Is Good Luck Unfair?

Is Good Luck Unfair?

Some people get all the breaks when it comes to financial fortune, but is that really fair?

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“What is Egalitarianism?” by Samuel
Scheffler, in
Philosophy & Public Affairs class="text14"> (Winter 2003), and “Equality, Luck and
Hierarchy” by Ronald Dworkin, in Philosophy
& Public Affairs
(Spring 2003), 41
Williams St., Princeton, N.J. 08540.

“Life is unfair,” President John F.
Ken­nedy once famously observed. A school of philosophers has arisen in
recent decades with a (theoretical) solution: Redistribute economic
resources to compensate for advantages conferred by luck, and let
advantages stemming from individuals’ own choices stand. But this
“luck egalitarianism,” as it’s been dubbed, misconstrues
the ideal of equality, contends Scheffler, a professor of philosophy and
law at the University of California, Berkeley.

According to Scheffler, “luck
egalitarians” such as Ronald Dworkin, Will Kym­licka, and John
Roemer deny “that a person’s natural talent, creativity,
in­tel­ligence, innovative skill, or entrepreneurial ability can be
the basis for legitimate inequalities.” On the other hand, earning
more money than others by choosing to work more hours than they do is
fine—and so, luck egalitarians argue, the extra mon­ey
shouldn’t be taxed.

But the ideal of equality, as commonly understood,
Scheffler says, “is opposed not to luck but to oppression, to
heritable hierarchies of social status, to ideas of caste, to class
privilege and the rigid stratification of classes, and to the undemocratic
distribution of power.” As a moral ideal, equality asserts the equal
worth of human beings; as a political ideal, the equal rights of citizens.
Questions about the distribution of economic resources are important but
secondary considerations.

Dworkin, a professor of philosophy and law at New York
University and the author of
Sovereign Virtue class="text44"> (2000), tries “to anchor luck-egalitarian
principles in a more general ideal of equality,” Scheffler says.
But his ideal “is perfectly compatible with social
hierarchy.” For example, “an autocratic government might
impose an economic system that treated individuals as equals in
Dwor­kin’s sense, but that would not transform the society into
an egalitarian political community.”

Dworkin rejects Scheffler’s characterization of
his views on taxation and other subjects, as well as the “luck
egalitarian” label. But he insists that political or social
equality should not be regarded as “more fundamental” than
economic equality: “A genuine society of equals must aim at equal
stake as well as equal voice and equal status for its citizens.”

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