Gleiche Gerechtigkeit: Grundlagen eines liberalen Egalitarismus

Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (2004)
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Equal Justice explores the role of the idea of equality in liberal theories of justice. The title indicates the book’s two-part thesis: first, I claim that justice is the central moral category in the socio-political domain; second, I argue for a specific conceptual and normative connection between the ideas of justice and equality. This pertains to the age-old question concerning the normative significance of equality in a theory of justice. The book develops an independent, systematic, and comprehensive theory of equality and egalitarianism. The principal question is about the importance of equality in a theory of justice. More precisely, we should pose questions in four contracting circles: 1. Is justice the supreme value guiding our setup of the basic structure of society, or are there other, equally important values, such as recognition, care, communal belonging? 2. If justice is the highest guiding principle, which competing ideals—especially equality and freedom—ought to have precedence in a policy oriented toward justice? What status does the ideal of equality have in that framework? 3. If equality is a basic ideal of just policy, how should it be practically realized? What sort of equality (equal opportunity, equality of welfare, resource equality) should be demanded? 4. What patterned distribution of which specific goods does the ideal of equality demand? Which principles of distribution can be justified according to our justice ideal? To conclude and summarize: 5. What is the essential core of an egalitarian theory of justice, as opposed to an inegalitarian theory? These five questions structure the work’s order of argumentation. Part A elaborates the conceptual foundations and basic moral principles of justice and equality. Chapter I sets out to install justice as the central moral category in the socio-political domain. At the beginning of the first chapter, the conceptual foundations of justice are clarified. While not eliminating the classical distinctions between different forms of justice, I argue that the distributive paradigm is of primary importance. The primacy of justice in the socio-political domain is developed out of a confrontation with alternative positions, those which maintain either that justice generally, or distributive justice in particular, are subsidiary virtues. At the end of Chapter I, the first of the questions mentioned above is answered in a way that establishes justice as the guiding normative concept for the foundation and evaluation of any social order. To clarify the role of equality in a theory of justice, Chapter II separates the idea of equality into four different principles. They are organized in a way that begins with the most general and uncontroversial principle of equality, and progresses towards increasingly detailed and contested principles. There are two theses that articulate and defend the significance of equality for justice: First there is a conceptual connection between justice and equality, in that principles of formal and proportional equality are necessary in order to explicate the concept of justice. These two principles establish an unbreakable bond between justice and equality. Justice can only be explained—or so I argue—by reference to these and other (normative) principles of equality. The second thesis posits a normative relationship between justice and equality, which is disclosed by three substantive principles of equality: moral equality, the presumption of equality, and the principle of responsibility. I argue that the normative core of an egalitarian theory of justice is expressed by the latter two principles, which are themselves based on the first principle, that of moral equality. When we view one another as persons, what form of equality or equal treatment is normatively demanded? I argue that the answer to this question is given by the procedural principle of the presumption of equality: regardless of their apparent differences, all persons deserve strictly equal treatment, unless certain kinds of differences have whatever particular relevance would justify, on generally acceptable grounds, unequal treatment or unequal distribution. The justification of the presumption of equality is central to this work and has considerable importance. If the presumption principle’s validity can be justified by enlisting the principle of general justification, then the primacy of equality, and the essential argument for an egalitarian theory of justice, is established. This would likewise provide a procedure for the construction of a material theory of justice. The second question is answered thereby at the end of Chapter II: Equality should have primacy over competing ideals within a justice-oriented policy. The presumption of equality establishes this primacy and, at the same time, offers an appropriate metric and guideline for the construction of a material theory of distributive justice. The presumption of equality in Part B offers an elegant procedure for the development of a theory of distributive justice. Chapter III clearly sets out the necessary prerequisites that a theory of distribution must satisfy in order to determine a liberal-egalitarian distributional framework. We need to specify in which situation the distribution takes place; which goods are and are not to be distributed; in which respect the presumptive equality is to be produced; and by and to whom, and for what period, the relevant goods are to be distributed. The distribution is based on resources understood as general-purpose means. It is necessary to divide goods into different categories, since the justification for unequal treatment in one domain will not carry over into another. This makes presumptive equality necessarily complex. To that end, four spheres of justice are distinguished: (1) the political sphere, which involves allocating rights through the distribution of civil liberties; (2) the democratic sphere, in which political power and the rights of political participation are regulated; (3) the economic sphere, in which income and property are distributed; (4) the social sphere, in which social positions and opportunities are distributed. This framework of distributive justice answers the third of our guiding questions, about the nature of equality, in terms of equality of resources. Chapters IV and V set out the egalitarian distributive criteria for each sphere. I argue that the generally accepted, fundamental rights of classical liberalism are more effectively reconstructed by reference to the equal resource distribution presumptively required in those spheres. Chapter IV shows that when it comes to the first two spheres, those involving basic rights and freedoms and entitlement political participation, there can be no justified exceptions to the equal distribution of the relevant goods. That section argues, contrary to what we commonly find in theories of freedom or popular sovereignty, that the value of freedom and self-determination as the political basis of autonomy is best realized through the presumption of equal distribution. Chapter V deals with the other two spheres, those of economic goods and social positions, and argues for justified exceptions to equal distribution. In the economic sphere we find one principal reason favouring unequal distribution of resources, and three restrictions and compensations limiting that inequality. The basic exception to equal economic distribution arises from the unequal consequences of personal responsibility. From a suitably egalitarian standpoint, the principle of responsibility is the normative principle that determines which reasons justify economic inequality. Here the basic idea is that unequal shares of social goods are fair if they result from the choices and deliberate actions of the relevant parties. That individuals have to bear the costs of their own choices is a condition of autonomy. However, benefits or disadvantages arising from arbitrary and unmerited differences in social circumstances or natural endowments is unfair. The unequal consequences of independent decision-making and action must therefore be limited by compensating first for preferences, secondly for disadvantages, and thirdly by redistributing wealth in aid of the worse-off. I situations of emergency, compensating for disadvantages has priority over all other claims, owing to the urgency of the situation. Social inequalities go beyond the permissible limit if it is possible to improve the long-term social or economic situation of the worse-off by redistributing wealth to them. These exceptions lead to a complex system of free economic action within a framework of compensatory tax and transfer mechanisms. Finally, in the social sphere, the distribution of social positions, offices and opportunities must be structured to ensure that equally talented and motivated citizens have roughly equal chances of obtaining those offices or positions, irrespective of their economic or social class backgrounds. This compromise is permissible for reasons of freedom and prudence, and it makes a certain measure of inequality acceptable. The fourth of our guiding questions is answered accordingly. There are five principles of justice for the basic structure of society, and five legal principles that govern the special distribution of goods in the respective spheres—all are ranked according to their most defensible grounds of priority, ensuring that everyone is accorded equal justice. Chapter VI recapitulates the initial question of equality’s value. The conception of equal justice developed in this work postulates five principles of equality and five principles of law; these constitute an egalitarian framework because they support and promote social justice. Equality has value with respect to them, but is not given any independent, intrinsic value. That is why I call the account developed here a form of constitutive egalitarianism: justice is realized through the realization of equality, itself accomplished by applying the five postulates of equality and five distributive principles of law. This is an egalitarianism on two levels. The first level is involves the claim that morality or justice is conceptually connected with equality. The second level gives equality a substantial weight in what is conceptually validated at the first level, namely the presumption of equality, and constructs an appropriate interpretation and conception of distributive justice through principles of distribution for the individual spheres. The weight and importance of equality is shown by the distributive criteria applied to those spheres. This answers our final guiding question about the nature of an egalitarian theory.

Author's Profile

Stefan Gosepath
Freie Universität Berlin


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