Three new books examine the connections between egalitarian
politics and personal virtue.
Egalitarianism has a bad name. Traditionally, critics
have said that it imposes unacceptable limits on individual choice and
makes excessive demands on social solidarity. Now, they add that it
is old-fashioned, procrustean, and unsuited to a world of economic globalization,
instant communication, and fissiparous group identities.
The negative judgment of the critics may rest on an overhasty
assimilation of egalitarianism to Marxism, and to a specific, discredited
conception of socialist industrial organizationSoviet-style communism
based on centralized planning and state ownership of the means of production.
Nevertheless, criticism of egalitarianism is hard to ignoreand
the past decade has seen a growing effort among political philosophers
and economists to articulate a plausible post-Marxist egalitarianism.
Much of this work, by such theorists as James Meade, John
Roemer, Philippe Van Parijs, Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, Richard
Freeman, and Edmund Phelps, has focused on institutional proposalsin
particular, how to achieve egalitarian objectives without undermining
the dynamism and efficiency of a market economy. Meanwhile, other thinkers
have paid renewed attention to the fundamental values that ought
to inform the egalitarian project. In addressing the issue of values,
egalitarian political thought has often drawn a sharp line between questions
about social and political justicethe laws and institutions we
need to live together as equalsand questions of personal moralityabout
the right way to live our individual lives. In his later work, for example,
John Rawlswhose theory of "justice as fairness" sought
to reconcile liberal and egalitarian traditions of democratic thoughthas
defended a "political conception of justice," which, he argues,
is compatible with a variety of different philosophies of life, both
religious and secular. On this view, egalitarian justice is achieved
principally through laws and institutions, not through the devotions
that give point and texture to our daily lives.
Three recent booksby Robert Fogel, an eminent economic
historian, and by G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin, two distinguished
philosophersquestion this separation of the personal and the political.
Egalitarianism, they suggest, must be understood as part of a more encompassing
view of how best to live. They pose and explore some important questions
about the senses in which an egalitarian politics ought to be seen as
a politics of personal virtue.
Virtue as Egalitarian End
In The Fourth Great
Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, Nobel Prize-winning
economic historian Robert Fogel argues that "modernist egalitarianism"
of the kind that found expression in the social-democratic welfare states
of the twentieth century has achieved notable successes in raising the
living standards of the poor and narrowing income inequalities through
public health initiatives, income redistribution and, in particular,
public education. But the political vision of the modernist egalitarians,
Fogel argues, has been one-sidedly materialistic. It ignores the importance
of "spiritual resources," such as: a "sense of purpose,"
a "vision of opportunity," "a sense of the mainstream
of work and life," "a capacity to engage with diverse groups,"
"a sense of discipline," "a capacity to focus and concentrate
ones efforts," "a capacity for self-education,"
and "self-esteem." These spiritual resources, too, are essential
means for achieving a good life, but the modernist egalitarian project
assumednaïvely, Fogel thinksthat material redistribution
would suffice to make these resources available to all.
Though neglected by conventional egalitarians, concern
with spiritual deprivation has become the focus of a major cultural
movement centered around enthusiastic religion. In recent years this
"Fourth Great Awakening" has found increasingly influential
political expression, on the right, through such organizations as the
Christian Coalition. From Fogels perspective, the split between
liberals and religious conservatives is not, as is often thought, a
split between egalitarians and anti-egalitarians; it is, rather, a split
between different kinds of egalitarianism between proponents of
material and spiritual equity. Rather than choosing between these two
goals, Fogel argues that we need to acknowledge bothwe must articulate
a "postmodern egalitarianism" that embraces the genuine material
gains of the past century and legitimate aims of the modernists, but
also addresses urgent problems of spiritual deprivation. In policy terms,
this new egalitarian project must address the conflict between employment
and family life, and promote new educational initiatives to attack deficiencies
in spiritual resources: prenatal classes to teach parenting skills to
disadvantaged young parents; mentoring programs to assist children from
deprived families; new, humanistic life-long learning programs for midlifers
and the elderly; and, not least, further expansion of higher education.
Increased direct redistribution of income and wealth would miss the
point, because the maldistribution of "virtue" (self-realization
based on adequate spiritual resources) is now a more important source
of unequal life-chances than unequal material wealth. Evangelical Christians
("disciples of the Fourth Great Awakening") and secular liberals
(modernist egalitarians) are, in Fogels view, potential collaborators
in advancing this program.
Fogel makes the case for postmodern egalitarianism by
proposing an ambitious theory of religio-political cycles in American
history. Technological changes (shifts from agriculture to manufacture,
the emergence of mass production, the development of modern communications
technology) disrupt existing social patterns, and those disruptions
generate social change, which in turn undermines the capacity of established
ethical frameworks to provide practical guidance. Religious revivals,
centered on evangelical churches, emerge in response to these challenges.
These revivalssuch as the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and
1740s, or the Second Great Awakening, which fueled abolitionismeventually
crystallize into new ethical frameworks; these frameworks, in turn,
promote new political movements and realignments; and the new movements
produce policy changes that help adapt society to prior technological
change. Each cycle lasts about one hundred years, has its thirty-year
religious upswing, a thirty- to forty-year political maturity, and a
senescence of about thirty to forty years, in which the values that
became prevalent in maturity are challenged by new ethical frameworks.
Fogel believes that in the past thirty years or so the United States
has passed through the senescent phase of the Third Great Awakening,
which came to political maturity with the New Deal in the 1930s, and
the religious upswing of the Fourth Great Awakening, now set to enter
its phase of political maturity. Postmodern egalitarianism, in Fogels
view, is the public philosophy that best expresses the Fourth Awakening
at political maturity.
The cycle theory is an impressive piece of intellectual
synthesis, which makes suggestive connections between socio-economic
change, religious revivalism, and political realignment. A Marxist in
his youth, Fogel accepts a form of historical materialism: changes in
culture, society, and politics are ultimately driven by the demands
of technological change. Fogel has enough material, and marshals it
skillfully enough, to make the theory plausible. But given the complexity
and number of variables and causal relationships involved, and the contestability
of the variables and each of these relationships, I think it would take
much more work to make the theory compelling. I propose to bracket the
cycle theory and consider the case for postmodern egalitarianism on
its own terms.
egalitarianism downplays income redistribution, emphasizes education
as the primary way to ensure opportunity, and aims, in general terms,
to integrate social-democratic and conservative perspectives on social
problems. All this echoes themes sounded by those who have recently
sought a new, "third way" politics that transcends the conflict
between traditional social democracy and the free-market right.1
A familiar criticism of putative third ways, however, is that they do
not so much reconcile as fudge real philosophical and political disagreements
between left and right. And I think this criticism applies to Fogels
brand of postmodern egalitarianism.
As a basis for left-right convergence, Fogel proposes
the goal of "spiritual equity." Spiritual inequity exists
when there is a maldistribution of "spiritual resources" of
the kind listed above. The importance of these resourcesa sense
of purpose, self-discipline, and devotion to workseems indisputable.
And it is true, too, that material equality will not translate into
genuinely equal opportunities to lead challenging and rewarding lives
if some individuals lack these crucial spiritual resources. If we describe
a way of life that uses these spiritual resources as "virtuous"and
this is pretty much how Fogel intends the termthen the fundamental
egalitarian goal might be said to consist in equal opportunity for virtuous
living. On its own, this idea isnt terribly original or controversial.
Major egalitarian thinkers of the recent past, such as the British socialist
R. H. Tawney, would probably have agreed with it. Indeed, much of it
is arguably already implicit in contemporary liberal egalitarian theories
that stress, in John Rawlss formulation, the fundamental interest
each citizen has in having the capacity and a fair opportunity to "frame,
revise, and pursue a conception of the good." For the business
of framing, revising, and pursuing such a conception is likely to draw
upon the characteristics that Fogel terms "spiritual resources"
and that he identifies with personal virtue.
Fogel is on weaker ground when he attributes these ethical
concerns about spiritual resources to the conservative "forces
of the Fourth Great Awakening." Christian conservatives are not
concerned about a fair distribution of spiritual resources, understood
as means for achieving a wide range of human aims and ideals; they champion
a much more specific and controversial view, or collection of views,
about the content of the good life. Consider one other spiritual resource
that Fogel mentions: "a strong family ethic." Fogel characterizes
a strong family in terms of an ongoing commitment between two partners
to have and raise children to maturity. Now, if the family ethic is
defined in these functional terms, with an emphasis on child rearing,
a gay or lesbian couple could exhibit these qualities. But would this
understanding of the family ethic be acceptable to religious conservatives?
On the other hand, if we specify the family ethic more narrowly, so
as to exclude families headed by gays and lesbians, would we have an
understanding of the family ethic that is acceptable to an egalitarian?
This difficulty goes beyond the case of the family. The
concern to diffuse basic "spiritual resources"qualities
which are arguably of importance to people of diverse religious and
secular outlooks as means for achieving a good lifemust be distinguished
from the concern to promote a specific way of life, roughly approximating
evangelical Protestantism, which interprets and deploys these resources
in a particular, often traditionalist, way. Egalitarians ought to be
sympathetic to the first concern. But the second concern is quite another
matter. On the face of it, basing political decisions on such a philosophy
seems to threaten invidious discrimination against individuals who have
no truck with evangelical Protestantism, but who may nevertheless be
pursuingor, due to oppressive legal penalties, may be struggling
to leadlives that are nevertheless spiritually rich in the first
sense. In his passion for "virtue," Fogel fails to distinguish
sufficiently sharply between what one might call an instrumental
virtue ethics, which identifies spiritual resources of instrumental
importance to citizens of potentially very diverse conceptions of the
good, and an evangelical virtue ethics, which advances a quite
specific conception of the gooda specific interpretation of what
those resources are and/or of the life-projects in which they ought
ideally to be deployed.
Once we distinguish these two types of virtue ethic, however,
and we acknowledge that a defensible egalitarian politics must confine
itself to the first type, Fogels claims about prospective collaboration
between modernist egalitarians and conservative followers of the Fourth
Great Awakening look dim. For example, both parties might agree that
employment and family life should be better integrated than they now
are, and that such an integration would promote spiritual well being.
But will they agree on how to achieve this? The liberal will naturally
look to solutions that are consistent with women having equal employment
opportunity with men. This seems also to be Fogels view. But will
such policies satisfy or antagonize religious conservatives? If liberals
and religious conservatives can agree on the value of "education"
as a means of combating deficiencies in "spiritual resources,"
will they agree concretely on the values to be fostered through education?
According to Fogel, the expansion in educational services he proposes
will raise educational spending from 7 percent to 11-12 percent of national
income. Will liberals and religious conservatives agree on the extent
to which expansion in the provision of education should be publicly
funded? Or on how to distribute the tax burden to help meet increased
public spending on education? (Fogel notes how the Christian Coalition
has incorporated a commitment to smaller government into its platform,
in line with its ethic of "personal responsibility.") At a
very high level of abstraction, modernist egalitarians and religious
conservatives can agree on the importance of "spiritual equity."
But this abstract agreement leaves their fundamental philosophical differences
unresolved. And on a wide range of relatively concrete policy issues,
those underlying differences will pull the two in different directions.
If Fogels account of spiritual virtues is troublingly
ambiguous, it is also strikingly narrow. Fogel devotes only a few pages
of the book to the ecological dimension of contemporary egalitarian
politics. Yet, if there has been a distinctive spiritual movement to
emerge in the past twenty to thirty years, an original Great Awakening
that has affected many advanced capitalist countries and won adherents
from a wide range of moral and political traditions, it has arguably
been the political and cultural movement surrounding the environment.
What Fogel says in relation to these concerns is dismissive. He asserts,
for example, that scare claims about the "threat to health caused
by power lines, cellular telephones, personal computers, television
sets, and even electric clocks
leave most scientists and engineers
Even if Fogel is right about the reactions of scientists,
the comment is strangely distant from more basic ecological concerns
about the sustainability of economic growth. Though focused on spiritual
equity, Fogels argument is imbued with a breezy optimism about
the prospects for continued high and rising levels of material consumption
in the United States and rapid growth in levels of consumption elsewhere.
It is instructive here to contrast Fogels optimism with what G.
A. Cohen says on the subject: "It is certain," writes Cohen,
"that we cannot achieve Western-style goods and services for humanity
as a whole, nor even sustain them for as large a minority as has enjoyed
them, by drawing on the fuels and materials that we have hitherto used
to provide them. It is less certain that the desired consumption satisfactions
themselves, the goods and services considered in abstraction from the
customary means of supplying them, cannot be secured, by new means,
on the desired scale. But I believe that the second claim, about goods
and services as such, is also true."
Cohens pessimism may itself be too breezy. But,
given the evidence at hand, his position is by no means unreasonable.
Fogel, however, does not really address the sustainability worry (except,
perhaps, for some comments on future world food supply in the books
afterword). This is a regrettable oversight in itself. But it also throws
a question mark over Fogels claims about the likely future of
egalitarian politics, in particular the claim that the demand for material
redistribution is likely to diminish in importance. If global sustainability
is a genuine issue, then efforts to correct international economic inequality
must implyat the very leasta more circumspect attitude toward
growth in levels of material consumption in countries like the United
States. If advanced capitalist countries ought to aim to control their
rates of growth, then, as Cohen argues, that could in turn give a new
moral urgency to the demand to reduce economic inequality within these
countries. If joined to environmentalism, material egalitarianism would
have increased relevance, and we would perhaps have to adjust our conception
of virtue to respond to its demands.
Virtue as Egalitarian Means
A concern for personal
virtue, as a means to material equality, is remote from classical Marxism.
Classical Marxists believe that equality is the inevitable gift of history.
Capitalism stimulates an unprecedented growth in productive power, which
finally makes it possible to create a society of universal affluence,
including freedom from drudgery. Capitalism cannot itself realize the
potential thus created. But it creates a social class, the proletariat,
that comes eventually to constitute the "immense majority"
in society, and that, in view of its exploitation and immiseration under
capitalism, has a direct interest in turning potential human emancipation
into reality through socialism. Given these assumptions, the ethical
grounds of socialism are too obvious to need consideration. And, drawing
on their Hegelian inheritance, Marxists have felt able in the past to
dismiss awkward questions about the design of socialist institutions
with the thought that, since the historical process is dialectical in
form, every problem generated through productive development necessarily
carries its own solution.
In his earliest work, G. A. Cohen clarified and defended
Marxs theory of history. However, as he explains in If Youre
an Egalitarian, How Come Youre So Rich?, he now rejects these
tenets of classical Marxismin particular, the idea of a historical
trajectory that will carry us inevitably towards equality. For the foreseeable
future, the ecological limits to growth mean, in Cohens view,
that scarcity is here to stay. As suggested above, this makes the specifically
moral case for increased equality more urgent. But we cannot expect
a socialist egalitarianism to win majority approval spontaneously in
response to this moral imperative. New patterns of class divisionespecially,
a shrunk and fragmented working classmake it unlikely that any
majority will support socialist egalitarianism out of raw economic self-interest.
In this context, socialism must be an explicitly ethical commitment,
appealing to considerations of justice that transcend narrow self-interest
and supported by careful reflection on issues of institutional design.
But if history will not do the trick in creating a world
of egalitarian justice, neither, Cohen argues, will a political project
focused exclusively on laws and formal institutions. Creating an egalitarian
society demands "a change in social ethos, a change in the attitudes
people sustain toward each other in the thick of daily life." With
this conclusion, Cohen comes closer than he ever expected to the "Christian"
view that achieving a society of equals requires "a moral revolution,
a revolution in the human soul." Having settled his accounts with
classical Marxism, Cohen now focuses his critical energy on the egalitarian
liberalism of John Rawls.
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that the government
must design and apply rules of economic cooperation that allow inequality
only to the point where "the worst off people in society [are]
better off than they otherwise would be." This is usually understood
as providing a justification for giving talented workers special incentive
payments to call forth their best productive efforts for the benefit
of all. The idea is that such incentives are justified, even for an
egalitarian, because they are needed to improve the lives of
the least well-off. Cohen accepts this idea: if inequalities are
strictly necessary to raise the position of the worst-off group,
they are just. But, Cohen argues, special incentive payments to the
talented are not in general necessary to raise the well-being of the
most disadvantaged, because the talented could, if they willed it, choose
to work in their most productive jobs for a less elevated wage. Why
dont they do this? The question has particular force for Rawls
because he supposes both that justice condemns differences in earnings
that arise from how we fare in the luck of the natural lottery and that
citizens care about justicethat they internalize and act from
the principles of justice. Under these assumptions, wouldnt the
talented want to work in their most productive jobs for the average
social wage because, in this way, they could make the worst off as well-off
as they can be?
Cohens pivotal claim, then, is that a just society
is just not merely in the formal rules of economic life, but in virtue
of the choices people make within these rules and the social ethos that
informs these choices. To achieve justice we need more than good laws
and formal institutions; individual decisions, too, must be informed
by the spirit of equality. And Cohens account of that spirit suggests
that virtually all the inequalities we currently observe are unjust.
Cohens critique of the incentives argument for inequality
embraces the idea that the talented have a duty to work in their most
productive employ for an average social wage (subject to some wage differentiation
in the case of jobs that carry special, interpersonally recognized burdens).
But what if some talented workers genuinely dislike their more
productive jobs and would prefer to work in less productive jobs for
an average social wage? Do we really want to say that these talented
workers should simply disregard their own work preferencesand
the values that shape those preferencesand accept a duty to work
in their more productive jobs without any inventive payments? If we
say "yes," are we then giving sufficient weight to individuals
interest in meaningful freedom of occupational choice? If, repelled
by the implication that we are not respecting this interest, we say
"no," then must we not accept the justness of inequalities
that result from incentive payments to attract those with scarce talents
into their most productive jobs?
But while an especially
demanding social ethos might be too oppressive of personal freedom,
Cohens concern remains. In his book The Labour Movement,
the British social democrat Leonard Hobhouse argued: "We want a
new spirit in economicsthe spirit of mutual help, the sense of
a common good. We want each man to feel that his daily work is a service
to his kind, and that idleness or anti-social work are a disgrace."2
Imbuing our society with that kind of communitarian work ethos does
not seem necessarily to infringe upon personal freedom, or diminish
its value. But it could make some difference to the degree of economic
inequality needed to make the worst off as well-off as they can be.
In a society where people see the value of their work
primarily as a means to the benefits it provides for them, as individuals,
we might well have to pay talented workers quite high incentive payments
to induce enough of them to exercise their productive talents at the
level that maximizes the position of the least advantaged. Suppose,
however, that citizens see the value of their work in more Hobhouseian
terms. Suppose they value their work in part for the good it creates
for the wider community. That, in itself, may attract them to more productive
jobs, and so reduce their demands for incentives. As a consequence,
this society should be able to achieve greater equality without damaging
the prospects of the worst-off group. And, to that extent, it will befrom
an egalitarian perspective, which looks to minimize brute-luck inequality
in income and wealtha more just society. While an egalitarian
ethos that condemns all incentive payments may be too stringent, then,
Cohens more basic pointthat ideas about work affect a societys
distributive justice, and that a just society cannot live off good laws
and formal institutions alonecan survive that criticism. The issue
Cohen has put on the table concerns the kind of work ethos that might
both promote equality and respect liberty. Cohens critique of
Rawls for being insufficiently egalitarian and giving too much latitude
to selfishness falls flat only if there is no such ethos.
Cohens point about the need for an appropriate ethos
applies in the first instance to an ideally just society. But what about
the non-ideal, highly unjust world in which we live? In the final part
of the book, Cohen considers how someone who shares (at least in part)
his demanding notion of equality is obliged to act in a society that
is unjust by egalitarian standards. If someone is egalitarian and rich
in such a society, is there necessarily a contradiction between her
behavior and her beliefs? Must the rich egalitarian, on pain of inconsistency,
give away her surplus wealth to the needy and/or to political campaigns
that support the interests of the poor?
One supposedly forceful reply to the charge of inconsistency
is that "[t]he rich person should not be asked to depart from the
observable norm of [her] peer group," to which she would continue
to belong following surrender of surplus wealth, since it is defined
by "occupation and education." The force of this reply seems
limited. To begin with, as a way of deepening her understanding of and
sympathy for others, shouldnt an egalitarian seek to expand her
social sphere to include people outside her occupational and educational
peer group? Having a wider reference group, she might then be less embarrassed
at departing from the "observable norms" of that narrower
group. And why care about any such departure anyway? If one really takes
ones convictions to heart, is there not a certain dignity, recognizable
by ones peers, that comes from acting on them? Perhaps this dignity
is especially great when ones departure from peer group norms
is so exceptional.
To be sure, the peer group reply gains in force if we
consider how the surrender of surplus wealth might affect the children
of the rich egalitarian. "If Johnnys [still rich] dad buys
him a new bicycle," Cohen points out, "how can Mollys
[ex-rich, egalitarian] dad explain why he doesnt buy one for her?"
Now, the duty under consideration is not, of course, a duty to impoverish
oneself, but a duty to give away wealth in excess of what one could
reasonably expect to have in an egalitarian society. Perhaps proper
attention to ones childrens interests can be met within
this stipend. If not, one is perhaps justified in retaining a slush
fund in excess of this stipend to meet such interests. There is no reason
to assume, however, that this fund must be equal to ones entire
surplus wealth. Furthermore, as an egalitarian parent, are there not
important lessons that would be undermined by giving in to every demand
to keep up with the (children of the) Joneses?
A second reply is that by "retaining my resources"
I might thereby maintain a "position in society [that] affords
me access to influential people whose decisions affect the lot of the
badly off." As Cohen puts it, "I must retain lavish resources
if I am to entertain, in appropriate fashion, important people who might
help the cause." Again, it would be dogmatic to deny any force
to this defense of limousine liberalism. But, as Cohen acknowledges,
the force of the reply depends a great deal on "the shape that
politics takes in a given society." Even in thoroughly plutocratic
systems, moreover, the influence one can have through such socializing
will likely only be at the margin: if one feeds the rich elites
lavish tastes, one can hardly then expect them to agree over cocktails
to expropriate themselves or to undertake any other course of action
that would jeopardize their indulgence. Admittedly, an effect that is
marginal in systemic terms could nevertheless be awfully importanta
matter of life or deathto particular disadvantaged individuals.
But one would still need to weigh the marginal benefits one can produce
for the disadvantaged through elite politics against the benefits one
could produce for them by surrendering ones surplus wealth.
Moreover, considerations on the other side of the argument
reinforce the view that rich egalitarians should surrender their surplus.
As Cohen notes, it is frequently alleged that people are too selfish
to make an affluent egalitarian society feasible. The sight of limousine
liberals enjoying their wealth while professing egalitarian ideas does
nothing to weaken the hold of this argument. If they cling to their
wealth, dont they confirm the view that we are all just too selfish
to make a more equal system work? By contrast, the sight of a rich egalitarian
surrendering her surplus suggests that people are not necessarily incapable
of transcending narrow self-interest in the way that justice sometimes
Taking this thought a step further, one might conceive
of the surrender of ones surplus wealth as a form of "propaganda
by deed," one expression of a new cultural egalitarianism, perhaps
integrated with a sustainability ethic, that aims to change the prevailing
social ethos and thereby increase the prospects for structural reforms
that promote equality. Cohen notes how only a few men initially changed
their domestic habits in light of feminist criticism. These were "moral
pioneers," he says, who beat a path that "[became] easier
and easier to follow as more and more people [followed] it," until
the relevant "social ethos" governing domestic labor changed.
Is there a role for similar moral pioneers in the economic context?
And arent rich egalitarians uniquely well placed to act as pioneers
by surrendering their surplus wealth?
Some readers may
already be impatient with such questions. There is today an influential
view that Rawlsian egalitarianism is undesirable or too ambitious.3
Should we really be fretting about whether the politically focused ideas
of Rawls need to be supplemented with a new and demanding personal ethic,
when the political project itself is under such sharp attack? Isnt
this fretting a form of self-display, designed to show off high-minded
personal convictionsa self-righteous preoccupation with professions
of egalitarian faith that is woefully disconnected from political reality?
In moving away from his childhood Marxist faith, has Cohen not embraced
precisely the kind of utopian, moralizing critique, divorced from real
trends in society, that Marx and Engels rightly scorned?
Cohens work is utopian and there is, in consequence,
a need for other work, philosophical and institutional, to chart the
long stretch of terrain between where we are now and the robustly egalitarian
society that Cohen believes we should aspire to create. Egalitarians
need to be realistic about the length of time it could conceivably take,
even on the rosiest of credible political scenarios, to traverse this
terrain. And that, I think, demands a firm repudiation of state voluntarism
and "leap forward" politics, which Cohen does not discuss
in this book but were a disastrous feature of Marxism in the twentieth
century. Nevertheless, calling Cohens work too utopian would be
We need to distinguish between good and bad utopianisms.
As Cohen would argue, justice is a truly demanding achievement, and
we must not permit our perception of justice to be compromised by the
ebbs and flows of contemporary political opinion. Cohen has been an
acute critic in recent years of the tendency of progressive thinkers
to adapt their understanding of egalitarian values to fit what seems
immediately politically feasible: in effect, to confuse philosophy and
politics. A good utopianism helps remind us of what our values ultimately
imply and, in this way, helps give the struggle for incremental advance
its sense of direction and ultimate significance.
In addition, a focus
on what one might call egalitarian personal virtue is important not
only to the distant realization of utopian levels of equality but to
the achievement of more modest, incremental advance in the near future.
There has been a considerable growth of interest in the last few years
in varieties of "asset-based egalitarianism," which look to
increase material equity in capitalist societies through an equalization
of the assetscentrally, financial and human capitalthat
individuals bring to the market. Work in this vein includes Bruce Ackerman
and Anne Alstott on stakeholding, Richard Freeman on the "New Inequality"
(first published in these pages), as well as James Meades pioneering
work on the subject.4
(Indeed, Robert Fogels policy recommendations, focusing on educational
expansion and various forms of collective asset building, have a lot
in common with this agenda.) Assuming they can be reconciled with ecological
constraints, these strategies arguably offer the left a way forward,
beyond the reactive politics of defending the existing, highly imperfect
sustainable asset-based egalitarianism will, however, require substantial
solidarity among individual citizens to enact and make effective the
relevant policies. Even if enough people can be persuaded to vote for
such policies, citizens with scarce talents might undermine the policies
by seeking more remunerative employment in less egalitarian countries
An ethos of social solidarity with the disadvantaged on the part of
the advantaged, an ethos that informs work behavior as well as voting
decisions, would seem necessary to prevent such subversion. The idea
that an egalitarian political project can make any substantial headway
without such solidaritythat is objectionable utopianism (the utopianism,
perhaps, of the third way). But in a society of complex class division,
such solidarity is by no means bound to emerge: policy and political
discourse must be consciously framed to cultivate it. Whatever one thinks
of the ethics of being a rich egalitarian, Cohen is surely right to
identify the cultivation of egalitarian virtue as one of the key issues
that a post-Marxist left must address.
Equality and the Good Life
Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality is a profound
and demanding book that collects and develops Dworkins pioneering
work on this subject over the past twenty years. At the center of Dworkins
theory of equality lies his influential doctrine of "equality of
resources." Lying behind that doctrine is a conception of the proper
division of labor between individuals and the political community in
achieving justice. Individuals are to be treated as personally having
responsibility for the success they make of their lives. The political
community is bound, however, to treat its members with equal concern
and respect. Each should therefore have equal chance to make a success
of life, and thus equal access to the various circumstances and resources
that enable us to pursue our aims. Putting these two ideas together:
ideally, no person should have a smaller share of resources than another,
except as a result of the lifestyle choices that he or she makes. Take
two people who hold the identical sets of resources. If one prefers
labor to leisure, perhaps believing that she has an obligation to make
the most of her life through high intensity work, while the other prefers
not to live at a stretch, then the former is likely to end up more economically
advantaged. But these inequalities of income are consistent with the
ideal of equality of resources, because they owe to differences in choices,
for which we bear individual responsibility, not to differences in initial
command of resources.
What counts as a resource? Dworkin regards human abilities
and capacities as resources as well as external assets. So if Smith
and Jones are identical except that Smith is blind, then there is an
inequality of resources between them. Ditto if Jones is endowed with
the steady hand of a surgeon, giving her very high earnings power, and
Smith, otherwise identical, is not. But how can we correct or compensate
for these resource inequalities? What level of transfers is appropriate?
In response to these questions, Dworkin asks us to imagine
a special kind of market in which we can purchase insurance against
these contingencies. Imagine that each person is able to enter an insurance
market with, say, a per capita share of societys wealth, and to
purchase insurance against handicaps, ill health, or inferior earnings
capacity. Let us also imagine that, while each person has general information
of the kind relevant to the purchasing decision, she is ignorant of
her own handicaps and talents. What insurance package would a reasonably
prudent person buy in such a market? If, as Dworkin supposes, we can
answer this question for a given contingency (say, poor health), at
least within a certain range, then we can use the answer as a basis
for designing a universal, tax-financed program of compensation for
those who suffer the relevant contingency. The level and pattern of
transfers mandated under this program represents, Dworkin claims, fair
mitigation of the inequality in circumstance attributable to the contingencyfair,
because it is the level that would in effect be chosen in a hypothetical
situation in which all parties are equally placed with regard to risk
and the ability to protect themselves.
Deploying the insurance-market idea to a succession of
familiar contingencies in this way, Dworkin derives an ambitious policy
program that includes: a universal health care package, with citizens
left free to purchase additional insurance for illnesses and therapies
(including many new, costly genetic diagnostic tests and therapies)
not covered by the universal package; a welfare system with no time-limits,
but which does impose job-search and training requirements on benefit
recipients; and progressive inheritance taxation, with the funds loosely
hypothecated to spending on education and other policies to reduce "class
stratification." This, for Dworkin, is what egalitarian justice
amounts to. Justice does not require that we all have the same resources,
but that differences either reflect the actual choices we make in light
of our values or the decisions we would have made about insurance if
we could have insured, in fair circumstances, against various undesirable
Leave aside, for now, whether a reform agenda of this
kind does in fact exhaust the demands of egalitarian justice. The most
striking feature of Dworkins argument in Sovereign Virtue
is his attempt to show how living in a world of egalitarian justice
is a condition of the good life. We often think of morality as a scheme
of constraintsrules that limit what we are permitted to do in
pursuit of our good. Dworkin, like Plato in the Republic, argues
instead that being a just person is integral to the good life.
The case for this view begins with the observation that
the good life cannot merely consist of getting what we want. That, claims
Dworkin, is not how we perceive things from within our own lives. We
experience some things as having a value in themselves, objectively,
so that we ought to want them. The good life is, in large part, about
tracking this kind of independent value.
Now, according to one view, the relative goodness of a
life depends on how much impact it has for othershow much great
art, science, etc., it adds to the world. But, Dworkin continues, our
conduct is often guided by a very different idea: that we ought to achieve
things just because it is important to respond, successfully, to a challenge,
regardless of the subsequent impact our achievement might have. I ought
to run that marathon even though I will never set the world of athletics
alight with my finishing time of 3 hours and 24 minutes. Or I might
think that I ought to understand the physical world as best I can because
of the intellectual challenge of gaining such understanding, not because
I have any hope of contributing to physics. And that, Dworkin claims,
gets to the heart of the matter. Our lives are a site of challenge.
The goodness of a life resides in the skill, the virtuosity, with which
we perform in response to this challenge, as reflected in the specific
endeavors we undertake and how successfully we complete them. Impact
may be one criterion of success in relation to a specific endeavor,
but it need not be the sole criterion of success for all our endeavors,
and thus the sole criterion for assessing our response to lifes
challenge as a whole.
If we understand the good life in this way, however, we
need some sense of the parameters that specify lifes true challenge.
One such parameter is the normal expectation we implicitly have about
appropriate length of life. A life goes more badly, all else equal,
if the individual dies at a young age. That person is deprived of what
Dworkin calls the "right challenge," and suffers a less good
life for that reason. But resources also enter the definition of the
right challenge: "a good life is a life suited to the circumstances
that justice requires." Now it is not hard to understand how our
lives are likely to go worse if we have fewer resources than justice
requires. But Dworkin also insists on the more counter-intuitive claim
that the goodness of our lives can be diminished by our having resources
in excess of what justice allows. The (unjustly) rich face the wrong
sort of challenge and therefore cannot exhibit (or can exhibit only
in an attenuated way) the kind of skillful performance that comes from
responding properly to the right challenge. If I understand Dworkin
correctly, the unjustly rich are like students who have been given answers
to some of the exam questions in advance, so that this exam no longer
represents an appropriate test of their true capacity for skillful performance.
This explains why equality contributes to the good life. The good life
is the life of skillful response to the right challenge and part of
what makes the right challenge right is to have no less and no more
than the share of resources that egalitarian justice prescribes.
Of course, as Dworkin would admit, the challenge model
is by no means uncontroversial, and this must qualify our confidence
in his argument that living within the demands of justice is partly
constitutive of the good life. For this reason, one might also think
it inappropriate to base a political theory on the challenge model,
even if one found that model persuasive as a moral doctrine. Following
Rawls, one might think that, as a matter of democratic legitimacy, we
ought to separate political principles from ethical theories of this
kind (that is, theories about what makes our lives as individuals go
well). The problem with the religious right, after all, is that it fails
to make such a separation and seeks, on the basis of a unified ethical
and political theory, to use political authority in a way that discriminates
against citizens whose lifestyles do not conform to its preferred conception
of the good life. This criticism raises an important question, perhaps
the most important question in contemporary political philosophy, about
how we integrate political principles for the public arena with pluralism
and reasonable disagreement over the content of the good life.
In his defense, Dworkin might offer the following considerations.
First, the particular ethical theory he advances, based on the challenge
model, gives citizens strong reasons to oppose discriminatory lifestyle
legislation. Success in ones life depends on how one responds
to lifes proper challenge. So it is vitally important that one
be able to formulate and execute a response of ones own.
For this reason, Dworkin argues, we must regard "integrity,"
the "merger of life and conviction," as a necessary (if not
sufficient) condition of a successful life: a life cannot be improved
by compelling someone to behave in a way that is contrary to their own
conviction. The protection of integrity, in turn, establishes a strong
presumption in favor of liberty of lifestyle choice and against legal
moralism (e.g., a prohibition on gay sex acts on the grounds that, in
the view of the majority, gay sex is "demeaning or corrupting or
otherwise bad for the author").
Secondly, as Dworkin points out, the challenge model is
an ecumenical theory of the good life. It is a substantive but relatively
abstract conception of the human good around which a diversity of more
specific religious and philosophical viewpoints can converge. Although
it is not a specifically political view, it does respect the pluralism
of philosophies of life, and this speaks to the concern for democratic
legitimacy. Finally, if democratic community consists in citizens attempting
to justify laws and major social practices to each other by reference
to a shared conception of their common good, it is by no means clear
that such a conception can avoid resting, at some level, in some ways,
on some substantive, if non-comprehensive, claims about the good life.
If this is so, in order to defend and elaborate those claims to citizens
who are initially unpersuaded, we may have no alternative but to engage
in Dworkins kind of ethical theorizing.
Finally, I would
like to consider one apparently radical implication of Dworkins
claim that egalitarian justice is a parameter of the good life. If Dworkin
is right in this claim, does this reinforce the view that rich egalitarians
should, as Cohen wonders, surrender their surplus wealth?6
Dworkin says a number of things that pertain to this issue (though they
are not explicitly addressed to the problem as Cohen formulates it).
He does not endorse the surrender option in part for what seem to be
considerations about the limits of knowledge: "We may try to live
with only the resources we think we would have in a fair society, doing
the best we can, with the surplus, to repair injustice through private
charity. But since a just distribution cannot be established counterfactually,
but only dynamically through just interaction, we are unable to judge
what share of our wealth is fair."
It is true that unless one has an implausibly simple theory
of what egalitarian justice is (e.g., strict income/wealth equality),
assessing how much wealth one would have in a just egalitarian society,
and thus what amount of surplus wealth one currently has, is likely
to be a difficult undertaking. But we can all surely give approximate
answers to this question, and act on those. Moreover, couldnt
a similar argument be used to argue against political action to rectify
injustice (and Dworkin strongly supports such action)? To engage rationally
in political action to rectify my societys current unjust inequality,
must I not form some view about how far people like me, with my sort
of talents and other endowments, have more or less than they should
have? How else can I know whether movement toward greater justice requires
more or less redistribution to or from people like me? But if I can
form such a judgement for political purposes, and vote on tax policy
accordingly, why cant I voluntarily surrender the portion of personal
wealth I judge to be legitimately up for tax-based redistribution? Though
I cannot make my society fully just through philanthropy and, to that
extent, cannot ensure that I face precisely the right challenge in life,
I can surely get closer to the right challenge in this way. (The argument
that one should not give up ones wealth if one cannot be reasonably
assured that others will too has limited force because the challenge
model seems to imply that ones prospects for leading a truly good
life would almost certainly increase even if these others hold onto
their surplus wealth.)
Toward Ethical Egalitarianism?
Taken together, these
three books mark a striking ethical turn in contemporary egalitarian
thought. To describe the contours of this turn, I will conclude with
some remarks on the different currents of ethical egalitarianism and
their pertinence to contemporary politics.
In its first form, ethical egalitarianism simply asserts
that the fundamental objective of egalitarians is not material equality
but, as Fogel argues, equal opportunity for virtuous living. Much depends
on how the notion of opportunity for virtuous living is unpacked. If
it is unpacked in terms of a set of spiritual resources that are of
instrumental importance to citizens of widely differing religious and
ethical persuasions, then the idea sounds attractive. People need more
than material resources to lead a good life; they need various capacities
and competenciesspiritual resourcesto do something valuable
with their resourcesto meet lifes challenge. Egalitarians
must, therefore, attend to deficiencies in these capacities and competencies.
At the policy level, this provides a rationale for active social policies
that have recently found favor with governments of the center-left.
Such policies (such as welfare policies with training requirements,
or programs that offer subsidies to low-income savers in return for
their cooperation in financial literacy programs) aim not merely to
relieve immediate need but to cultivate those competencies and qualities
that Fogel calls "spiritual resources." To the extent that
virtue politics are associated with such policies, however, there is
a danger that the problem of cultivating virtue will come to be seen
as something that applies only to the disadvantaged, who are, in general,
specially targeted by such policies.
The second type of ethical egalitarianism, presented in
Cohens book, speaks directly to this asymmetry in the contemporary
center-lefts politics of virtue. Fogels insights notwithstanding,
material equity should properly remain a central objective for egalitarians.
But its achievement requires the cultivation of a disposition to act
from considerations of distributive justice, not only in the ballot
box but in ones daily working life. And the call for virtue, in
this sense, must be made with no less (indeed, with perhaps more) insistence
to the better offthe "talented"than to the disadvantaged.
Ambitious asset-based strategies for promoting greater material equality
probably cannot be enacted or made effective in the absence of such
virtue. Rather than choosing between the two forms of ethical egalitarianism
presented by Fogel and Cohen, or rejecting them both as too moralistic,
I think contemporary egalitarians should try to integrate them. There
is the difference, of course, that while we already have a good idea
of the kind of policies that promote Fogels brand of ethical egalitarianism,
we have hardly begun to think concretely about how we might promote
the dispositions associated with Cohens brand.
The third kind of
ethical egalitarianism is a bridge between the first two: it contends,
roughly, that the more we respect the demands of equality in our own
lives (Cohens concern), the more self-realized as individuals
we are (Fogels concern). Dworkins challenge model provides
one way of defending this audacious claim, and one might reasonably
wonder whether a claim so controversial could feasibly undergird contemporary
egalitarian politics. But if egalitarians are to make any progress,
we will have to confront the cultureR. H. Tawney would have said
religionof self-interest that pervades societies like the United
States and Britain. And, if we are ultimately to face down this religionand
what a Great Awakening that would bewe cannot afford to dismiss
arguments such as Dworkins, which challenge the contemporary culture
of self-involvement and present an alternative, more generous vision
of human possibilities.
teaches political theory at Jesus College, Oxford University.
1 For overviews, see Stuart White, "The Ambiguities of
the Third Way," and Margaret Weir, "The Failure of Bill Clintons
Third Way," in New Labour: The Progressive Future?, ed. Stuart
White (Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming).
2 Leonard T. Hobhouse, The Labour Movement, 3rd
edition (New York: Macmillan, 1912), p. 75.
3 See, for example, John Gray, "Goodbye to Rawls," Prospect,
November 1997, pp. 8-9, which articulates a view that is currently widespread
on the British center-left.
4 See Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, The Stakeholder
Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Richard Freeman,
The New Inequality (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); and James Meade,
Agathatopia: The Economics of Partnership (Aberdeen: University
of Aberdeen, 1989).
5 See Philippe Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 226-232. Van Parijs discusses
the problem in the context of his proposal for an unconditional basic
income, but it would arguably apply to Ackerman- Alstottstyle
stakeholder proposals as well.
6 Because they have different views about the exact nature
of egalitarian justice, Cohen and Dworkin may not agree on just how
much wealth is, for any given individual, surplus wealth. But on any
plausible construal of Dworkins theory many people in capitalist
societies like Britain and the United States will have surplus wealth
and Cohens question will potentially apply to them.
Originally published in the December
2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review