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Equality of Opportunity for Welfare

Arguably the most influential conception of equality of opportunity in the philosophical literature is Equality of Opportunity for Welfare, or Luck Egalitarianism. The view promises to reconcile the moral equality of persons with a concern for responsibility. While Equality of Outcome may be thought to punish the prudent and reward the feckless, Equality of Opportunity for Welfare promises to hold people responsible for their shares. The canonical definition of the view is that for any two persons an inequality between them in terms of welfare (or resources) is just if and only if it emerges from their voluntary choices. To put the view in terms of our formula: All people are to face only the obstacle of their own choices to the achievement of equal welfare (or resources). The view makes sense of many of our intuitions. For example, victims of bad luck, those born with disabilities or who are severely harmed by natural disasters, are entitled to compensation. Meanwhile, those who gamble and lose are not owed compensation.

Some have argued that the view makes a fetish of distribution, focusing on individual shares of goods rather than on the relationships between citizens. Others claim that the operation of the principle would lead to stigma and other types of harsh treatment, such as shameful revelations, for those who make bad choices. Further questions that are raised concern whether our choices are genuinely free when our choice sets are determined by the society we are born into, which is not in our control, and whether it makes sense ever to hold children, who often have diminished capacities for choice, responsible in this way. For example, children who wish to play rather than work hard at school are not, it seems, responsible for their choice, at least up to a certain age or stage of development.

Readings

Anderson, Elizabeth S. What Is The Point Of Equality?. Ethics, Ethics, 109, no. 2 (1999): 287-337.
Notes: This paper argues that the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare has a number of counter-intuitive implications and that it focuses on distribution at the expense of egalitarian relationships, which may mandate compensation to ‘responsible’ parties.
Arneson, Richard J. Equality And Equal Opportunity For Welfare. Philosophical Studies, Philosophical studies, 56, no. 1 (1989): 77-93.
Notes: This paper provides a definition of the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare, people have decision trees with the same expected welfare, and argues that equality of opportunity for welfare is the best interpretation of a concern with equality.
Chambers, Clare . Each Outcome Is Another Opportunity: Problems With The Moment Of Equal Opportunity. Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 8, no. 4 (2009): 374-400.
Notes: The paper argues that conceptions of equality of opportunity must appeal to a moment of equality of opportunity, that is, a moment when we are concerned that opportunities are equal, e.g. 18th birthday. Chambers argues that this is the case because, for any one moment in time there will necessarily be many other moments of unequal opportunity that result from the differential outcomes of the earlier opportunities. For example, we may have an equal opportunity for a college place, but thereafter we have unequal opportunities since the winner of the college place is better qualified than the loser.
Cohen, Gerald A. On The Currency Of Egalitarian Justice. Ethics, Ethics, 1989, 906-944.
Notes: This paper defends the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare against alternative conceptions of equality such as equality of resources and equality of capabilities.
Knight, Carl , and Zofia Stemplowska, eds. Responsibility And Distributive Justice. Edited by Carl Knight and Stemplowska, Zofia . Oxford University Press, 2011.
Notes: This edited collection contains a number of papers on the theoretical and practical debates about the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare and responsibility in particular.
Risse, Mathias . What Equality Of Opportunity Could Not Be*. Ethics, Ethics, 112, no. 4 (2002): 720-747.
Notes: This paper argues that John Roemer’s version of Equality of Opportunity should be rejected as the best conception because that view requires us to accept a claim that is only plausible to libertarians and also requires us to accept compatibilism, which is incompatible with libertarianism.
Roemer, John E. Equality Of Opportunity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Notes: The book sets out and defends a conception of equality of opportunity whereby a person should be held responsible for their choices and not their circumstances. This is in contrast to the non-discrimination approach to equality of opportunity, which is also discussed herein.
Scheffler, Samuel . What Is Egalitarianism?. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 31, no. 1 (2003): 5-39.
Notes: This paper argues that the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare misunderstands the meaning and value of equality and that Rawls’ theory is best understood not as a luck sharing project but as a relational equality view.
Stemplowska, Zofia . Holding People Responsible For What They Do Not Control. Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 7, no. 4 (2008): 355-377.
Notes: This paper argues that it is more inegalitarian to not hold people responsible for their actions than it is to hold them responsible, even if they ultimately lack free will. Thus deflecting criticism of luck egalitarianism or the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare.
Stemplowska, Zofia . Making Justice Sensitive To Responsibility. Political Studies, Political Studies, 57, no. 2 (2009): 237-259.
Notes: This paper argues for an account of the conditions under which we should hold people responsible for the costs of their choices and stresses the importance of the interests in freedom and security when considering whether to hold someone responsible or not, in addition to having initially equal opportunities.
Tan, Kok-Chor . A Defense Of Luck Egalitarianism. The Journal Of Philosophy, The journal of philosophy, 2008, 665-690.
Notes: This paper defends luck egalitarianism or the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare against the critiques of Scheffler and Anderson by clarifying the scope and purpose of the conception.
Wolff, Jonathan . Fairness, Respect, And The Egalitarian Ethos. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 27, no. 2 (1998): 97-122.
Notes: This paper argues that if luck egalitarianism or the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare were applied to our society now then it would require shameful revelations and would strike at individual self-respect in ways that seem contrary to egalitarian concern.