Moral Luck, Constitutive Luck
Luck plays a tremendous role in our lives. Consider two people who are texting while driving in a residential neighborhood: one such driver, through sheer coincidence, ends up striking a pedestrian, while the other driver passes through without incident. Though their behavior is identical, our reactions – and the view of the justice system – toward their behavior varies greatly and hinges considerably on the element of mere chance. In a sense, one driver was simply luckier than the other.
Moral philosophers are only recently beginning to debate and refine our attitudes about the role of luck in particular situations. Thomas Nagel, for instance, has been writing on the subject of “moral luck” since the late 1970s, and philosophers like Sam Harris continue to challenge our preconceptions about how the role of factors and events beyond our control should guide our moral reasoning.
However, the example of the texting drivers above is narrow and situational. Though Nagel was indeed interested in sorting out the role of luck in specific, everyday events, he also contemplated the larger issue of luck in terms of what skills, attributes, character, and life opportunities people possess based on the circumstances of their birth – that grand lottery. Nagel referred to this kind of luck as “constitutive luck.”
Constitutive luck determines who we are, and thus, who we become. Consider your present moment. It is purely a matter of luck that you live in a time and place, for instance, when and where you are able to access the Internet and read this article. It is also a matter of constitutive luck that you are physically able to read this article – that you were not born blind, for instance. It is also a matter of chance that you were raised in a society that values literacy and in a community that had the resources to teach you how to read.
However, much of the world is not so lucky. Nearly one billion of the world’s 7 billion people are illiterate, approximately the same number are hungry, and more than 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day. And while you almost certainly worked hard to achieve what you have and to be able to do what you can do, you cannot discount the role of constitutive luck in allowing you to have the opportunity to make such accomplishments in the first place. Here is Sam Harris’ take on the often overlooked issue of the role of luck in human flourishing:
Consider the biography of any “self-made” American, from Benjamin Franklin on down, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make, and of which he was a mere beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle. How much credit do I deserve for not having Down syndrome or any other disorder that would make my current work impossible? None whatsoever. And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts – health care, education, etc. – while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can – but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life.
On the basis of this reasoning, Harris concludes: “Those who have been especially lucky – the smart, well-connected, and rich – should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society.”
It is this defense of redistribution to offset the role of bad luck and to allow everyone the same opportunity to flourish that is the thesis of the rest of this essay. It attempts to show to what extent libertarianism (or, interchangeably, “classical liberalism”) is reconcilable with policies that could be described as socialist – or social democratic – in nature.
In other words, it attempts to show not only the similarities between these two apparently polar philosophies, but how they can be combined to justify a new philosophy – luck egalitarianism – that maximizes liberty while also giving everyone an equal chance to succeed, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.
The Role of Luck in Rawlsian Liberalism
One of the first political philosophers to take seriously the role of this kind of luck was John Rawls (1921-2002). Rawls’ method for determining how to organize a just society is as follows: he asks, “What rules would future members of a society agree upon before entering that society? What rules would they put in place to ensure they had an equal chance of flourishing?”
Rawls imagined that in this “original position,” people would rationally agree to several principles if they stood behind a “veil of ignorance” that prevented them from knowing what talents, abilities, or station they would inherit in that society. These principles are (1) the enjoyment of basic liberties, (2a) the equality of opportunity, and (2b) a guarantee that inequality that arises in that society (such as in terms of wealth) does not come at the expense of the least-advantaged.
Again, the role of constitutive luck is central to Rawls’ philosophy: people agree to these principles because they do not know what abilities or disabilities they will assume in this society. Since one does not choose the traits and environment that largely determine how one fares in life, Rawls considered them “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” Given this randomness, Rawls believed that these principles were rational, fair, and just, since they would, if adhered to, allow people regardless of their luck – good or bad – to have an equal chance of pursuing their goals without obstruction from others and without being held back by conditions beyond their control.
While Rawls’ philosophy satisfied many liberals (in both the classical and American senses of the word), some “radical” political philosophers pointed out flaws or inconsistencies in Rawls’ work. One such philosopher was G.A. Cohen (1941-2009). Cohen criticized, among others aspects of Rawls’ philosophy, his tolerance of inequality.
According to Rawls, society ought to begin from a position of material equality (because of the “morally arbitrary” nature of our inherited nature and environment), and society should only permit inequality to arise if the least well-off see an improvement in their material position. However, Cohen objected: if people begin from a state of material equality due to the “morally arbitrary” distribution of talents and disabilities, why should that equality vanish once there are simply more goods to go around (assuming that all people work to the best of their ability to contribute to the social product)?
Luck Egalitarianism, Equality of Access to Advantage
Yet Cohen, a luck egalitarian, does not believe in total equality of outcome – that everyone should possess the same amount of wealth.
Cohen argued that everyone should have the same opportunity to succeed, and he suggested that Rawls’ philosophy, which tolerates extreme inequality insofar as the worst-off benefit in some way (no matter how insignificantly), was bound to fail to guarantee that equal opportunity as inequalities accumulated over time.
Rawls himself also recognized the “fragility of justice” – to use a term coined by luck egalitarian Kok-Chor Tan – in the real-world application of his system: namely, Rawls feared that the free market leads to “an oligopolistic configuration of accumulations that succeeds in maintaining unjustified inequalities and restrictions on fair opportunity.”
This observation is relevant to the situation in modern America. While capitalism has indeed increased the country’s overall standard of living, some have benefited far more than others. Rawls and Cohen ask us to consider how we ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. How can we make sure that those saddled with bad luck in this unequal society have a fair shot at success?
Let’s note that most Americans, including many conservatives and even libertarians, agree with Rawls and Cohen about the value of the equality of opportunity. Ted Cruz, for instance, announced at Liberty University that “every single child, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of wealth or ZIP Code…has the right to a quality education.”
Yet luck egalitarians take a broader view of the equality of opportunity. They regard the nearly exclusive focus on education as an anemic conception of what allows people to flourish. Luck egalitarians believe that such flourishing requires not only a quality education, but also the consideration of all environmental and biological factors that affect one’s ability to realize one’s potential. Luck egalitarians believe in negating all unelected disadvantages – not only one’s chance residence in a lousy school district, but also other inhibiting factors, such as a lack of access to basic nutrition or essential medical care.
After all, what good is access to public education when the child is held back by other factors – like a poor diet or undiagnosed or untreated physical, mental, or emotional problems – that prevent the child from fully taking advantage of that education?
To differentiate this fuller, broader notion from the narrowly liberal understanding of the equality of opportunity, Cohen and other luck egalitarians support what is often referred to as an “equality of access to advantage.”
While Rawlsian liberals and luck egalitarians will quibble over how to provide a genuine equality of opportunity (or access to advantage) to all citizens, such arguments are unlikely to faze die-hard libertarians. But, as we shall see, even some libertarians are aware of and responsive to the effects of bad luck.
Libertarianism and Luck
One such libertarian who was critical of Rawls’ version of liberalism was Robert Nozick (1938-2002). Indeed, Nozick’s renowned right-libertarian manifesto, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published in 1974, was a reply to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, published in 1971.
Central to Nozick’s philosophy is the concept of “self-ownership,” whereby no one is entitled to another’s wealth or property so long as that person acquired his goods justly – that is, through his own labor or through a fair bargain – what Nozick calls “just acquisition” and “just transfer,” respectively.
Nozick is therefore insensitive to the notion of the equality of opportunity: he opposes taxation to provide public education on the grounds that such taxation amounts to state theft of an individual’s protected wealth.
While there are various ways to critique Nozick’s libertarianism and the priority it gives to the concept of self-ownership (such as by appealing to other first principles, such as consequentialism), there is a loophole in Nozick’s philosophy that makes it susceptible to a more radical critique.
According to Nozick, people are entitled to retribution if they are directly or indirectly affected by prior unjust transactions. Nozick’s “principle of rectification” allows for transfer payments to compensate for the victims of historical injustices. Thus, Nozick was sensitive to the argument for reparations to amend for slavery because the descendants of slaves are born at a disadvantage given the violation of their ancestor’s self-ownership and self-determination.
However, such reasoning plays into Karl Marx‘s critique of capitalism. Marx’s scholarship on the history of “primitive accumulation” revealed that the new capital-owning class, the bourgeoisie, acquired its land and wealth through the forceful expulsion of people from commonly-owned property. This process created a new class of landless, propertyless proletarians who had no means to make a living but through selling their labor to the new owners of capital. Marx referred to this process of primitive accumulation as the “original sin” of capitalism – one that has infected class relations for centuries.
If the descendants of slaves are the victims of historical injustice, as Nozick grants, is it not thus true that the descendants of the dispossessed proletarians (that is, nearly everyone) are also the victims of the process of primitive accumulation?
In other words, if Nozick is sympathetic to the bad luck of the descendants of slaves and believes they are deserving of entitlements to compensate for that bad luck, why is he not sympathetic to bad luck in general? Would it not be absurd, for instance, for a wealthy descendant of a slave to receive reparations while a poor white child born with disabilities would have no access to advantage? Is Nozick not arbitrary or inconsistent in his recognition of the causes and responsibility to alleviate the effects of bad luck that arise from the random circumstances of our birth, whatever the origins of that bad luck might be?
Of course, this argument, if granted, leaves open the question of how that injustice is to rectified; nevertheless, it brings the importance of history and chance – of luck – to bear on Nozick’s libertarianism.
As an aside, it is also worth observing that Nozick’s libertarianism is more extreme than that of his classical liberal forebears. Adam Smith (1723-1790), the father of free market economics, endorsed progressive taxation, public education, and a host of state interventions. And John Locke (1632-1704), perhaps the most influential liberal philosopher, wrote in his First Treatise (the more theological prelude to his better known and more politically-oriented Second Treatise) about the “duty of charity” – the responsibility of the well-off to help the less fortunate:
God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.
Clarifying Luck Egalitarianism
It is important to stress several aspects of luck egalitarianism.
First, luck egalitarianism does value liberty, but it does not regard others’ wealth as wholly untouchable: it seeks to maximize liberty to the extent that it allows for everyone to have the same opportunities regardless of the circumstances of their birth. If there were a way to guarantee this kind of equality with a 15 percent flat tax, then luck egalitarians would readily embrace it.
Second, luck egalitarianism does not justify Soviet-style communism or a command economy. Instead, luck egalitarianism recommends policies most closely associated with Scandinavian-style social democracy. Countries like Norway, Denmark, and Finland – where social mobility is greater than in the United States – subsidize not only education, but also health care and other basic life necessities that are prerequisites for ensuring a genuine equality of opportunity.
Third, luck egalitarianism is not incompatible with capitalism insofar as it relates to the operation of a market economy alongside that of a social democratic welfare state. In fact, one can make the case that luck egalitarianism effectively guarantees what libertarianism only valorizes in the abstract – that is, not only establishing the importance and righteousness of self-determination, but also the means to achieve it through the equality of access to advantage.
Finally, luck egalitarianism does not demand an equality of outcome of any kind. In this regard, libertarians and luck egalitarians agree: differences in wealth and income should reflect one thing – effort (recall Cohen’s assumption about everyone working to the best of their ability and Harris’ encouragement of hard work and disapproval of free riders). Again, one can make the case that luck egalitarians are more loyal to this value than libertarians, since under libertarianism, not only effort, but other factors – especially those beyond one’s control – largely determine a person’s destiny. Under luck egalitarianism, however, inhibiting factors such as initial poverty or inherited disabilities are compensated for – thus accentuating the role of effort and increasing social mobility.
Such a reconciliation of libertarian and socialist principles through a philosophy such as luck egalitarianism would go a long way to guaranteeing a genuine equality of opportunity – a value shared by nearly all Americans. In a country where health emergencies kill and bankrupt tens of thousands of people each year, where millions of children receive substandard education because of their residence in poor school districts, and where the circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing are largely determinative of one’s social mobility, such a philosophy, if embraced, could not only heal the social divisions in this country, but its political divisions as well.