Guide Social Justice Reconsidered: The Problem of Appropriate Precision in a Theory of Justice

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Seller Inventory NEW David Mapel. Publisher: University of Illinois Press , This specific ISBN edition is currently not available. View all copies of this ISBN edition:. Synopsis Social Justice Reconsidered is an attempt to refocus debate about justice.


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Buy New Learn more about this copy. Customers who bought this item also bought. While he notes that questions of distributional equality are not entirely independent of questions of political equality, he suggests that these two issues are best analyzed separately. The auction is run again and again until the "envy test" is satisfied-that is, until the point at which no one prefers anyone else's bundle of resources to her own. As long as their talents and resources are equal initially, then it is only fair that individuals should be held responsible for the consequences of their ambitions and choices about how to live their lives and what to do with their resources.

Because people have different ambitions, choices, and preferences, a theory of distributional equality treats individuals unfairly if it demands a constant level of resources for everyone at all time.

Madison Powers

After describing the auction that would take place among immigrants who had initially equal talent and resources, Dworkin acknowledges that this hypothetical example is inadequate to the conditions of the actual world, and he attempts to compensate for these inadequacies by adding hypothetical "insurance markets" that could be used to model schemes for taxation and redistribution of wealth in our own society. Explaining the need for these insurance markets, Dworkin notes that while the auction seeks to equalize "external resources," it fails to account for two other kinds of factors that inevitably affect the success that individuals have in pursuing their ambitions: luck especially "brute luck" and "personal resources.

Thus, once the auction is complete and the envy test is satisfied, the initial equality would soon be disturbed and inequalities would arise. While some inequalities would be due to differences in effort and ambition, others would result simply from factors that are not a part of an individual's personality but are merely the results of natural endowment or brute luck, factors for which it is unfair to hold individuals accountable.

Liberal Abstraction and Social Inequality Dworkin is fully aware that it is, in actuality, impossible to include "personal resources" such as natural talents and health and brute luck in any kind of an auction, and that it is also impossible to simply "redistribute" them in the ways that one might redistribute wealth or other impersonal resources.

Nonetheless, there must be some way of equalizing circumstances, or of at least partially compensating people who are "unequal" in terms of their circumstances. In order to accomplish this, Dworkin proposes a hypothetical situation, similar in some ways to Rawls's "original positions,'7 in which people do not yet know whether they will lack certain natural endowments.

The individuals in this situation would each be given a certain number of resources and asked to decide exactly how much they would be willing to spend in order to buy insurance that would protect them from various different natural disadvantages. While we would not want to compensate those who are born into unjust circumstances fully, since this would involve the transfer of more resources than the people in this hypothetical situation would agree to spend, certain amounts of taxation would be justified in order to compensate those who are less well-off in terms of their natural endowments.

Despite his endorsement of such a theory, Dworkin notes that, in actuality, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the effects of one's natural talents from the effects of one's ambitions; thus, he suggests that the best way to apply this in the real world would be to tax the rich to help compensate the poor, even though this does not really succeed in identifying the exact effects of natural disadvantage. Assumptions About "Background Institutions" In describing the ideal scenario that illustrates his "equality of resources" theory, Dworkin makes certain assumptions that he does not justify or even identify.

By making use of background information from our own society-about the market and about the ambitions and circumstances of "normal" people- without acknowledging that he is employing such information, Dworkin suggests that certain facts about our own society would not radically change even if we were to begin from an ideal of initial equality.

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In Social Justice Reconsidered, David Mapel argues that in order to make sense of the situation of the immigrants on the desert island, it must be assumed that they already possess a great deal of information that they could not have unless they already knew more than they supposedly know in Dworkin's initial situation. For instance, in order to be able to place bids in the initial auction, the immigrants must somehow have the power to predict what value their resources will have in the future. However, this cannot be determined until after the auction has ended and production begins.

Similarly, because the insurance scheme models current ambitions in order to come up with a premium rate structure, Dworkin must import from our own society complex cultural assumptions about matters such as family structure, occupational choice, and desires for wealth. Furthermore, it seems that the hypothetical persons in Dworkin's discussion of the insurance scheme would have a hard time making decisions about how much insurance to buy against certain risks without simply assuming many things about the society that has not yet developed.

For instance, in order to think about how much money I would be willing to pay to ensure against the possibility that I would be blind, I would need to know a great deal about the prospects of blind people in society, e. What are their chances for being able to function independently?

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Furthermore, my decision would also depend on many facts about the social structure, for instance, would I have supportive family and friends? Without being able to envision more specifically the sort of society that would develop out of his abstract model, Dworkin ends up simply assuming that many aspects of our own society would remain unchanged in his ideal.

Of course, every ideal theory must make use of some information from our own society. Dworkin never suggests that his ideal would be appropriate for anyone, in any time period, under any conditions, but rather that it is supposed to serve as an ideal for societies much like ours in the modem world. Nonetheless, when the information taken in by the ideal and the background assumptions employed reflect precisely the relations of power that a theory of equality should be used to challenge, this is a serious problem.

SociaJ Structures and Sources of Inequality A second important problem with Dworkin's theory is that it treats "equality" as if it were simply a matter of individual resource holdings, and not a matter of how institutions and systems of power are organized. Viewing inequality as a matter of personal misfortune, Dworkin presupposes that the roles and institutions of our own society are not a major source of inequality and, thus, need not be substantially altered if "equality" is to be achieved.

Although Dworkin does not explicitly discuss the social systems of power in our own world, his general discussion of what is involved in equality makes clear that he does not take "inequality" to be rooted in these structures. After Dworkin describes what would be involved in the hypothetical auction of "impersonal resources," he points out that this simple auction would not work in the real world. In our own world, if such an auction were to occur among individuals who landed on a desert island, as soon as the "envy test" was met and the bidding ended, the immigrants would quickly become unequal.

According to Dworkin, this is because, in the real world, individuals have varying degrees of natural talents and luck, and these factors lead to inequalities. While Dworkin is surely correct to point out that individuals in the real world have differing degrees of natural talent and brute luck and that these differences can lead to inequalities, it nonetheless seems odd that these are identified by Dworkin as the main if not the only sources of inequality aside from initial resource distribution. What exactly does Dworkin think falls under these categories?

Are individuals who inherit large sums of money simply "lucky"? And are those who are born into racial and ethnic groups that are subject to discrimination and economic subordination merely "unlucky"? Underlying much of what might be seen simply as "luck" or "talent," and in addition to any manifestation of either of these, there are larger structural patterns that play an enormous role in determining which individuals end up suffering from particular inequalities. For instance, while anyone could have a "natural talent" for nuclear physics in theory, such a talent is unlikely ever to develop if a person is not sent to good schools and encouraged to excel in subjects like math and science.

Such opportunity and encouragement are not equally available to everyone; e. Thus, it seems that while Dworkin places a lot of attention on the ways in which natural talents and luck affect the distribution of resources in our own world, he does not pay sufficient attention to the effects of structural hierarchies of social power such as race, class, and gender. These structures playa powerful role in determining who actually ends up with what may, from an individualistic perspective, look like mere "luck" or "natural talent. The effect of this strategy could be to merely equalize the chances that individuals have of ending up in certain unchosen circumstances, rather than examining and altering the hierarchical ways that many circumstances are structured.

Distinguishing Ambitions from Circumstances Dworkin's assumptions about background institutions and his treatment of inequality as a matter of personal resource holdings may both be related to a third, more fundamental problem with Dworkin's "equality of resources" and with Dworkin's liberalism generally. While Dworkin's claim that a theory of equality should be sensitive to "ambition" but insensitive to "endowment" is compelling, he fails to address one very important practical consideration: in order to make sense of this ideal in the actual world we must be able to clearly distinguish ambitions from circumstances.

In this final section, I argue that Dworkin avoids this crucial issue and that he seems to assume that it makes sense to discuss individual ambitions and preferences outside an analysis of the social or political circumstances in which they developed. By focusing his discussion on an abstract ideal, Dworkin fails to examine questions about how an individual's ambitions and preferences might be shaped by her position in particular hierarchies of power. Finally, I suggest that ideal theories tend to function ideologically when they are discussed outside questions of social power. As an example of this, I show how Dworkin's envy test reinforces sexist ideology when employed without a critical analysis of the "circumstances" of male dominance.

As I noted earlier, Dworkin's theory emphasizes the need to respect individual differences in ambitions, preferences, and life plans. Dworkin explains quite clearly that after the initial auction, If one person, by dint of superior effort or talent, uses his equal share to create more than another, he is entitled to profit thereby, because his gain is not made at the expense of someone else who does less with his share There are enormous differences not only in people's ambitions, but also in their circumstances, and it is not always easy to separate these from one another.

Dworkin's argument makes sense only if we assume that we know which differences are the result of a person's individual ambition and which are due instead to circumstances.

Thus, in order to know that we are rewarding someone's "superior industry," we would first have to know that we are rewarding something for which this individual is actually responsible and not something that he was able to achieve due to his position in an unjust social structure-for example, by profiting from the exploitation of others or by benefiting from a privileged upbringing. Because Dworkin fails to address this matter, his theory seems to operate as if the differences that people end up exhibiting are actually due to factors that arise out of their individual personalities and ambitions and not out of their circumstances.

In fact, Dworkin suggests that circumstances matter mostly because they determine how easy it will be for an individual to achieve her ambitions, not because they playa role in her ambition and preference formation. However, Dworkin runs into problems if the social, political, and economic circumstances in which an individual lives affect not only the "resources" that person has available to her in pursuing her ambitions but also the very ambitions and preferences that person develops. For instance, consider Dworkin's discussion of the importance of one's economic circumstances. Noting that individuals can be harmed by the fact that they own less property than they might, he explains, "[t]he economic environment may frustrate my efforts to raise my children to have the values I might wish them to have; I cannot, for example, raise them to have the skills and experience of collecting Renaissance masterpieces.

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These sorts of problems could have permanent, negative effects on the ambitions and preferences that an individual develops. And yet these problems are belittled by Dworkin's example of how such an individual might be harmed. Recall that Dworkin's motivation in devising a theory of distributional equality is to come up with a theory that is "ambition sensitive" and "endowment insensitive. Because his theory rests on a very strong distinction between ambition and circumstance, and because individual preferences and ambitions play an important role in his "envy test," Dworkin ends up simply l!