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The Political Philosophy of Biological Endowments: Some Considerations*

  • Alexander Rosenberg (a1)

Is a government required or permitted to redistribute the gains and losses that differences in biological endowments generate? In particular, does the fact that individuals possess different biological endowments lead to unfair advantages within a market economy? These are questions on which some people are apt to have strong intuitions and ready arguments. Egalitarians may say yes and argue that as unearned, undeserved advantages and disadvantages, biological endowments are never fair, and that the market simply exacerbates these inequities. Libertarians may say no, holding that the possession of such endowments deprives no one of an entitlement and that any system but a market would deprive agents of the rights to their endowments. Biological endowments may well lead to advantages or disadvantages on their view, but not to unfair ones.

I do not have strong intuitions about answers to these questions, in part because I believe that they are questions of great difficulty. To begin, alternative answers rest on substantial assumptions in moral philosophy that seem insufficiently grounded. Moreover, the questions involve several problematical assumptions about the nature of biological endowments. Finally, I find the questions to be academic, in the pejorative sense of this term. For aside from a number of highly debilitating endowments, the overall moral significance of differences between people seems so small, so I interdependent and so hard to measure, that these differences really will 1 not enter into practical redistributive calculations, even if it is theoretically i permissible that they do so.

Before turning to a detailed discussion of biological endowments and their moral significance, I sketch my doubts about the fundamental moral theories that dictate either the impermissibility or the obligation to compensate for different biological endowments.

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1 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 7274.

2 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1974), pp. 224227.

3 Dworkin, Ronald, “What is Equality? Part 1: Equality of Welfare,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 10 (Summer 1981), pp. 185246, and “What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources,” ibid. (Fall 1981), pp. 283–345.

4 Nozick, Anarchy, p. 233.

5 See ibid., pp. 213–227.

6 For a discussion of this matter, see Sen, Amartya, “The Moral Standing of the Market,” Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 2 (Spring 1985), pp. 119; and Allan Gibbard, “What's Morally Special About Free Exchange?” ibid., pp. 20–28.

7 As noted below in Section V, Dworkin for one would reject this line of reasoning. See Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” pp. 308–310.

8 For a discussion of this point see Sober, E., “Evolution, Population Thinking, and Essentialism,” Philosophy of Science, vol. 47 (1980), pp. 350383.

9 Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” p. 332.

10 See ibid.

11 ibid., p. 284.

12 See Varian, Hal, “Dworkin on Equality of Resources,” Economics and Philosophy, vol. 1 (1985), pp. 110127.

13 Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” p. 287 n. 2.

14 ibid., p. 316.

15 ibid., p. 302.

16 ibid., p. 303.

17 ibid., p. 304.

18 Nozick, Anarchy, p. 214. He makes this same point eloquently for quite a different purpose.

19 Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” p. 311.

20 ibid., p. 313.

21 ibid.

22 ibid., p. 314.

23 ibid., pp. 316–317.

24 Nozick, Anarchy, p. 169.

25 Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” p. 330.

26 ibid., pp. 333–334.

27 Roemer, John, “Equality of Talent,” Economics and Philosophy, vol. 1 (1985), pp. 151188.

28 Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 72–74.

29 Dworkin, “Equality of Resources,” p. 309.

30 ibid., p. 310.

* I must thank Carl Cranor, David Glidden, Onora O'Neill, and Ellen Paul for improvements on earlier versions of this paper.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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