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Equality of What?

The most important of these is just blind luck. The price of tomatoes depends on the weather, which is for various physical reasons—the consequences of chaos theory and quantum indeterminacy prominent among them—unpredictable even in principle. Insurance allows you to shape the role of luck in your life but it can’t ex-clude it. The tomato farmer who has insured prudently (and ordinary non-hypothetical insurance policies are an important part of Dworkin’s scheme) will still usually have less, even after an insurance payout, than he would have had if there had not been a tornado.

In view of the role of chance, we must ask ourselves whether reasonable people, who knew everything there was to be known, even if they were all of the same age and talents arriving on a desert island, would want to commit themselves to a system that has the once-and-for-all character of Dworkin’s auction. Even if we have the same “personal resources,” would we not, for example, prefer a system that allowed some reallocation later, or that guaranteed a minimum level of welfare? For Dworkin, income taxes and welfare payments are justified as the premiums and payoffs, respectively, of a hypothetical insurance policy that reflects our differing talents. But it seems to me that we might want the welfare payments even if we had the same talents, just because we might have different luck.


Questions may arise, too, not just about the way in which Dworkin wants to measure equality, but about what he wants to measure. You will recall that he treats handicaps and talents as among the things that are to be adjusted for in the initial equalization. If my innate mathematical talent makes me rich, I have, in Dworkin’s view, more resources than I am entitled to. So it is fair to make me share my wealth with those who are less gifted. Talents and handicaps are resources and equality of overall resources is Dworkin’s guiding principle: equality prefers “a world in which the resources of talent are…more evenly divided.” Dworkin’s views about what we should and should not take into account are meant to flow from his account of “ethical personality.” What I want to suggest now is that, given his picture of ethical personality, handicaps and talents must figure in the initial allocation of resources in different ways from those Dworkin proposes.

I have already observed that many people will not share the intuition that talents are among the resources that need to be equalized. It is not just that we don’t ordinarily suppose we know how to equalize such resources—perhaps Dworkin’s proposals will be seen as helpful here—but that many people do not think that the fruits of extraordinary talent are the result of an unfair advantage. Even if it were possible to do so, we might not feel that Yevgeny Kissin’s talents ought to be redistributed to the benefits of the unmusical, or Einstein’s to the unmathematical. On Dworkin’s view, as we saw, it is difficult to share talents through a hypothetical insurance scheme of the sort that deals with handicaps; but it is clear that he would do so if he could. Need we follow him here?

One reason why we shouldn’t is that we would surely object to a world where everyone was of average musicality and intelligence. That has always been one objection to egalitarianism: if you are Kissin or Einstein, leveling will mean leveling down, which would be a deprivation for all of us. This is, I suspect, a large part of what makes Dworkin’s intuition that talents are resources to be equalized so counterintuitive. But his real proposal, of course, is that we should try to equalize the economic value of our talents, not (since we cannot) the talents themselves. And to this proposal there is, so it seems to me, a different kind of objection that follows from the core of Dworkin’s own view.

The most powerful chapter of his strongly argued book is the one on “Equality and the Good Life.” There, Dworkin argues for a liberal ethics that answers the question “By what standard should we test a life’s success or failure?” The question, he rightly insists, is not whether we get more or less of what we want—more or less of what he calls our “volitional well-being”—but whether we get more or less of what is worth having—of what he calls our “critical well-being.” I like and want chocolates, so I’d be volitionally better off if I had some; but I don’t think that without them my life will be less of a success. On the other hand, my failure to write a witty and intelligent novel—which I also want to do—would diminish my life; and not just because I wouldn’t have gotten what I wanted. If we grant ethical individualism, what is in our critical interest depends, in part, on what our plan of life is, what aims and hopes and work we have selected for ourselves. Writing that novel is in my critical interest because it is one of my ambitions; it may not be in your critical interest to write a novel because your aim was always to be a concert pianist. And so Dworkin’s standard is provided by what he calls the “model of challenge.” That model, he writes,

adopts Aristotle’s view that a good life has the inherent value of a skillful performance…. The model of challenge holds that living a life is itself a performance that demands skill, that it is the most comprehensive and important challenge we face, and that our critical interests consist in the achievements, events, and experiences that mean that we have met the challenge well.

According to the challenge model, living well is “responding in the right way to one’s situation.”

Now, among the many important distinctions that Dworkin proposes is the distinction between the two ways in which our circumstances figure in the evaluation of how well we have met the challenge. Some of our circumstances act as “parameters,” he says, defining what it is for us to have successful lives. They are, so to speak, part of the challenge that we must meet. Others are “limits”—obstacles that get in the way of our making the ideal life that the parameters help define.

Among the circumstances that Dworkin regards as one of his parameters is his being American. His American-ness is, he says, “a condition of the good life” for him. So, for example, even though he has long taught jurisprudence in England and has no doubt influenced the development of English legal thinking, there is, for him, a special significance to his contributions to American constitutional jurisprudence, a significance that derives from the fact that this—and not England—is his country. (Among the limits that prevent his achieving the life he wants, Dworkin admits that he is not as good a sailor of recreational boats as he would like to be.)

In thinking about our own lives, Dworkin argues, each of us must decide how to allocate his circumstances between these two categories of parameters and limits:

We have no settled template for that decision,…and no philosophical model can provide one, for the circumstances in which each of us lives are enormously complex. These circumstances include our health, our physical powers, our tenure of life, our material resources, our friendships and associations, our commitments and traditions of family and race and nation, the constitutional and legal system under which we live, the intellectual and literary and philosophical opportunities and standards offered by our language and culture, and thousands of other aspects of our world as well. Anyone who reflects seriously on the question which of the various lives he might lead is right for him will consciously or unconsciously discriminate among these, treating some as limits and others as parameters.

It seems right to insist that many aspects of the allocation between parameters and limitations must be up to me. This is part of my special responsibility: not only must I meet my challenge, I must also define it. I must decide whether my being American is part of what will define the success or failure of my life; if being American is one of my parameters, this means that I will to some extent fail or succeed as an American. Parameters, in other words, belong to our ethical personality. If something is a parameter, it is part of who I am.

Differences in parameters, as opposed to limitations, would not then be among the things that it was proper for the government to equalize, for they are not resources: they define, rather, the person whose resources are then equalized. Consider homosexuality once more. For some people, their homosexuality is a parameter: they are openly gay, and—happy or unhappy, rich or poor—the life they seek to make will be a life in which relationships with members of their own sex will be central. Others think of their sexuality as a limitation: they want desperately to be rid of homosexual desires, and, if they cannot be rid of them, they would at least like to succeed in not acting on them.

Now it is an important part of Dworkin’s view that you can be wrong about whether something is a parameter of your life: it is not simply up to you. So he might say that it is ordinarily just a mistake in our society to think of homosexuality in this way: or, at any rate, that it is a mistake to think it under pressure from the irrational homophobia of our culture. But he could also say that for such people, their sexuality is a handicap (which is what he says about those who have, but wish they did not have, a “generous appetite for sex”).

Once you grant this, then Dworkin’s treatment both of handicaps and of talents needs to be modified. For many deaf people, for example, their deafness is not a limitation but a parameter: a condition becomes an identity—the deaf become the Deaf. For Helen Keller, we might say, blindness and deaf-mutism were parameters, too. Similarly, for Pavarotti, talent as a tenor is not a circumstance of his life but one of its parameters, just as Michael Jordan’s athleticism and Ronald Dworkin’s philosophical skills are for them. (What’s more, Dworkin’s “challenge model” helps us to understand why we have very disparate intuitions about handicaps and talents. The former are much more likely than the latter to be limitations.) Whether his dexterity in weaving was one of the elements Silas Marner took to be part of his challenge was up to him. But if he did, it should not be accounted among his resources. In such cases, neither handicap nor talent is a “resource.” It is not one of the things we should seek to try to equalize.

The trouble with Dworkin’s account of parameters and limitations—for which I confess to having a great deal of sympathy—is that it makes the task of dealing with innate handicaps and talents even harder than I have already suggested. For now we shall only be seeking to compensate for handicaps that are limitations: and whether they are limitations will sometimes depend on the ambitions of the person in question (which will themselves, in all probability, depend upon the handicaps). And now, too, those talents that define who we are will not be resources to be redistributed. It would therefore not be fair to set up Dworkin’s hypothetical underemployment scheme, since that scheme treats all of our innate capacities—parameters, liabilities, and assets alike—as a single undifferentiated mass. That such a critical line of thought is suggested by his own challenge model testifies to the range and richness of his approach.2

Dworkin presents his account as the working out of one big idea: equality. I have suggested it is better seen as the working out of a rich set of ideas about which aspects of citizens are relevant to government’s attempts to give us all the same resources for making our lives. Central to that set of ideas is a picture of ethical personality: a mapping of the boundary between a person and his circumstances. Even if you have questions about the devices he proposes to establish equality of resources, that picture remains persuasive. And that is in part because, in constructing his picture of ethical personality, Dworkin draws on a very wide range of ideas, many of them powerfully and originally articulated in these essays. Isaiah Berlin famously held that there were hedgehogs, who had “one big idea,” and foxes, who had many; and identified himself and his value pluralism with the foxes. Ronald Dworkin is arguing for equality as the one big idea, but he has smuggled in many other good ideas and the book is the better for it. He is, so to speak, a fox in hedgehogs’ clothing.

  1. 2

    Dworkin’s account shares with the dominant liberal theories of politics an acceptance that the nation-state is the community within which we must work out our fates. But the principles of equal importance and special responsibility apply not to citizens but to people, to all of us with moral personality. If equality matters, we should also ask, I think, what dispositions of property across nations are just. Dworkin has a characteristically elegant account of political community, which I have not had time to discuss; in view of the increasing extent to which the species meets his conditions for being a community, the question of a suitable division of the earth’s bounties among all its peoples becomes especially urgent.

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