Disadvantage, Autonomy, and the Continuity Test

Journal of Applied Philosophy 31 (3):254-270 (2014)
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The Continuity Test is the principle that a proposed distribution of resources is wrong if it treats someone as disadvantaged when they don't see it that way themselves, for example by offering compensation for features that they do not themselves regard as handicaps. This principle — which is most prominently developed in Ronald Dworkin's defence of his theory of distributive justice — is an attractive one for a liberal to endorse as part of her theory of distributive justice and disadvantage. In this article, I play out some of its implications, and show that in its basic form the Continuity Test is inconsistent. It relies on a tacit commitment to the protection of autonomy, understood to consist in an agent deciding for herself what is valuable and living her life in accordance with that decision. A contradiction arises when we consider factors which are putatively disadvantaging by dint of threatening individual autonomy construed in this way. I argue that the problem can be resolved by embracing a more explicit commitment to the protection (and perhaps promotion) of individual autonomy. This implies a constrained version of the Continuity Test, thereby salvaging most of the intuitions which lead people to endorse the Test. It also gives us the wherewithal to sketch an interesting and novel theory of distributive justice, with individual autonomy at its core
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