Boston Review
CURRENT ISSUE
table of contents
FEATURES
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
poetry
fiction
film
archives
ABOUT US
masthead
mission
rave reviews
contests
writers’ guidelines
internships
advertising
SERVICES
bookstore locator
literary links
subscribe

 

Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind


Site Web



 

Ethics and Equality

Three new books examine the connections between egalitarian politics and personal virtue.

Stuart White

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 organization–Soviet-style communism based on centralized planning and state ownership of the means of production. Nevertheless, criticism of egalitarianism is hard to ignore–and the past decade has seen a growing effort among political philosophers and economists to articulate a plausible post-Marxist egalitarianism.

Books reviewed in this essay

If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?
G. A. Cohen
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality
Ronald Dworkin
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism
Robert W. Fogel
University of Chicago Press, $25 (cloth)

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 proposals–in 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 justice–the laws and institutions we need to live together as equals–and questions of personal morality–about the right way to live our individual lives. In his later work, for example, John Rawls–whose theory of "justice as fairness" sought to reconcile liberal and egalitarian traditions of democratic thought–has 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 books–by Robert Fogel, an eminent economic historian, and by G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin, two distinguished philosophers–question 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 one’s 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 assumed–naïvely, Fogel thinks–that 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 Fogel’s 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 both–we 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 Fogel’s 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 revivals–such as the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, or the Second Great Awakening, which fueled abolitionism–eventually 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 Fogel’s 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.

Fogel’s postmodern 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 Fogel’s 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 resources–a sense of purpose, self-discipline, and devotion to work–seems 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 term–then the fundamental egalitarian goal might be said to consist in equal opportunity for virtuous living. On its own, this idea isn’t 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 Rawls’s 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 life–must 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 pursuing–or, due to oppressive legal penalties, may be struggling to lead–lives 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 good–a 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, Fogel’s 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 Fogel’s 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 Fogel’s 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 aghast."

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, Fogel’s 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 Fogel’s 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."

Cohen’s 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 book’s afterword). This is a regrettable oversight in itself. But it also throws a question mark over Fogel’s 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 imply–at the very least–a 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 Marx’s theory of history. However, as he explains in If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, he now rejects these tenets of classical Marxism–in 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 Cohen’s 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 division–especially, a shrunk and fragmented working class–make 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 don’t 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 justice–that they internalize and act from the principles of justice. Under these assumptions, wouldn’t 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?

Cohen’s 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 Cohen’s account of that spirit suggests that virtually all the inequalities we currently observe are unjust.

Cohen’s 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 preferences–and the values that shape those preferences–and 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, Cohen’s concern remains. In his book The Labour Movement, the British social democrat Leonard Hobhouse argued: "We want a new spirit in economics–the 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 be–from an egalitarian perspective, which looks to minimize brute-luck inequality in income and wealth–a more just society. While an egalitarian ethos that condemns all incentive payments may be too stringent, then, Cohen’s more basic point–that ideas about work affect a society’s distributive justice, and that a just society cannot live off good laws and formal institutions alone–can 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. Cohen’s critique of Rawls for being insufficiently egalitarian and giving too much latitude to selfishness falls flat only if there is no such ethos.

Cohen’s 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, shouldn’t 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 one’s convictions to heart, is there not a certain dignity, recognizable by one’s peers, that comes from acting on them? Perhaps this dignity is especially great when one’s 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 Johnny’s [still rich] dad buys him a new bicycle," Cohen points out, "how can Molly’s [ex-rich, egalitarian] dad explain why he doesn’t 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 one’s children’s 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 one’s 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 elite’s 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 important–a matter of life or death–to 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 one’s 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, don’t 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 requires.

Taking this thought a step further, one might conceive of the surrender of one’s 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 aren’t 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? Isn’t this fretting a form of self-display, designed to show off high-minded personal convictions–a 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?

Cohen’s 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 Cohen’s work too utopian would be doubly misguided.

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 assets–centrally, financial and human capital–that 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 Meade’s pioneering work on the subject.4 (Indeed, Robert Fogel’s 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 welfare state.

An ecologically 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 or regions.5 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 solidarity–that 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
Ronald Dworkin’s Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality is a profound and demanding book that collects and develops Dworkin’s pioneering work on this subject over the past twenty years. At the center of Dworkin’s 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 society’s 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 contingency–fair, 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 contingencies.

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 Dworkin’s 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 constraints–rules 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 others–how 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 life’s challenge as a whole.

If we understand the good life in this way, however, we need some sense of the parameters that specify life’s 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 one’s life depends on how one responds to life’s proper challenge. So it is vitally important that one be able to formulate and execute a response of one’s 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 Dworkin’s kind of ethical theorizing.

Finally, I would like to consider one apparently radical implication of Dworkin’s 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, couldn’t 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 society’s 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 can’t 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 one’s wealth if one cannot be reasonably assured that others will too has limited force because the challenge model seems to imply that one’s 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 competencies–spiritual resources–to do something valuable with their resources–to meet life’s 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 Cohen’s book, speaks directly to this asymmetry in the contemporary center-left’s politics of virtue. Fogel’s 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 one’s 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 off–the "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 Fogel’s brand of ethical egalitarianism, we have hardly begun to think concretely about how we might promote the dispositions associated with Cohen’s 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 (Cohen’s concern), the more self-realized as individuals we are (Fogel’s concern). Dworkin’s 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 culture–R. H. Tawney would have said religion–of self-interest that pervades societies like the United States and Britain. And, if we are ultimately to face down this religion–and what a Great Awakening that would be–we cannot afford to dismiss arguments such as Dworkin’s, which challenge the contemporary culture of self-involvement and present an alternative, more generous vision of human possibilities.

Stuart White 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 Clinton’s 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- Alstott–style 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 Dworkin’s theory many people in capitalist societies like Britain and the United States will have surplus wealth and Cohen’s question will potentially apply to them.

Originally published in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |