Here are two important questions of public policy in which it looks as though we have to choose between liberty and equality.

Some people think tax laws, which clearly limit our freedom to spend our money as we wish, should be designed to equalize incomes, because great inequality in incomes is wrong. Is the egalitarian redistribution of income an illegitimate invasion of economic freedom?

A national health service, such as the one in Britain, aims to give equal access to health care. Some people think that, to maintain equality, no one should be able to buy better health care privately. But is it justifiable to limit people’s freedom to choose the best treatment they can afford?

To settle such questions in a principled way, we need a deeper understanding of liberty, equality, and the relations between them. Otherwise all we can do is bark “liberty” and “equality” at one another, at considerable cost to our fraternity.

For the last two decades, Ronald Dworkin has been developing answers to these questions—and to many others—as part of a powerful and surprising response to the larger question of how we should reconcile liberty with equality. Unlike many partisans of equality, he thinks conservatives are right to hold individuals largely responsible for their own fates. But unlike many partisans of liberty, he nevertheless believes in substantial government intervention to bring about more equality. And, unlike both, he argues that, in the deepest sense, equality and liberty are never truly at odds.

In Sovereign Virtue, Dworkin has brought together this surprising theory and some of its applications, including detailed explorations of the questions with which I began. If we care about having a rational public discourse about the many contests that seem to pit liberty against equality, we owe his book a careful reading.

“No government is legitimate that does not show equal concern for the fate of all those citizens over whom it claims dominion,” Dworkin writes on the first page of Sovereign Virtue, proclaiming a doctrine that would, he thinks, get unanimous assent from the legislatures of all liberal democracies.1 Whatever politicians in those democracies may privately think, governments cannot seek to justify a policy by asserting that blacks matter less (or more) than whites, women less than men, peasants less than aristocrats. Indeed, Dworkin believes, this fundamental egalitarian principle is so basic to our politics that “any genuine contest between liberty and equality is a contest liberty must lose.”

The word “genuine” is pulling a great deal of weight in this sentence. The fact that liberty, in the form of human rights, is embedded in the discourse and practice of all modern democracies might seem inconsistent with the idea that equality takes precedence over liberty in any genuine conflict. But, Dworkin argues, this is entirely the wrong way to construe the matter. In his view, granting to us all the same fundamental human rights is, in fact, part of showing equal concern for each of us. There is no genuine contest between liberty and equality, because, he argues, liberty is a condition of equality.

This thesis is surprising as a claim about the core of liberalism. One of the two most influential recent philosophical exponents of liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, stressed conflicts between liberty and equality; and the other, John Rawls, addressed these conflicts by insisting on the priority of liberty. A theory that promises liberty as part of equality seems to allow us to have our cake and eat it too; like all such offers, it is likely to be met, at first, with skepticism.

But Dworkin has an explanation for why we have made the mistake of assuming that we must choose between liberty and equality. A major reason is that “equality is a contested concept: people who praise or dispraise it disagree about what it is they are praising or dispraising.” So while everyone agrees that government should show equal concern for all citizens, in the sense that it cannot argue, for example, that blacks matter less than whites, people are not at all agreed on what else this equal concern entails. Perhaps the current ideological differences between liberals and conservatives reflect not different trade-offs between equality and liberty but different answers to the question of what it is to show all citizens equal concern.

Amartya Sen has identified one reason why nearly everyone agrees with Dworkin’s egalitarian formula, his insistence on equal concern: it is that almost any serious political philosophy can claim to be consistent with it. Even a conservative who thinks the only function of government is to protect our liberties, and who holds that any government interference in the economy is immoral, will still claim to be treating everyone equally, because everyone is getting equal rights—rights not only to compete in the market but also to exercise freedom of speech and to do all the other things he thinks a citizen is entitled to do. So it is worth asking, How far do we get in formulating a persuasive conception of justice if we look at politics according to Dworkin’s standard of equal concern?


Consider an example. Some social conservatives believe we must care equally for each person, in part, by helping them to conform to conventional sexual morality. This means encouraging heterosexual marriage and outlawing homosexual acts. Inspired by Dworkin, conservatives might assert that this policy reflects equal concern for homosexual citizens. For in seeking to keep homosexuals from acting on their desires, the government is showing them the same concern it displays, through marriage laws, toward heterosexuals: in each case, the government expresses concern for the sexual morality of the citizen. For them, this is no more an instance of lack of equal concern than is the imprisonment of Joe the burglar while Harry his victim goes free. In each case, citizens are being treated with equal concern: for if Harry had been the burglar, we should have imprisoned him.

How are we to decide whether the conservative is right here? We could, of course, examine whether homosexuality is in fact immoral. Or we might argue instead that the morality of homosexuality is irrelevant, because sex is not the government’s business. Since, however, we do not think that laws against burglary should be abolished on the same grounds, we must say what it is about burglary as opposed to sodomy that makes the former the government’s business and the latter not.

Dworkin’s answer here would come in two stages. The first involves making a distinction between ethics and morality. “Ethics, as I use the term,” he tells us, “includes convictions about which kinds of lives are good or bad for a person to lead, and morality includes principles about how a person should treat other people.” The conservatives’ objections to homosexuality are ethical: they think that a homosexual life is a bad life, not that it involves treating other people unjustly. But what is wrong with burglary is that it involves an injustice to someone else—depriving them of what is theirs. That is a moral problem. Liberals and conservatives agree that the state may enforce some of our moral obligations without offending against equality. For example, we are all equally entitled to the secure possession of our personal property. When it comes to homosexuality, what is in dispute between conservatives and liberals is when or whether a government’s enforcement of ethical convictions offends against equality.

Conservatives and liberals may tend to disagree, in practice, about whether a life organized around a homosexual relationship is a good life to lead. But a liberal could, in principle, believe that a homosexual life was not as worthwhile as a heterosexual one (other things being equal) and still hold that it is not the government’s business to enforce this view. At a more fundamental level, that is, liberals believe that each life is the responsibility of the person whose life it is. This is an ethical conviction; and in the second stage of Dworkin’s answer to the question why burglary may be banned but homosexuality may not, he explains further his liberal vision of personal responsibility.

Dworkin does this by defending two core principles of what he calls “ethical individualism” as crucial in deciding what it is for government to show equal concern for the citizenry. The first is the “principle of equal importance,” which Dworkin states thus: “It is important, from an objective point of view, that human lives be successful rather than wasted, and this is equally important, from the objective point of view, for each human life.” The second is the “principle of special responsibility,” which declares that each of us has special responsibility for the success of our own life. Dworkin writes:

This book’s argument…is dominated by these two principles acting in concert. The first principle requires government to adopt laws and policies that insure that its citizens’ fates are, so far as government can achieve this, insensitive to who they otherwise are—their economic backgrounds, gender, race, or particular sets of skills and handicaps. The second principle demands that government work, again so far as it can achieve this, to make their fates sensitive to the choices they have made.

To the extent that we do this, Dworkin holds, we treat each citizen as we should—with the same concern.

So what does Dworkin’s ethical individualism imply for the legal proscription of homosexual relations? Such laws surely fail to respect the homosexual’s special responsibility for making a success of his or her life. And, given the centrality of sexual relationships to most human lives, placing obstacles in the way of homosexual relationships and not in the way of heterosexual ones seems to violate equal importance, too.


Dworkin’s way of framing the issues gets them right, I think: these two arguments do indeed capture what many liberals want to say about laws against sodomy. They root these responses in a conception of equality. And in rejecting ethical individualism and insisting that homosexuality is immoral, conservatives can, indeed, be claiming to endorse a different vision of equal concern. More generally, the two principles enable Dworkin to argue that equal concern requires governments to try to equalize the resources each of us has for constructing a successful life.

But even many liberals will be puzzled by Dworkin’s notion that government should not permit our “fates” (including, in particular, how well off we are) to turn on our “skills,” even if they share the view that compensation is due for handicaps. The skills Dworkin speaks of here, it should be said, are innate possessions. To the extent that you develop, say, musical skills as a result of your choices—for example, to practice the piano—there is no reason, he thinks, that you should not reap the rewards. But Dworkin does believe—and this, it seems to me, runs counter to most contemporary intuitions—that we should be denied special rewards for special innate talents. As a citizen I am entitled to an equal share of social resources with which to develop my skills. If, for example, I have a special mathematical gift that requires an expensive education, then, according to Dworkin’s view, I must decide whether to use a larger than average amount of the equal social resources to which I am entitled in developing my math skills; and if I then make millions of dollars with those skills, only the portion that is the result of my choices, not the portion that results from my innate gift, is legitimately mine. I shall return to this issue of our entitlement to the special rewards of innate talents.

The result of Dworkin’s discussion of these challenging and powerful ideas is a clever, dense, exhilarating book. By its end Dworkin has combined a set of technical proposals for how to give sense to the idea of equality in the economy and in the sphere of rights with a suggestion of how this sovereign virtue should help us think through debates about health care, welfare, affirmative action, campaign finance reform, lesbian and gay rights, euthanasia, and cloning. Taken together, these essays make a strong case for the centrality of equality to politics.


No two people are exactly alike. The standard of equality means we may not treat people differently when they are the same in certain relevant respects; while, conversely, differential treatment requires a relevant difference. Race and gender, for example, should not be relevant to criminal sentencing: a white man and a black—each with otherwise clean records and equally remorseful—should get the same penalty for the same offense. Much of the intellectual work of egalitarianism must, therefore, go into saying which factors are—and are not—relevant to equal treatment. The relevant differences in criminal sentencing are controversial—do they include differences in youthful advantages, for example? But they surely include how frequently you have offended before, how much harm you did, and the genuineness of your expressions of remorse.

Dworkin’s aim is to explain both how the government should arrange the distribution of material resources and what liberties every citizen should have. He wants these arrangements to reflect the principle of equal concern. So he must say which features of people are relevant bases for treating them differently and which are not. And he must explain why some characteristics are—and others are not—suitable bases for differential treatment. I shall call such an account an explanation of “ethical personality.”

The best brief statement of Dworkin’s account of ethical personality comes in the chapter on welfare reform:

People’s fates are determined by their choices and their circumstances. Their choices reflect their personality, which is itself a matter of two main ingredients: ambition and character. I mean ambition in a very broad sense. Someone’s ambitions include all his tastes, preferences, and convictions as well as his overall plan of life: his ambitions furnish his reasons or motives for making one choice rather than another. Someone’s character consists of those traits of personality that do not supply him with motives but that nevertheless affect his pursuit of his ambitions: these include his application, energy, industry, doggedness, and ability to work now for distant rewards, each of which might be, for anyone, a positive or negative quality.

Someone’s circumstances consist of his personal and impersonal resources. His personal resources are his physical and mental health and ability—his general fitness and capacities, including his wealth-talent, that is, his innate capacity to produce goods and services that others will pay to have. His impersonal resources are those resources that can be reassigned from one person to another—his wealth and the property he commands, and the opportunities provided him, under the reigning legal system, to use that property.

With this vocabulary in place, Dworkin can say that his theory of economic justice holds that we should aim “to make people’s impersonal resources sensitive to their choices but insensitive to their circumstances.” His form of egalitarianism is not offended when, as the result of their choices, people end up having unequal amounts of wealth and property. If Silas Marner wants to scrape and save to build a weaving empire, if that is the way he wants to make a success of his life, he is free to use his resources and opportunities to make money; if Ilya Oblomov wants to live a life of indolence, he may use up his material resources to rent an elegant room with a comfortable bed. But differences in personal resources—such as talent—do not, in Dworkin’s view, merit differential rewards: differences in wealth that result from talent must be corrected for and justify differential government treatment. So, to the extent that Silas Marner’s millions reflect unusual innate talents, we could justifiably take some of his wealth in taxes.

There is an obvious difficulty with this proposal, which Dworkin acknowledges. We need, he says,

to find some way of identifying, in any person’s wealth at any particular time, the component traceable to differential talents as distinguished from differential ambi-tions. We might then try to devise a tax that would recapture, for redistribution, just this component. But we cannot hope to identify such a component, even given perfect information about people’s personalities. For we will be thwarted by the reciprocal influence that talents and ambitions exercise on each other. Talents are nurtured and developed, not discovered full-blown, and people choose which talents to develop in response to their beliefs about what sort of person it is best to be.

The result is that, though, in theory, we would be entitled to tax Silas Marner’s undeserved extra wealth, we cannot. As we shall see, however, Dworkin thinks there are other ways we can compensate for the differences in our innate talents.

There is a deeper difficulty lurking here that Dworkin does less to acknowledge. You will have noticed that Dworkin’s picture requires us to distinguish between personal resources, such as a talent for making money, whose rewards we are not entitled to, and ethical personality (our “ambitions and character”), whose rewards are ours to keep. But why are Silas Marner’s “application, energy, industry,” and “doggedness” to be treated as parts of his (untaxable) personality, while, say, his skillful fingers or his innate ability to calculate quickly belong to his (taxable) resources? The problem is not only—as the passage I have just cited admits—that they are hard to disentangle: it is that some argument needs to be offered against the prevailing view in our society, which is that we are as much entitled to the rewards of our talents as we are of our characters and ambitions. Dworkin has a powerful and original answer to this question, which I will return to at the end of this essay. For the moment, however, I want to take up his answer to the question how we should measure equality of resources.


To arrive at that answer Dworkin constructs yet another of the imaginary societies that are a staple of political philosophy. Through them we are able to see the force of certain moral ideas while abstracting from the confounding details of everyday life. Dworkin’s thought experiment is intended to help us understand better what it would be to distribute material resources in a way that reflected equal concern for everyone; and to do this he explores the simplest possible situation in which the problem of distributing resources could arise.

Consider a group of people—the “immigrants”—arriving on a desert island. What would be the best way of sharing their resources? A reasonable initial constraint on any allocation, Dworkin suggests, is this: “no division of resources is an equal division if, once the division is complete, any immigrant would prefer someone else’s bundle of resources to his own.” Call this the “envy test.” One kind of allocation that meets the test would give everybody an identical bundle. But an auctioneer who favored himself could offer only bundles that contain exactly the combination of resources that would be best for himself. The envy test doesn’t yet fully realize the ideal of equal concern.

Dworkin’s solution is to offer everything up for auction, granting each person the same number of tokens with which to bid. Anyone may propose that anything should be offered up for sale and the auctioneer puts a price on every lot in tokens and sees if, at those prices, he can find exactly one buyer for each lot. The immigrants are always free to insist on a new auction or new lots until everyone is satisfied; that is, until they can see no bundle they prefer. The result should be an allocation that is exquisitely sensitive to the tastes of each immigrant. I get a parcel of the loamy valley land for my tomato farm; you get the iron-rich hinterland for your mine. “Under equality of resources,…people decide what sorts of lives to pursue against a background of information about the actual cost their choices impose on other people and hence the total stock of resources that may fairly be used by them.”

Dworkin’s resolution of the alleged tension between liberty and equality comes as a result of an obvious fact about auctions: “When you bid for a painting in an auction of art, you assume that you will be able to hang the painting where you like, look at it when you want, and so forth.” Unless we know what we can do with something, in other words, we can make no sensible decision about whether to bid for it. So the initial auction requires not only a specification of what bundles of resources are available but also a background system of rules—which Dworkin calls a “baseline liberty/constraint system”—about how you may use them. If we are to treat people with equal concern, while, at the same time, giving them equal resources, we must, he says, “select the baseline system that gives most plausibility to the claim that an auction from that baseline treats people with equal concern.” So, for example, it will be “necessary to provide people with enough physical security and enough control over their own property to allow them to make and carry out their plans and projects.” Dworkin argues persuasively that we will need laws guaranteeing certain fundamental liberties, including

at a minimum, rights to freedom of conscience, commitment, speech, and religion, and to freedom of choice in matters touching central or important aspects of an agent’s personal life, like employment, family arrangements, sexual privacy, and medical treatment.

But once these laws are in place, his respect for our special responsibility for our own lives urges that people have a great deal of liberty. In his view, “liberty and equality cannot conflict, as two fundamental political virtues, because equality cannot even be defined except by assuming liberty in place, and cannot be improved, even in the real world, by policies that compromise the value of liberty.”

Once a distribution of goods occurs, people begin working and trading, and then, since they differ in ambitions and talents, they will end up with different amounts of wealth. Very soon, if we apply the envy test, some people will have bundles that others want. Oblomov will prefer Silas Marner’s bank account: it could buy him a more comfortable bed. Must we run another auction?

Dworkin’s answer is a decisive “No.” When you pick your bundle you must pick it with a life in mind: someone with Oblomovian aims cannot have Marner’s treasure without doing the miser’s work. Equality of resources, following the principle of special responsibility, means you can only have the riches if you accept the drudgery. If the immigrants were equally talented, anyone willing to do what Marner did could have made a bid for his initial bundle and set out to work as hard as he did. The decision you are making in the initial auction is once and for all: so you must bear in mind what sort of life you plan to lead and what sorts of rewards it will bring when you pick your initial allocation.

A real person approaching an actual auction would surely wonder whether he should pick his initial allocation on the basis of his current ambitions alone. If one wants to make the best choice of initial resources one surely needs to know as much as possible about how one will develop: but that, of course, is likely to depend on what resources one has. There seems no obvious way to break this circle. So a young person might ask, instead, to be allowed a chance to bid again on a new auction later, after he has sowed his wild oats, discovered whom he will love, what vocation he is called to. To allow this, however, would be to allow him to start over again—and that would interfere with making his fate depend on his choices. Dworkin’s egalitarianism is in the tradition of stern anti-paternalism: everyone gets an equal chance to make his own bed, but then he must lie in it.

Dworkin’s auction provides a way of measuring what it would be to give everyone equal resources. In the real world, of course, we start out with unequal endowments, not only of money but of schooling, access to public services, and much else. We must then ask how Dworkin’s auction theory might actually be applied. Dworkin’s view here—which is only sketched in this book—is, roughly, that we may redistribute wealth, through taxation and handouts, to those who have less than they are entitled to, provided we do not take away from anyone money or freedoms that they would now have if they had, in fact, been given only their fair share at the start. The auction matters, in practice, then, as a rough way of determining what would have been a fair initial share.


So much for what it would mean to have equality of impersonal resources. What about personal ones? People differ in their handicaps and talents, and Dworkin wants, as we have seen, to equalize these as well. But how? We cannot literally share them: my 20/20 vision is not something I could transfer to you, with your 20/40 vision, in whole or in part; nor could we portion out Michael Jackson’s musicality. But—and here Dworkin makes another elegant suggestion—it is very natural to think of most handicaps as a kind of bad luck, which is the kind of thing one might buy insurance against. The availability of an insurance market of the right sort would allow people to take account of the risks of future handicaps. Furthermore, since each of us has different tastes and plans, the loss to each of us of some particular capacity—vision, mobility, hearing—will have a different meaning. We will therefore insure ourselves to differing extents: a painter might insure her vision highly. A fair insurance market, offered to people who began with equal material resources, would allow them each to decide which risks mattered most to them and what they would be willing to pay to mitigate those risks. Here, then, is another way of allowing each of us an equal opportunity to take special responsibility for our own lives.

This device faces an obvious problem in dealing with many handicaps, namely that people are born with them, and you cannot insure against an outcome that has already occurred. Dworkin proposes that this is another situation in which the government can step in to further equality. The government can try to discover how people would have insured themselves (if they could have been consulted before they were born), and then offer them the fair compensation for their handicap, which is the payout they would have received if they had bought that policy, minus the premium they would have had to pay for it. This would obviously cost money. But since everyone would presumably have been willing to buy such insurance, those of us who are not handicapped can reasonably be charged for the scheme. For here, as with any insurance scheme, the money that goes to the unlucky comes from premiums paid by the lucky. So Dworkin argues that we should all be obliged to pay the premiums—and all be entitled to the payout, if appropriate—of a hypothetical insurance scheme for handicaps.

Differences in initial talents—which are also “resources”—are harder for Dworkin to deal with. For the hypothetical insurance strategy that works for handicaps will not work even in principle here. While we could imagine insurance policies against the possibility that we would not have various talents, it is very hard to say what premiums people would be willing to pay for such policies; the tal-ents we have determine too many of the preferences that would go into deciding what premiums to pay. A person with radically different talents would not be me contemplating a different life; he would be a different person.

What Dworkin proposes, instead, is that we imagine that we know what our talents are (and thus have a reasonable sense of what our ambitions might be) but do not know what income those talents will bring us. We can then think of the incapacity to earn a sufficient income to live a successful life as a kind of handicap and consider another hypothetical insurance market for an “underemployment” policy. Here he uses another thought experiment. He hypothesizes that each person is told what the income distribution of their society is, but does not know where in the distribution he will fall. Policies are offered in a free market that provide

insurance…against failing to have an opportunity to earn whatever level of income…the policyholder names…. Premiums will vary with the level of coverage chosen, must be the same for everyone at any particular coverage level, and will be paid, not out of the policyholder’s initial stock of resources,…but rather from future earnings after the auction….

Dworkin argues that, since very few people are going to have the talents that make them rich, the premiums charged for insuring a high income will be prohibitive: for almost everyone holding such a policy would receive payments from it and they would be paid a lot. The difference between the premium and the guaranteed income, which is what you would actually earn if you did not have that level of talent, would be vanishingly small. And if you did have the talent to earn that much, you would still have to pay the premium, so that you would have to seek a high-paying job, whether or not you wanted to, just in order to pay the premium. So people would only insure themselves for a modest income.

If there were such an insurance market, a company would have an incentive to offer people a premium defined not as an absolute amount, but as a percentage of the income it turned out they actually earned. Most people think that an additional $100 would be worth less to them if they earned a large income than if they earned a smaller one. So, ideally, one would like to be offered a policy whose cost was a rising proportion of one’s income. If, as a result, the insurance company offered us a choice between paying the same amount whatever we end up earning or a lower amount the poorer we were, it would sometimes be reasonable for us to buy the second policy. It turns out, then, that equalizing for our differences in talent leads to a progressive income tax and a minimum guaranteed wage: policies that most modern political liberals would, of course, strongly endorse.

Dworkin’s theory says we are entitled to equal resources to fulfill our lives. Thus, as we have seen, it has consequences for what we should do in the real world. Handicaps diminish the resources of some, and they should be compensated at the expense of the able-bodied. The genetic lottery distributes talent unfairly, so we should have a welfare system that guarantees a minimum income, paid for by a graduated income tax. Since our initial allocations of resources were not, in fact, fair, there should be some income redistribution.

Dworkin also argues that, in a just world, our needs for health care (to the extent they were not the result of a congenital handicap) would be covered by private insurance. But in the actual world, because many people did not start out with the resources to which they are entitled, they cannot afford the insurance they are entitled to. So he believes there should be a universal health care system that offers everybody an insurance policy equivalent to what a prudent person of average means would have bought in a society of equal initial resources. Dworkin thus provides principled, carefully argued answers to the questions with which I began.

These arguments, however, presuppose that we can establish what would have been a fair allocation of the resources that have been so unfairly distributed in the real world. As a result, they share a common problem. In order to decide what would have been a just initial allocation among the inhabitants of the present world—which we must do to begin redistribution or to define that universal health care system—we would have to pick a starting point. We did not, in fact, all show up together in the world, fresh-faced and grown up, like the immigrants on the desert island. What is needed in reality is a way to give each person a fair share of resources as they join the community. When I am born, of course, I do not know enough to bid for that share. Even when I’ve reached the age of reason, it won’t work to give me my allotment of tokens and allow me to bid. Either that auction would redistribute goods among all the people who were here already (in which case it would be unfair to them because resources are, in Dworkin’s scheme, granted for life) or there would be no way, consistent with the basic model of equality of resources, to price the goods. In either case, the auction model provides no guide. When we move from an imaginary world, like the island, to the real world, we can only apply the insights gained there if there are ways to take account of the differences between imagination and reality. But Dworkin’s ideal of equal resources offers no guidance in taking this key step. It is a central fact of our moral lives that we enter history one at a time; Dworkin’s auction, on the other hand, only makes sense, as he himself insists, if it happens once and for all. Even on the desert island something would eventually need to be said about what resources to grant to each new child that came along.

But Dworkin’s island utopia may run into trouble even before the joys of parenthood are experienced. It was easy to agree that if people had the same talents and handicaps, yet different tastes and ambitions, the initial auction of impersonal resources (of the sort that can be transferred between people) would be a good expression of equality. But would it? After all, when I bid, I bid on the basis of a plan of life and assumptions about how my life will go. I may bid for a bundle that includes land to cultivate because I want to be a tomato farmer and think I would be good at it; you may bid for the same bundle because you want to be a great tennis player and the land will then be used for a practice court. If I am wrong about the commercial demand for tomatoes and you are wrong about the income of tennis pros, we may both have put in bids for the wrong bundle of goods. If we knew everything about the world and the other people in it, not just now, but in the future, then perhaps we would get exactly what we needed. But we should only think of the auction as giving us a fair share of the resources we need for our overall lives if we knew enough about the future when we made our initial bids. Unfortunately, there are several reasons why we cannot know what we need to know.

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.

This Issue

April 26, 2001