chapter two in my thesis

I am, as always, grateful for comments.


Chapter two- of Equality of Resources


My aim will be to do the following in this chapter. (1) Introduce the reader to the debate “On the currency of egalitarian justice[1],” (2) defend a substantive-goods account of equality.


My general idea is that Cohen, who advocates equality of welfare, includes more things than mere hedonic states in his notion of what is important as an equalisandum. The theory he defends includes also resources as an important part. Simultaneously, Dworkin’s theory of equality of resources does also include more things than Christiano’s theory does. It seems as Cohen’s and Dworkin’s only genuine disagreement in this debate is in what to do with persons with expensive tastes. But this is nothing that makes a substantive difference for my discussion on Christiano’s argument of equality.


Before we begin our investigation the reader must bear in mind that Cohen’s account of what welfare is differs from Christiano’s account on what well-being is. Normally, welfare is regarded as identical with well-being, which in turn is identical with some kind of hedonic state. This is Cohen’s view. Christiano’s account of well-being is closer to what I believe that Cohen means by ‘advantage’, that is something that includes hedonic states, but also other things, (maybe) such things that could make up as a list of substantive goods. (Cohen 1989: 920-921, see also fn 23)


Also, the reader should know that Dworkin includes more things than Christiano does in his notion of resources. According to Dworkin resources are also physical and psychological abilities. Thus to be able to walk, talk and think is considered to have these resources. (Dworkin 1981b: 301)


2.1 What is Equality of welfare?

Dworkin argues that those who promote equality of welfare have been able to gain appeal for their view because they have abstained from specifying what ‘welfare’ actually consists in. If we analyze each candidate or this concept we will, Dworkin suggests, find that equality of welfare is a rather unappealing form of equality. This analyze occupies the major part of his “What is Equality? Part 1- Equality of Welfare”.


Dworkin distinguishes between three theories, or suggestions of how to understand the equalisandum of the equality of welfare, which are the following:


(I)             Success theories- that is what I have referred to as “desire theories”.

(II)           Conscious- state theories- that is the substantive-good theory that points out hedonic states as the only possible good. We might call these theories egalitarian hedonic theories.

(III)         Objective theories- these are what I have called substantive-good theories.


Dworkin argues eloquently against (I) and (II), but when he comes to the objective notion, he just says that this theory is merely equality of resources in “the language of welfare”. This is so because the objective notion holds that if two people are equally healthy, mentally sound, equally educated and have in all the other relevant ways the same amount of the substantive goods that are proposed, these people are equal in morally relevant sense, even if they differ in their appreciation of these things. According to Dworkin this is the same as equality of resources in his understanding of “resources”. (Dworkin 2000, 46-47)


Thus, if we state that there are some things that make our life go better because they have the property of being intrinsically desirable we are, according to Dworkin, to understand these things as resources. It is for me unimportant what we call these things that are so important to us. What may be important is that the same things that Dworkin calls resources, things that ought to be distributed equally, are those things that Christiano refers to as “things that make up our well-being”. Thus, Dworkin is in favour of equality of well-being in Christiano’s using of this word.


Therefore: Dworkin’s argument against equality of welfare is not appropriate against the notion of well-being that Christiano proposes, since they are intrinsically different things.


2.2 Cohen’s refutation of equality of welfare and of equality of resources

Cohen presents in his famous article a strong argument against equality of welfare and equality of resources that we will investigate. What follows is my version of his example:


No Legs: Suppose that Samara’s legs are paralyzed, she lacks of an important mean, or resource to lead a normal life. If we would provide her with a wheelchair, she would regain at least some of the means that her condition has denied her. Egalitarians should agree that, since Samara lacks, by brute[2] bad luck an important resource, she ought to be compensated for this at least by being provided with a wheelchair. But if Samara happens to be a very glad person, who’s overall level of well-being is above the average, those who defend equality of well-being would not invest resources in giving her a wheelchair. They would rather help a healthy person that is quite comfortable with his life, although not as happy as Samara. This is, as Cohen points out, an implausible recommendation. Thus, we should either refute or revise equality of well-being. (Cohen 1989: 918)


No arms: Samara’s arms suffer also from a condition. She can move her arms, she has (we assume) extra strong arms, but the problem is that several hours after moving her arms, she experiences severe pain. Thus, she does not lack the ability to move her arms, but it is extremely costly for her to do so. Suppose that there is an expensive medicine that, if taken regularly, would alleviate her pain. Our egalitarian intuitions tell us that this what we ought to do is to compensate her for buying this medicine. The problem for equality of resources is that since Samara does not, in the relevant sense, lack the capability to move her arms, we ought not, according to the resource-egalitarian compensate her for her painful condition. (Cohen 1989: 918)


Cohen defends a revised form of equality of welfare, namely equality of opportunity to ‘advantage’. According to this theory, one should be compensated not only for having lesser resources (as in No Legs); one ought also to be compensated for having less well-being than others (as in No Arms). The relevant question to ask, according to Cohen, is not “is this disadvantage a lack of resources or well-being”, but rather “could this person have avoided to suffer from this disadvantage or could this person now choose not to suffer from this disadvantage”. (Cohen 1989: 21) If the answer is yes to the relevant question, the egalitarian ought not provide this person with compensation for her disadvantage. Thus, Cohen’s egalitarianism does compensate for expe
nsive tastes, such as an exclusive diet, provided that this taste is not voluntary.


Cohen’s theory of equality of welfare thus includes well-being as an important component, but it includes even more. Cohen never explicitly states what he means with ‘advantage’; still this notion seems to me to be the same thing as an undefined list of substantive goods. As we have seen, Dworkin’s view is not as far from this that he might think.


2.3 Cohen’s Straw man

When Cohen illustrates why we ought to refute equality of resources, his arguments are built upon a much more implausible notion of resources than Dworkin defends. His examples are directed against Christiano’s notion, namely that resources are only to be understood as means to achieve a good life, never as things that are good in themselves (Christiano 1996: 63).  Dworkin does not defend this view. In his account, we ought to provide Samara in No Arms with compensation, since her pain is to be regarded as a handicap and thus a lack of resources, even if pain (and it was only pain in this example, since she could move her arms perfectly well) is essentially a hedonic state that is intrinsically undesirable, and not merely a lack of means to achieve something else. (Dworkin 2000 296-7) 


This is actually what Cohen wants to include in his notion of ‘advantage’ Cohen (1989: 920-21)


If we ought to subsidize expensive tastes that are involuntarily acquired, as Cohen thinks, or if we only should subsidize those expensive interests that are involuntarily acquired and regarded by its possessor as a handicap is not of any importance on how we ought to regard what ought to be distributed. Both views are compatible with equality of substantive goods, that is, equality of well-being, in Christiano’s words.


2.4 A reconsideration of the argument

But, the reader asks herself, if Dworkin and Cohen meant that resources (in Christiano’s narrow use of the word) ought also to be distributed equally, does this not entail that Christiano is in fact supported by their respective powerful arguments for their view? As Cohen describes in No Legs, not only welfare ought to be distributed equally, but also resources, even if the person in question is very happy without her wheelchair.


This is indeed an argument against the notion that well-being (in the meaning of a hedonic state) ought to be equally distributed. But if we apply a substantive-good theory account, we do not face the same problem. All the substantive-good theoretician has to say (very plausibly) is that to be able to transport oneself freely is an important substantive good and that we ought to compensate someone for lacking this good.


Dworkin and Cohen agree that equality is important and they agree that what ought to be distributed equally is something that matters. Equal distribution of resources is important to Cohen and Dworkin, but if we should consider resources as Christiano considers them, as only “means to achieve well-being”, would the urgency of the equal distribution of resources be as important? I think not.


Suppose, for example, that there are two communities where we are to distribute resources for their healthcare. Assume also that they have the same amount of citizens and that these citizens are equally wealthy. We also believe that health is something important, something that is a substantive good. The first community is to be found near the location of nuclear meltdown several decades ago. Cancer is still much more common in this community and it has therefore higher healthcare-costs than the other community. According to Dworkin and Cohen we ought to give more money to the first community, since they have a greater need. Christiano has to, according to his definition of resources deny this. For him it would be fairer to allocate the same amount of resources in both communities. While considering the following quote, make note that Christiano includes knowledge in the term “well-being”:


“Consider primary education. We do not evaluate it in the grounds of its ability to ensure that each has equal well-being in the end; that would be simply impossible. We judge the justice of primary educational institutions on whether they have devoted equal resources to each and every pupil. Sometimes we think more resources ought to go to the students who need more help as a result of previous deprivation in their backgrounds, but this involves compensating the students for lack of resources in the past. Beyond this already difficulty we cannot go.” (Christiano 1996: 68)


This means that if my daughter would suffer from dyslexia, she would not receive more resources to provide her with special teachers, expensive learning materials and so on. This seems to me as an unequal egalitarianism, that I believe we should not accept. It is not impossible to help those who are handicapped in different ways by simply giving them more resources so they might be equal in, say knowledge or health.


In the case with the two communities competing for resources, there is a tension between equality of well-being and equality of resources, in Christiano’s use of these words. If we provide the two communities with the same amount of resources, they will be unequal regarding their amount of well-being, since they would lack the resources to take care of all the cancer patients. And if the distribution would be such as to provide the communities with equal well-being, they would certainly be unequal in resources. Thus it seems to me, as neither Dworkin nor Cohen would agree that equality of resources is important in this case.

[1] This is also the name of an influential article written by G. A. Cohen, published in Ethics, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Jul., 1989), 906-944, that will be referred to frequently in the following chapter.

[2] Brute bad luck is the kind of bad luck that you could not avoid to suffer, that is not the kind of bad luck you suffer from when gambling or taking risks.

Publicerad tisdag, augusti 16th, 2005 i Allmänt.

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