Just deserts come with a topping of luck

Justice, Luck, and Knowledge
October 24, 2003

One important strand of recent thinking on distributive justice has focused on questions of chance and choice. Inequalities, it is thought, are justified when they flow from individual's choices and are candidates for redistribution when they are due to chance. This is an attractive model. We have a strong intuition that luck should not play a role in our moral judgements and should not determine what we are due. At the same time, individual responsibility matters to us and we think there is nothing wrong, and a lot right, with people ending up with the outcomes of their choices.

For thinkers on the left, the strategy offers an individualist grounding for redistribution while avoiding the usual rightwing criticism that redistribution is insensitive to differing ambitions and efforts.

However, theorists of distributive justice have been reluctant to engage directly with issues of responsibility and with the exact boundaries of choice and chance.

That egalitarian theorists should not have engaged directly with issues of responsibility is particularly perplexing as the responsibility literature, like the egalitarian one, has advanced rapidly. These, then, are the parallel and isomorphic literatures Hurley seeks to bring together.

Specifically, her aim is to examine "some of the ways in which the articulation of responsibility can affect or constrain its potential roles within theories of distributive justice". Having done this, she uses the analysis to suggest replacing luck-neutralisation with bias-neutralisation at the heart of egalitarian justice.

Hurley begins by examining the responsibility literature. She argues for an actual sequence account of responsibility -one that says that whether someone is responsible for some act depends on the character of the actual sequence of events that led to that act -against alternative sequence accounts -those requiring that the agent had available some alternative sequence of events.

Having defended the actual sequence account against the worry that it makes responsibility impossible (because an agent cannot be responsible for all the events that led to the act, given that some of these will predate his existence), Hurley applies what she has established about responsibility to issues of distributive justice. She first establishes the philosophical terrain, and then attacks the idea that neutralising luck can provide grounds for egalitarianism. She argues that just because people are not responsible for differences between them it does not follow that they are responsible for "nondifference". In other words, we have no reason to think that an egalitarian distribution results from eliminating luck. Once we have eliminated luck we are left with the difficult, perhaps indeterminate, matter of what a person would have had had he not been subject to luck.

Both insights are important and significant. However, as Hurley notes, most luck egalitarians do not think of egalitarianism as grounded in neutralising luck. Rather, they hold that equality is the default position and responsibility legitimises movements away from equality.

If luck-neutralisation cannot determine the pattern of distributive justice, can it determine the currency? That is, can it help to define what we ought to distribute even if it cannot help define how it ought to be distributed? Hurley raises doubts that it can, but the real function of the argument seems to be not so much to examine the currency role of luck neutralisation, as to provide the foundations for Hurley's examination of the "real roles of responsibility in justice". These are to determine parameters on seeking incentives (for harder work and so on) and to contribute to our wellbeing (because being responsible is part of what gives life its meaning and value). In turn, these roles underpin a less responsibility-centred account of justice, which Hurley calls bias-neutralising.

This is an excellent and important book. Hurley's mastery of both literatures is impressive and her arguments have wide implications. That said, the relationship of the two halves of the book is slightly odd.

First, in structuring the second part around highly technical debates, she fails to address adequately the kind of basic worries about justice that arise when issues of responsibility are in play. Second, for Hurley the traffic between the two literatures is all one way: we are first to think of responsibility and then apply what we know of that to theories of justice. But there is an important strand in the literature (represented by Tim Scanlon, whose work is conspicuous by its absence here) that holds that a productive way to think about responsibility is to think about how and why we hold people responsible; that is to think first about our practices of justice.

Matt Matravers is senior lecturer in political philosophy, University of York.

Justice, Luck, and Knowledge

Author - S. L. Hurley
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 341
Price - £36.50
ISBN - 0 674 01029 9

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