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Equality, Sufficiency, and Opportunity in the Just Society

  • Alexander Rosenberg (a1)

It seems to be almost a given of contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy that the just society is obligated to establish and ensure the equality of its members. Debate begins when we come to delineate the forms and limits of the equality society is obligated to underwrite. In this essay I offer the subversive suggestion that equality is not something the just society should aim for. Instead I offer another objective, one which is to be preferred both because it is more attainable and because it is morally more defensible than equality, either as an ideal or as an operative principle. The demand for equality of treatment, of opportunity, or of outcome, is a distraction from morally more significant aims.

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1 The loci classici of this debate are Rawls, John, A Theory of justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

2 See, for instance, Dworkin, Ronald, “What Is Equality? I, II,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 4 (1981), pp. 185246, 283345.

3 I argue for this view at length in “The Political Philosophy of Biological Endowments,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 5, no. 1 (Autumn 1987), pp. 131.

4 For a full discussion of this qualification on outcome-egalitarianism, see Sher, George, Desert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

5 “Naturally occurring differences” arc not hereditary or genetically determined differences. There are no such differences, for genetic factors always operate together with environmental factors in generating phenotypes. To the extent that environmental differences are small, differences in abilities may be traced to genetic factors. But these require environmental conditions in order to have effects, and their effects may disappear as changes in the environment obtain. For a fuller discussion, sec Rosenberg, , “The Political Philosophy of Biological Endowments”; and Sober, Elliot, Philosophy of Biology (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993), pp. 185–94.

6 For an illuminating discussion of the problem of equalizing for parental investment in upbringing and education, sec Sesardic, Neven, “Egalitarianism and the Natural Lottery,” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol. 7. no. 1 (1993), pp. 5769.

7 At and above the level of the biologically active macromolecule, phenomena remain close enough to deterministic to make the assumption of determinism a safe one for purposes of explaining the distribution of human traits.

8 Here I adopt without further argument a view defended by van Inwagen, Peter, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), ch. 1.

9 Frankfurt, Harry, “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” in Frankfurt, , The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 134–58.

10 Ibid., pp. 135–36.

11 See Varian, Hal, Intermediate Microeconomics (New York: Norton, 1987), p. 538.

12 Frankfurt, , “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” p. 148.

13 This practice of “race norming” was actually implemented in grading the General Aptitude Test Battery administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment Service before its prohibition by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

14 I use “moral luck” in Thomas Nagol's sense of the term; see Nagel, , “Moral Luck,” in his Mortal Questions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 26. See also Good, Barbara win. Justice by Lottery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

15 Frankfurt, , “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” pp. 134–36.

16 Ibid., p. 137.

17 Fishkin, James, Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Family (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

18 Fishkin, James, “Liberty versus Equal Opportunity.” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 5, no. 1 (Autumn 1987), pp. 3839.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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