Equality, Responsibility and Talent Slavery

Imprints 9 (2):118-39 (2006)
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Egalitarians must address two questions: i. What should there be an equality of, which concerns the currency of the ‘equalisandum’; and ii. How should this thing be allocated to achieve the so-called equal distribution? A plausible initial composite answer to these two questions is that resources should be allocated in accordance with choice, because this way the resulting distribution of the said equalisandum will ‘track responsibility’ — responsibility will be tracked in the sense that only we will be responsible for the resources that are available to us, since our allocation of resources will be a consequence of our own choices. But the effects of actual choices should not be preserved until the prior effects of luck in constitution and circumstance are first eliminated. For instance, people can choose badly because their choice-making capacity was compromised due to a lack of intelligence (i.e. due to constitutional bad luck), or because only bad options were open to them (i.e. due to circumstantial bad luck), and under such conditions we are not responsible for our choices. So perhaps a better composite answer to our two questions (from the perspective of tracking responsibility) might be that resources should be allocated so as to reflect people’s choices, but only once those choices have been corrected for the distorting effects of constitutional and circumstantial luck, and on this account choice preservation and luck elimination are two complementary aims of the egalitarian ideal. Nevertheless, it is one thing to say that luck’s effects should be eliminated, but quite another to figure out just how much resource redistribution would be required to achieve this outcome, and so it was precisely for this purpose that in 1981 Ronald Dworkin developed the ingenuous hypothetical insurance market argumentative device (HIMAD), which he then used in conjunction with the talent slavery (TS) argument, to arrive at an estimate of the amount of redistribution that would be required to reduce the extent of luck’s effects. However recently Daniel Markovits has cast doubt over Dworkin’s estimates of the amount of redistribution that would be required, by pointing out flaws with his understanding of how the hypothetical insurance market would function. Nevertheless, Markovits patched it up and he used this patched-up version of Dworkin’s HIMAD together with his own version of the TS argument to reach his own conservative estimate of how much redistribution there ought to be in an egalitarian society. Notably though, on Markovits’ account once the HIMAD is patched-up and properly understood, the TS argument will also allegedly show that the two aims of egalitarianism are not necessarily complementary, but rather that they can actually compete with one another. According to his own ‘equal-agent’ egalitarian theory, the aim of choice preservation is more important than the aim of luck elimination, and so he alleges that when the latter aim comes into conflict with the former aim then the latter will need to be sacrificed to ensure that people are not subordinated to one another as agents. I believe that Markovits’ critique of Dworkin is spot on, but I also think that his own positive thesis — and hence his conclusion about how much redistribution there ought to be in an egalitarian society — is flawed. Hence, this paper will begin in Section I by explaining how Dworkin uses the HIMAD and his TS argument to estimate the amount of redistribution that there ought to be in an egalitarian society — this section will be largely expository in content. Markovits’ critique of Dworkin will then be outlined in Section II, as will be his own positive thesis. My critique of Markovits, and my own positive thesis, will then make a fleeting appearance in Section III. Finally, I will conclude by rejecting both Dworkin’s and Markovits’ estimates of the amount of redistribution that there ought to be in an egalitarian society, and by reaffirming the responsibility-tracking egalitarian claim that choice preservation and luck elimination are complementary and not competing egalitarian aims.

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Nicole A. Vincent
University of Technology Sydney


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