wellbeing. This claim implies that resources will end up unequally distributed: if Aisha is myopic, then she will get glasses, whilst Beryl, who has 20:20 vision, will not, because she does not need them. Beryl therefore gets fewer resources overall, but this is fair because Aisha needs glasses to achieve the same utility as Beryl has without them.

This policy may seem intuitively appealing, but there are some problems with it. Firstly, it is not at all clear that utility or welfare are commensurable – that is, how can we compare Aisha’s happiness or welfare with Beryl’s? Happiness is subjective: only the person experiencing happiness can really say they are happy. Happiness is also internal, and, as it is difficult (and perhaps even impossible) to have knowledge of someone else’s internal experiences, it may be impossible to know that we are all experiencing the same kinds of experiences when we say we are happy (this is akin to the problem of whether or not what we mean by ‘blue’ is experienced by everyone in the same way, even if we use the same word). It is very difficult to think how we could come up with an objective, independent measurement of happiness in order to be able to compare people’s welfare or utility – it would be like comparing apples to oranges: worse, given the unknowable quality of other people’s happiness, it would be like comparing some invisible things people tell you are apples (but might be oranges, or dishwashers, or reindeer) against something you call an apple, but no one else can see.

This problem, however, could be overcome in several ways. We might just ignore it, and say that equalising welfare just is the best way of achieving equality, regardless of such abstract philosophical problems. Or we might try to offer an objective general account of human welfare, perhaps based on needs. Alternatively, we might say that it is possible to measure different utilities, and to draw up utility statistics – economists do it all the time. However, Ronald Dworkin, a well-known American professor of philosophy of law, insists that even if we can overcome problems of commensurability, there are other problems with equality of welfare which mean we ought to dismiss it. Dworkin’s most famous argument against equality of welfare is called the problem of expensive tastes. Someone, let’s call him Charles, gets ten units of utility from drinking pre-phylloxera claret and eating plovers’ eggs, whilst everyone else gets ten units of utility from drinking orange juice and eating wholemeal toast (and would perhaps get a thousand utility units from the rare claret and eggs combo). If we are equalising utility, it looks like we have to give Charles the claret and eggs; but this seems unfair, because both pre-phylloxera claret and plovers’ eggs are really expensive, so we would have to take resources from other people in order to satisfy Charles. Or maybe we would have to give other resources to Charles, such as a Ferrari, in order to make up for the fact that he can’t have the claret and plovers’ eggs (maybe he’s already drunk all the claret, and the plovers are having a bad season). Both of these outcomes look unjust, Dworkin argues. They look counterintuitive in terms of desert: why does Charles deserve more resources just because his tastes are more expensive to satisfy? Therefore, equality of welfare is unjust, Dworkin says.

Now, you might think that it is fine that Charles gets the extra resources: perhaps you really are committed to equality of wellbeing, and so are not bothered that Charles gets so many more resources than most in financial terms. But Dworkin thinks that, intuitively, you don’t think this situation would be fine. However, even if we agree with Dworkin about this, we might say that we only agree here because he has chosen a very leading example – pre-phylloxera claret and plovers’ eggs are so obviously outrageous luxuries that we can’t really think anyone deserves them just to improve their utility function, or that anyone really needs them to improve their utility function in a way that we should care about. Claret and plovers’ eggs are not necessities, and as such, the utility they generate for Charles could not justify taking so many resources, and most importantly here, so much utility, from other people.

The question is, does the problem of expensive tastes look less problematic if we change the example? Does it seem unfair, for instance, to give new-born baby David more resources than new-born baby Ewan, given that David is born addicted to crack cocaine because his mother used it throughout her pregnancy, whilst Ewan’s mother did not? Compare this scenario with a previous example, where it did not seem unfair that Aisha got glasses and Beryl did not.

One response at this juncture is to say that needs and tastes are clearly very different things: needs are objective, and necessary (hence ‘needs’), whilst tastes are subjective, and not necessary for our survival. Thus, we would pay for expensive medicine or for a wheelchair as sophisticated as Stephen Hawking’s, as these are needs, but we wouldn’t give Charles the claret and plovers’ eggs, as these are merely tastes. This seems intuitive, but it too runs into problems. For instance, just where do we draw that needs line?

Leaving this problem aside, we could offer a different solution to the problem of the distribution of utility, which is to apply a distinction between what is known as ‘brute’ luck and ‘option’ luck. Brute luck is the name given to the results of unchosen situations: being hit by a meteorite is bad brute luck; being born beautiful is good brute luck. Option luck is the name given to outcomes of chosen situations: the horse you backed in the Derby romping home is good option luck; the horse you backed falling at the first fence in the Grand National is bad option luck. Perhaps then we ought to equalise utility when the inequality comes from something that is not the individual’s fault (is the result of brute luck); but we don’t need to when it is their fault (is the result of option luck). In this way, some philosophers think only cultivated or chosen expensive tastes are a problem. That is, if Charles really is not to blame for his penchant for pre-phylloxera claret and plovers’ eggs (it is just brute luck that he has these tastes), we would have to compensate him. However, in fact, no one is born with a taste for such things – indeed, very few people ever get the chance to try them – so if Charles has decided to cultivate a taste for them (option luck), we don’t need to compensate him.

We could counter this last move, though, and offer an additional response to Dworkin, by pointing out that there are some cultivated expensive tastes that we don’t mind. Take for instance education. Imagine Felicity and George. Felicity loves maths, and gets the same utility from studying high-level maths as George gets from watching re-runs of cartoons. It takes more resources to give Felicity the maths education she wants than it does to give George the same utility. But we might not think that giving Felicity that education is an obvious injustice, especially if we complement the argument with some ideas about needs being met in Felicity’s case, or about Felicity’s desert (perhaps the talented deserve more of certain things which allow them to cultivate their talents).

Dworkin himself has a slightly different problem with equalising welfare: Scrooge (at least before the visit of the ghosts) is a grumpy, miserable man, and so his utility is pretty low even though he’s rich and healthy. Tiny Tim, on the other hand, has a very sunny disposition and so seems to have high utility, despite his poverty and ill-health. Does it seem fair to take resources from Tiny Tim and give them to Scrooge to compensate for their difference in character? If you think this seems unjust, then you think equalising utility is not just.

One response would be to say that this argument involves a very narrow view of utility/welfare as ‘good states of mind’, whereas utility/welfare is really something much more complicated – something like John Stuart Mill’s idea of realising our interests as a progressive being – although this conception might have more in common with a needs theory than a welfare theory as Dworkin understands it. But in any case, this alternative conception of utility merely leads to different problems. For example, if loving and being loved is an important interest, is it a resource we want the state to start redistributing? Would that even be possible? On a different note, if Heinrich is a really talented piano player, do we have to redistribute his other resources simply because Heinrich always has the pleasure of his talent and othr people don’t? Yet if you think that it would be wrong to take resources from Heinrich just because he is talented, this creates a different problem for equalising welfare.

A final problem is that we might believe that some people simply don’t deserve their kind of happiness. If some people get pleasure from torturing kittens or making babies cry, should we give them a state-sponsored supply of kittens or babies?

Equality of Resource Distribution

Moving away from equality of welfare, Dworkin suggests that we equalise resources instead; not in the obvious way of handing everything out equally, but in a rather complicated way. Dworkin wants people to start with equal resources; and then, if inequalities arise, it will be because of their personal choices and merit. He thinks lots of current inequalities are unjust because they are not the product of choices but of unequal life chances. However, if everyone could somehow be made to start fair in the race, then any further inequalities which arose due to option luck would be justified.

To make this work, Dworkin suggests a hypothetical insurance market. (The idea owes something to the famous Original Position thought experiment in John Rawl’s book A Theory of Justice). Suppose we have no knowledge of what our future might hold, or what gender we are, how talented we are, how healthy we are, what our genetic inheritance is, what religion we are, etc. – what insurance would we, as rational argents, buy against things turning out badly? Dworkin thinks we can work that out; and if things happen to people that they would insure against in a disinterested state, we can compensate them; but otherwise we let inequalities develop. This position reconciles equality and desert, because it compensates for bad luck we do not deserve (being born blind), yet does not compensate for bad luck we do deserve (losing at roulette). Dworkin thinks it would also meet people’s basic needs, because rational agents would always insure against not having their basic needs met. Moreover, as this procedure respects choices and treats people as responsible agents, Dworkin thinks it does a good job of respecting people’s rights, and, he believes, leaves them in a position to equally take advantage of equal opportunities. So, for Dworkin, if Ingrid has very little income (although all her basic needs are met), but lots of time to pursue her ambitions as a poet, whilst James works long hours for relatively high wages because he desires to make money and retire early, this is fine, so long as their lifestyle is what each of them chose.

Elizabeth Anderson does good work to show why Dworkin’s equality of resources might not be the right idea, however intuitively appealing, although a lot of her attacks rely on the nature of real insurance, in contrast to Dworkin’s hypothetical insurance. For instance, Anderson says it is clearly not just to leave people to die after horrific car accidents simply because they were uninsured. Dworkin could reply that since insuring yourself against accidents is the kind of thing rational agents would do from a theoretical perspective, we would not let people die from accidents in the real world. But Anderson could take issue with the very idea of assuming what insurance people would theoretically buy anyhow. Dworkin would compensate people because ‘if they were acting rationally’ they would make a decision with a ‘better’ outcome than the decision they actually take. But this is just paternalism – choosing for someone because you think you make better choices about their well-being – and Dworkin’s ethics of treating people with equal concern and respect is supposedly anti-paternalist. In fact, the injured driver ought to receive life-saving medical treatment not because he would have insured himself if he had been rational, but because he is a fellow human, and justice demands that we don’t leave fellow humans to die if we can do something to save them. The same applies to some of Anderson’s other examples. An injured fire-fighter deserves compensation not because if he had been more rational or less brave he would have either insured himself or not done the job, but because he did a vital job and got injured whilst doing it. Similarly, would we insure ourselves against being a mother if we were ‘rational’ and in a situation where we would not know who we would be? It seems true that in many contemporary societies motherhood is a dangerous and expensive choice which leaves women particularly vulnerable – but is it therefore irrational to choose to be a mother? Does it need compensation? Or would it be better to change those societies in which motherhood is dangerous and expensive? For all these reasons, we might not like to make theoretical use of Dworkin’s hypothetical insurance market.

Anderson also thinks that compensating people for things they would have insured themselves against if they were rational is to fail to treat people with respect (and Dworkin’s ethics is all about equal concern and respect). This is because, although a lot of people might think they would be rational to insure themselves against going deaf, for instance, many people in the Deaf community resist very strongly the idea that they need to be compensated. Given the benefits of being very beautiful or tall (attractive people, according to research, are more likely to have better jobs, get freebies and good deals, and have people generally be nice to them), the rational agent, not knowing who they are, might insure against being merely ordinary looking. But if the vast majority of us got an ‘ugliness compensation’ cheque in the post, would that be to treat us with respect?

A different response to Dworkin is to not accept his distinction between brute and option luck. You might not think people really are responsible for their choices in the way Dworkin thinks they are; and if not, you won’t agree with the brute and option luck distinction. Alternatively, you might think there is a difference between these types of luck, but that it’s hard to tell the difference in reality. If Karla only takes out basic holiday travel insurance because she is willing to take risks and is fairly self-sufficient, and then gets captured by Somali pirates whilst scuba-diving off an until-then safe part of the Egyptian coastline, is that bad brute luck (wrong place, wrong time), or bad option luck (she isn’t as cautious as Laura, who takes out anti-kidnap insurance just to go on holiday locally)?

Even More Kinds of Equality

You might accept the brute/option luck distinction, but have some concerns about it mandating leaving some people to die if they are in an accident because of their option luck. In that case, you might be a sufficientarian like Martha Nussbaum or Amartya Sen – that is, you might want to ensure that people are always above a ‘sufficient’ threshold, where (for instance) their needs are met, and only after that is their situation down to their choices, preferences, and option luck.

There are some problems with sufficientarianism as a complete theory. For instance, imagine we think the threshold of sufficiency is at 100 needs-units. We have twenty needs-units to distribute. There are 20 people all at 99 needs-units, and one person, Mark, languishing down at having only one needs-unit. Who do we give the needs-units to? On the one hand it seems intuitive to get as many people as possible over the needs threshold. On the other hand, they are only a little way off it, whereas Mark is in a really, really bad state. Is it really fair to leave him there? Back to the first hand, what difference is there between 1 and 21 when 100 is the threshold? These are all tough questions for sufficientarians, although they do not debilitate the position completely.

Having looked at the first three ways of understanding equality that I listed at the beginning (welfare, resources and meeting needs), it remains to say something about equality of rights and equality of opportunity. Understanding equality as equally respecting rights is fairly easily dealt with. For theorists such as Robert Nozick, justice just is the proper respect of rights, and so all peoples’ rights must be equally respected. This, he thinks, rules out any kind of redistribution of resources apart from that which is voluntarily agreed upon by agents. There is not the space here to investigate this position fully (see my article in Philosophy Now, Issue 92) although some things are worth pointing out. Firstly, Nozick opposes all forms of taxation, which to him are inevitably coercive and therefore violate the individual’s right to autonomy. Secondly, he dispenses with a lot of moral obligations: if you are somehow forced to help an old lady cross the road safely, she is making you her slave. Other people have insisted that equalising rights is enough for meaningful equality, but we might not think such formal equality is enough – if everyone has the same rights, but a certain section of the population is lynched if they try to exercise them, this does not really look like equality, even though everyone in this situation is indeed equal in the eyes of the law.

Lastly, there is the idea of equality of opportunity. This may seem like an easy option, and a welcome solution to all the complexities of equality of welfare, resources and needs, but it too is not as simple as it may at first appear. Almost certainly, to realise true equality of opportunity would involve a good deal of redistribution of resources and privileges, as well as some radical changes to the structure of society, including potentially widespread invasions of what we now see as privacy. For instance, if we are to have equal opportunities, should all children have the same education, regardless of their talents? Given that children who are read to at a young age do much better in later education, and given the knock-on effect of that, must we force all parents to read to their children, or alternatively, ban any parent from doing so until everyone does?

In the end, then, it seems easy to grant that everyone is morally equal, but very difficult to say what that equality entails in practice. Needs, it seems clear, must be met (unless we think some people somehow forfeit even that right through bad decision-making); but beyond this point there is a complicated nexus of factors where we must pay some respect to choice, responsibility, desert, fundamental rights, treating people with equal concern and respect, and perhaps also be cognisant of utility. There is a good deal of work being done in this area at the moment, and much, much more to be done before we reach – if we ever do – a convincingly universal answer.

© Dr Helen McCabe 2012

Helen McCabe did a DPhil on Mill at Somerville College, and now combines being a lecturer at St Edmund Hall with teaching philosophy at Magdalen College School, and St Edward’s School, Oxford.

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