by Chris Bertram on January 25, 2004

The most popular theory of egalitarian justice at the moment is probably one that says that an individual’s fate should be a sensitive to their choices but insensitive to the brute luck they suffer (including their unchosen circumstances). I bring this up in the light of the often-unenlightening comments threads that ensue once someone here has posted on the situation of the poor (and especially of the _American_ poor), as Henry did on the Caroline Payne case, and I did some time ago on the health outcomes of black Americans.

For the standard response of our rightist friends is to tell us that the individuals who suffer these bad outcomes do so largely as a consequence of their own choices. So it is worth pointing out that, were that actually so, the most influential strand of egalitarian thinking on distributive justice would not find that a matter of concern.

Now there are those (on the left) who do indeed think it a defect of luck egalitarianism (as it is sometimes, but perhaps unhelpfully called) that it is willing to abandon the reckless gambler or the uninsured catastrophically-injured extreme sports enthusiast to their fates. Or, at least, holds that it is not inconsistent with justice to do so. And it is worth mentioning, as a caveat, that there are many steps between a view about what distributive justice strictly requires and a workable social policy. But it is important, I think, to press the fact that, despite appearances, many lefties agree with righties that people should be held responsible for their choices and should live with the consequences of those choices.

The disagreement between the two camps, then, does not really come down to differences on choice and responsibility, but rather to different views about other things. What are those other things? I can think of three possibilities: freedom, what I shall call “pattern”, and sufficiency.

The freedom issue is roughty the view that

Now it is important not to be misled by the facts — even the counterfactual facts — here. Righties often react to cases like the Caroline Payne case by asserting that if she had chosen differently, then she would have been ok. Leaving to one side the difficult problem of settling the threshold of ok-ness, we can still press the matter of what those righties think on the occasions when that counterfactual is false, where (try as she might have done) Caroline would still have fallen below the threshold. We can press that matter in order to reveal what the deeper normative commitments of those righties actually are. Because at least some of those righties will assert that even when those below the threshold are where they are through brute bad luck rather than as a consequence of their choices, justice still forbids the amelioration of their condiction if that amelioration would require that we take away (probably through taxes) from the rich to give to the poor.