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- Boston Review: Equality and Responsibility by John E. Roemer
- Christopher Lake
- Equality and Responsibility
In our society, one's income, and probably also one's success in life, depends positively on the amount of education one receives. Income is strongly correlated with years of education, and, although I am not familiar with the survey data on this question, I would conjecture that the degree to which people rate their lives as successful is also strongly correlated with the number of years of education they receive.
Let us, at any rate, assume that this is so. Now the years of education a person acquires depend, as always, on two kinds of factor: Suppose we, as a society, wish to implement a social policy of equality-of-opportunity for income; to do so, we shall concentrate on the relationship between years of education acquired in youth and income earned in later life. The general principle I have been describing says that we should design a social policy which indemnifies individuals against the low incomes which are the consequence of poor or insufficient education in so far as that insufficiency is caused by the individual's circumstances, but not indemnify her against the income consequences of insufficient education to the extent that that insufficiency is a result of autonomous choice.
For simplicity of exposition, I shall assume that income in society is exactly determined by the number of years of education one receives. I shall proceed just as before. Society's first step is to make a list of factors that it deems to be beyond a person's control and that affect the years and quality of education that he receives. Perhaps this list will consist in the following: The next step is to partition society into groups, where each consists of all persons who share the same values of these six factors.
Now each type will include a large number of persons; there will be a frequency distribution of years of education for each type, and, of course, these frequency distributions will differ across types. The frequency distribution of years of education is a characteristic of the group, not of any single individual.
Since persons are not responsible for their type, they cannot be responsible for this distribution. Where, however, a person sits in the frequency distribution of his type is viewed as a consequence of his autonomous choice, because, in listing the six factors of circumstance, we have, by social decision, exhausted the conditions we regard as beyond a person's control.
So the differences in educational level reached within a type are due, by definition, to differences in autonomous choice, and hence, matters of personal responsibility. My equality-of-opportunity proposal in this example is a policy that equalizes, through the tax-transfer system, the income across types of all those at a given location in the group's frequency distribution of education. Concretely, if Alice has achieved the median level of education for her type i. It is important here to recall that I am assuming that income is completely determined by years of education.
A comment about my equality-of-opportunity proposal is in order. I have not attempted to provide a theory of what aspects of a person's behavior really are beyond his control, and what aspects are really within the realm of autonomous choice. Each society, according to my account, decides this question for itself. Thus, different societies will generally choose different lists of factors comprising a person's circumstances.
An individualistic society like the United States would probably include fewer factors in the list of a person's circumstances than a social-democratic one like Sweden. Thus my proposal is not metaphysical, in the sense of trying to solve the deep problem of what actually is beyond a person's control; it is political in the sense that it depends on the current views of the society in question. According to the proposal, each society can implement equality-of-opportunity according to its own conception of what features of a person's social and biological environment constitute factors beyond her control.
Objections The conception of equality-of-opportunity that I have described is not the conventional view. It appears to support a far more egalitarian society than we now have in the United States.
No doubt it will generate considerable disagreement. To forestall some of that, I will respond here to a few likely objections. One criticism -- suggested in the work of Ronald Dworkin -- may be that the distinction between what a person is and is not responsible for is not the same as the distinction between what she has and has no control over.
I have in fact assumed that those two distinctions are, by definition, the same. Dworkin's view may seem paradoxical; I shall try to make it less so by example. Suppose a child, who grows up in a poor family, whose parents lack education beyond primary school, who is exposed to no books in the home or any kind of high culture, develops preferences in which education has a low value. He does not care to become educated, and feels education will not make his life more successful.
He identifies with these preferences, views them as intrinsic to who he is. Then Dworkin, I think, would have to say that such a child does not require any social compensation for the low level of education he acquires, and the consequent low income he earns.
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Dworkin places tastes with which a person identifies, and the choices that follow from them, within the realm of personal responsibility, regardless of whether those tastes were formed or induced by factors over which the person had no control. I, on the other hand, do not make the distinction between autonomous and non-autonomous choice depend on what the person thinks, but rather on what society deems to be within or beyond a person's control.
Thus, the unfortunate child I have just described, or the adult that child becomes, would be due social compensation under my notion of equal opportunity for income, but not under Dworkin's. A second objection comes from the vantage point of efficiency. It is all well and good, you might say, to attempt to equalize opportunity, and, you might agree that my proposal is the way to accomplish that goal. But you might further say that the cost of equality of opportunity may well be a substantial decrease in national income: If those who are in 'fortunate' types, and who earn large incomes, are taxed to increase the incomes due those in unfortunate types under my proposal, they might work less, and in that case national income per capita would fall, perhaps disastrously.
There are two responses to this objection. The first relates to the incomplete definition of the equality-of-opportunity proposal that I have here made. In fact, the social policy I advocate is the one that equalizes opportunities for income, say at the highest possible levels.
It is not possible to make this precise without going into some mathematical detail, but the idea is, roughly, that if a taxation policy results in opportunities for income being equalized at a very low level, then it is not the optimal policy. It is true that, under my proposal, mean income, that is, national income per capita, may well be below what it would be without any redistributive taxation: The second response to the objection is that, if you think social policy should attempt to maximize national income per capita, then you simply cannot advocate equality of opportunity.
These two goals are just not simultaneously achievable. If, indeed, the highly skilled would to some degree withdraw their talents from productive use if their incomes were highly taxed, then maximizing mean income in a society could only be accomplished at the expense of equalizing opportunities. Thus, to the extent that our society measures its economic success by the rate of growth of mean income i.
If we rigorously adopt an equality-of-opportunity ethic, then we must redesign our statistical measures of what constitutes economically successful social policy. A third objection is of a deeper philosophical nature. It is a conservative, or more properly, a libertarian objection, and runs as follows. Persons legitimately deserve to benefit from their natural genetic endowments; and parents, as autonomous adults, are responsible for providing their children with opportunities.
Parents, furthermore, can legitimately bestow on and bequeath to their children the wealth they have legitimately earned. Society's legitimate intervention is restricted to providing, let us say, free public schools and enforcing anti-discrimination laws. This position may be ethically coherent; perhaps it can be given a sound logical foundation. It is, indeed, the task of libertarian political philosophy to do so. But this position is not consistent with equality of opportunity. We just cannot say that Fernando and Gabrielle, or Alicia and Bernard, face equal opportunities when the success of their lives will be vastly different, and quite predictably so, on account of features of their environments over which they have no control.
I have sketched some of the reasons that lead western, liberal democrats to advocate equality of opportunity, and spelled out what I think equality of opportunity entails. Rather, we find competing philosophical conceptions of equal treatment serving as interpretations of moral equality. These need to be assessed according to their degree of fidelity to the deeper ideal of moral equality Kymlicka , p.
With this we finally switch the object of equality from treatment to the fair distribution of goods and ills or bads. Many conceptions of equality operate along procedural lines involving a presumption of equality. While more materially concrete, ethical approaches, as described in the next section below, are concerned with distributive criteria; the presumption of equality, in contrast, is a formal, procedural principle of construction located on a higher formal and argumentative level.
What is here at stake is the question of the principle with which a material conception of justice should be constructed — particularly once the above-described approaches turn out inadequate. The presumption of equality is a prima facie principle of equal distribution for all goods politically suited for the process of public distribution. In the domain of political justice, all members of a given community, taken together as a collective body, have to decide centrally on the fair distribution of social goods, as well as on the distribution's fair realization. Any claim to a particular distribution, including any existing distributive scheme, has to be impartially justified, i.
Applied to this political domain, the presumption of equality requires that everyone, regardless of differences, should get an equal share in the distribution unless certain types of differences are relevant and justify, through universally acceptable reasons, unequal distribution. Tugendhat , ; , chap. This presumption results in a principle of prima facie equal distribution for all distributable goods. A strict principle of equal distribution is not required, but it is morally necessary to justify impartially any unequal distribution.
The burden of proof lies on the side of those who favor any form of unequal distribution. The presumption in favor of equality can be justified by the principle of equal respect together with the requirement of universal and reciprocal justification; that requirement is linked to the morality of equal respect granting each individual equal consideration in every justification and distribution.
Every sort of public, political distribution is, in this view, to be justified to all relevantly concerned persons, such that they could in principle agree. Since it is immoral to force someone to do something of which he or she does not approve, only reasons acceptable to the other person can give one the moral right to treat the person in accordance with these reasons. The impartial justification of norms rests on the reciprocity and universality of the reasons. Universal norms and rights enforced through inner or external sanctions are morally justified only if, on the one hand, they can be reciprocally justified, i.
In the end, only the concerned parties can themselves formulate and advocate their true interests. Equal respect, which we reciprocally owe to one another, thus requires respect for the autonomous decisions of each non-interchangeable individual Wingert , p. This procedural approach to moral legitimation sees the autonomy of the individual as the standard of justification for universal rules, norms, rights etc.
Only those rules can be considered legitimate to which all concerned parties can freely agree on the basis of universal, discursively applicable, commonly shared reasons.
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Equal consideration is thus accorded to all persons and their interests. In a public distribution anyone who claims more owes all others an adequate universal and reciprocal justification. If this cannot be provided, i. How could it be otherwise? Any unequal distribution would mean that someone receives less, and another more. Whoever receives less can justifiably demand a reason for he or she being disadvantaged. Yet there is ex hyphothesi no such justification. Hence, any unequal distribution is illegitimate in this case. If no convincing reasons for unequal distribution can be brought forward, there remains only the option of equal distribution.
Equal distribution is therefore not merely one among many alternatives, but rather the inevitable starting point that must be assumed insofar as one takes the justificatory claims of all to be of equal weight. The presumption of equality provides an elegant procedure for constructing a theory of distributive justice.
Boston Review: Equality and Responsibility by John E. Roemer
The following questions would have to be answered in order to arrive at a substantial and full principle of justice. What goods and burdens are to be justly distributed or should be distributed? There are various opinions as to which social goods comprise the object of distributive justice. Does distributive justice apply only to those goods commonly produced, i.
At present, the former approach is most apparent in Rawls and many of his adherents and critics follow Rawls in this respect. In the domain of public political distribution, the goods and burdens to be distributed may be divided into various categories. Such a division is essential because reasons that speak for unequal treatment in one area do not justify unequal treatment in another.
What are the spheres of justice into which these resources have to be grouped? In order to reconstruct our understanding of contemporary liberal, democratic welfare states, four categories seem essential: Despite views to the contrary, liberties and opportunities are seen in this view as objects of distribution. For all four categories, the presumption of equality is the guiding principle. The results of applying the presumption to each category can then be codified as rights. After dividing social goods into categories, we must next ask what can justify unequal treatment or unequal distribution in each category.
Today the following postulates of equality are generally considered morally required. Strict equality is called for in the legal sphere of civil freedoms, since — putting aside limitation on freedom as punishment — there is no justification for any exceptions. As follows from the principle of formal equality, all citizens of a society must have equal general rights and duties.
These rights and duties have to be grounded in general laws applying to everyone. This is the postulate of legal equality. In addition, the postulate of equal freedom is equally valid: In the political sphere, the possibilities for political participation should be equally distributed. All citizens have the same claim to participation in forming public opinion, and in the distribution, control, and exercise of political power.
This is the postulate — requiring equal opportunity — of equal political power sharing. To ensure equal opportunity, social institutions have to be designed in such a way that persons who are disadvantaged, e. In the social sphere, social positions, equally gifted and motivated citizens must have approximately the same chances at offices and positions, independent of their economic or social class and native endowments.
This is the postulate of fair equality of social opportunity. An unequal outcome has to result from equality of chances at a position, i. Since the nineteenth century, the political debate has increasingly centered on the question of economic and social inequality this running alongside the question of — gradually achieved — equal rights to freedom and political participation Marshall The main controversy here is whether, and if so to what extent, the state should establish far-reaching equality of social conditions for all through political measures such as redistribution of income and property, tax reform, a more equal educational system, social insurance, and positive discrimination.
The equality required in the economic sphere is complex, taking account of several positions that — each according to the presumption of equality — justify a turn away from equality. A salient problem here is what constitutes justified exceptions to equal distribution of goods — the main subfield in the debate over adequate conceptions of distributive equality and its currency.
The following sorts of factors are usually considered eligible for justified unequal treatment: These factors play an essential, albeit varied, role in the following alternative egalitarian theories of distributive justice. The following theories offer different accounts of what should be equalized in the economic sphere. Most can be understood as applications of the presumption of equality whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not ; only a few like strict equality, libertarianism, and sufficiency are alternatives to the presumption.
Every effort to interpret the concept of equality and to apply the principles of equality mentioned above demands a precise measure of the parameters of equality.
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We need to know the dimensions within which the striving for equality is morally relevant. What follows is a brief review of the seven most prominent conceptions of distributive equality, each offering a different answer to one question: Hence with the possible exception of Barbeuf , no prominent author or movement has demanded strict equality. Since egalitarianism has come to be widely associated with the demand for economic equality, and this in turn with communistic or socialistic ideas, it is important to stress that neither communism nor socialism — despite their protest against poverty and exploitation and their demand for social security for all citizens — calls for absolute economic equality.
The orthodox Marxist view of economic equality was expounded in the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx here rejects the idea of legal equality, on three grounds. In the first place, he indicates, equality draws on a merely limited number of morally relevant vantages and neglects others, thus having unequal effects; right can never be higher than the economic structure and cultural development of the society it conditions.
In the second place, theories of justice have concentrated excessively on distribution instead of the basic questions of production. In the third place, a future communist society needs no law and no justice, since social conflicts will have vanished. As an idea, simple equality fails because of problems that are raised in regards to equality in general.
It is useful to review these problems, as they require resolution in any plausible approach to equality. Should we seek to equalize the goods in question over complete individual lifetimes, or should we seek to ensure that various life segments are as equally well off as possible? Equality and efficiency need to be placed in a balanced relation. Often, pareto-optimality is demanded in this respect — for the most part by economists. A social condition is pareto-optimal or pareto-efficient when it is not possible to shift to another condition judged better by at least one person and worse by none Sen , chap.
A widely discussed alternative to the Pareto principle is the Kaldor-Hicks welfare criterion. This stipulates that a rise in social welfare is always present when the benefits accruing through the distribution of value in a society exceed the corresponding costs. A change thus becomes desirable when the winners in such a change could compensate the losers for their losses and still retain a substantial profit. In contrast to the Pareto-criterion, the Kaldor-Hicks criterion contains a compensation rule Kaldor For purposes of economic analysis, such theoretical models of optimal efficiency make a great deal of sense.
However, the analysis is always made relative to starting situation that can be unjust and unequal. A society can thus be close to pareto-optimality — i. For this reason, egalitarians claim that it may be necessary to reduce pareto-optimality for the sake of justice if there is no more egalitarian distribution that is also pareto-optimal. In the eyes of their critics, equality of whatever kind should not lead to some people having to do with less even though this equalizing down does not benefit any of those who are in a worse position.
A strict and mechanical equal distribution between all individuals does not sufficiently take into account the differences among individuals and their situations. In essence, since individuals desire different things, why should everyone receive the same? Intuitively, for example, we can recognize that a sick person has other claims than a healthy person, and furnishing each with the same things would be mistaken. With simple equality, personal freedoms are unacceptably limited and distinctive individual qualities insufficiently regarded; in this manner they are in fact unequally regarded.
Furthermore, persons not only have a moral right to their own needs being considered, but a right and a duty to take responsibility for their own decisions and their consequences. Working against the identification of distributive justice with simple equality, a basic postulate of virtually all present-day egalitarians is as follows: On the other hand, they are due compensation for inequalities that are not the result of self-chosen options.
For egalitarians, the world is morally better when equality of life conditions prevail. This is an amorphous ideal demanding further clarification. Why is such equality an ideal, and equality of what, precisely? By the same token, most egalitarians presently do not advocate an equality of outcome, but different kinds of equality of opportunity, due to their emphasis on a pair of morally central points: The opportunities to be equalized between people can be opportunities for well-being i.
It is not equality of objective or subjective well-being or resources themselves that should be equalized, but an equal opportunity to gain the well-being or resources one aspires to. Such equality of opportunity to well-being or resources depends on the presence of a realm of options for each individual equal to the options enjoyed by all other persons, in the sense of the same prospects for fulfillment of preferences or the possession of resources. The opportunity must consist of possibilities one can really take advantage of. Equal opportunity prevails when human beings effectively enjoy equal realms of possibility.
However, to strive only for equality of results is problematic. To illustrate the point, let us briefly limit the discussion to a single action and the event or state of affairs resulting from it. Arguably, actions should not be judged solely by the moral quality of their results as important as this may be. One also has to take into consideration the way in which the events or circumstances to be evaluated have come about. Generally speaking, a moral judgement requires not only the assessment of the results of the action in question the consequentialist aspect but, first and foremost, the assessment of the intention of the actor the deontological aspect.
The source and its moral quality influence the moral judgement of the results Pogge , sect. For example, if you strike me, your blow will hurt me; the pain I feel may be considered bad in itself, but the moral status of your blow will also depend on whether you were morally allowed such a gesture perhaps through parental status, although that is controversial or even obliged to execute it e.
What is true of individual actions or their omission has to be true mutatis mutandis of social institutions and circumstances like distributions resulting from collective social actions or their omission. Hence social institutions are to be assessed not solely on the basis of information about how they affect individual quality of life. A society in which people starve on the streets is certainly marked by inequality; nevertheless, its moral quality, i. Does the society allow starvation as an unintended but tolerable side effect of what its members see as a just distributive scheme?
Indeed, does it even defend the suffering as a necessary means, e. Or has the society taken measures against starvation which have turned out insufficient? In the latter case, whether the society has taken such steps for reasons of political morality or efficiency again makes a moral difference.
Hence even for egalitarians, equality of results is too narrow and one-sided a focus. In the contemporary debate, this complaint has been mainly articulated in feminist and multiculturalist theory. A central tenet of feminist theory is that gender has been and remains a historical variable and internally differentiated relation of domination. The same holds for so called racial and ethnic differences. These differences are often still conceived of as marking different values.
The different groups involved here rightly object to their discrimination, marginalization, and domination, and an appeal to equality of status thus seems a solution. However as feminists and multiculturalists have pointed out, equality, as usually understood and practiced, is constituted in part by a denial and ranking of differences; as a result it seems less useful as an antidote to relations of domination. In short, domination and a fortiori inequality often arises out of an inability to appreciate and nurture differences — not out of a failure to see everyone as the same.
To recognize these differences should however not lead to an essentialism grounded in sexual or cultural characteristics. In contemporary multiculturalism and feminism, there is a crucial debate between those who insist that sexual, racial, and ethnic differences should become irrelevant, on the one hand, and those believing that such differences, even though culturally relevant, should not furnish a basis for inequality: Neither of these strategies involves rejecting equality.
Rather, the dispute is about how equality is to be attained McKinnon , Taylor According to Walzer, relevant reasons can only speak in favor of distribution of specific types of goods in specific spheres — not in several or all spheres. Against a theory of simple equality promoting equal distribution of dominant goods, hence underestimating the complexity of the criteria at work in each given sphere the dominance of particular goods needs to be ended.
For instance, purchasing power in the political sphere through means derived from the economic sphere i. Actually, Walzer's theory of complex equality is not aimed at equality but at the separation of spheres of justice, the theory's designation thus being misleading. Any theory of equality should however follow Walzer's advice not to be monistic but recognize the complexity of life and the plurality of criteria for justice.
We thus arrive at the following desideratum: In any event, with a shift away from a strictly negative idea of freedom, economic liberalism can indeed itself point the way to more social and economic equality. For with such a shift, what is at stake is not only assuring an equal right to self-defense, but also furnishing everyone more or less the same chance to actually make use of the right to freedom e. Van Parijs , Steiner It is possible to interpret utilitarianism as concretizing moral equality — and this in a way meant to offer the same consideration to the interests of all human beings Kymlicka , pp.
From the utilitarian perspective, since everyone counts as one and no one as more than one Bentham , the interests of all should be treated equally without consideration of contents of interest or an individual's material situation. For utilitarianism this means that all enlightened personal interests have to be fairly aggregated.
The morally proper action is the one that maximizes utility Hare But this utilitarian conception of equal treatment has been criticized as inadequate by many opponents of utilitarianism. At least in utilitarianism's classical form — so the critique reads — the hoped for moral equality is flawed: And this, of course, conflicts with our everyday understanding of equal treatment.
Rather, according to generally shared conviction, equal treatment consistently requires a basis of equal rights and resources that cannot be taken away from one person, whatever the desire of others. In line with Rawls , pp. According to this view, unjustified preferences will not distort mutual claims people have on each other. Equal treatment has to consist of everyone being able to claim a fair portion, and not in all interests having the same weight in disposal over my portion.
Utilitarians cannot admit any restrictions on interests based on morals or justice. As long as utilitarian theory lacks a concept of justice and fair allotment, it must fail in its goal of treating all as equals. As Rawls , pp. The concept of welfare equality is motivated by an intuition that when it comes to political ethics, what is at stake is the individual's well-being. The central criterion for justice must consequently be equalizing the level of welfare. But taking welfare as what is to be equalized leads into major difficulties, which resemble those of utilitarianism.
If one contentiously identifies subjective welfare with preference satisfaction, it seems implausible to count all individual preferences as equal, some — such as the desire to do others wrong — being inadmissible on grounds of justice the offensive taste argument. Any welfare-centered concept of equality grants people with refined and expensive taste more resources — something distinctly at odds with our moral intuitions the expensive taste argument Dworkin a. However, satisfaction in the fulfillment of desires cannot serve as a standard, since we wish for more than a simple feeling of happiness.
A more viable standard for welfare comparisons would seem to be success in the fulfillment of preferences. A fair evaluation of such success cannot be purely subjective, rather requiring a standard of what should or could have been achieved. And this itself involves an assumption regarding just distribution; it is thus no independent criterion for justice. An additional serious problem with any welfare-centered concept of equality is that it cannot take account of either desert Feinberg or personal responsibility for one's own well-being, to the extent this is possible and reasonable. Represented above all by both Rawls and Dworkin, resource equality avoids such problems Rawls ; Dworkin b.
It holds individuals responsible for their decisions and actions, not, however, for circumstances beyond their control — race, sex, and skin-color, but also intelligence and social position — which thus are excluded as distributive criteria. Equal opportunity is insufficient because it does not compensate for unequal innate gifts. What applies for social circumstances should also apply for such gifts, both these factors being purely arbitrary from a moral point of view and requiring adjustment.
When prime importance is accorded an assurance of equal basic freedoms and rights, inequalities are just when they fulfill two provisos: Otherwise, the economic order requires revision. Due to the argument of the moral arbitrariness of talents, the commonly accepted criteria for merit like productivity, working hours, effort are clearly relativized. The difference principle only allows the talented to earn more to the extent this raises the lowest incomes.
Equality and Responsibility
Since Rawls' Theory of Justice is the classical focal point of present-day political philosophy, it is worth noting the different ways his theory claims to be egalitarian: First, Rawls upholds a natural basis for equal human worth: Fourth, Rawls proposes fair equality of opportunity. Fifth, Rawls maintains that all desert must be institutionally defined, depending on the goals of the society. No one deserves his or her talents or circumstances — all products of the natural lottery. Finally, the difference principle tends toward equalizing holdings.
Unequal distribution of resources is considered fair only when it results from the decisions and intentional actions of those concerned. Dworkin proposes a hypothetical auction in which everyone can accumulate bundles of resources through equal means of payment, so that in the end no one is jealous of another's bundle the envy test.
The auction-procedure also offers a way to precisely measure equality of resources: In the free market, how the distribution then develops depends on an individual's ambitions. In contrast, unjustified inequalities based on different innate provisions and gifts as well as brute luck should be compensated for through a fictive differentiated insurance system: Only some egalitarians hold inequality to be bad per se.
Most of today's egalitarians are pluralistic, i. Many egalitarians regard the moral significance of choice and responsibility as one of the most important other values besides equality. They hold that it is bad - unjust or unfair - for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own Temkin , 13 and therefore they strive to eliminate involuntary disadvantages for which the sufferer cannot be held responsible Cohen , The principle of responsibility provides a central normative vantage point for deciding on what grounds one might justify which inequality.
The positive formulation of the responsibility principle requires an assumption of personal responsibilty Cf. Unequal shares of social goods are thus fair if they result from the decisions and intentional actions of those concerned. Persons are themselves responsible for certain inequalities that result from their voluntary decisions; and they deserve no compensation for such inequalities, aside from minimal provisions in case of dire need see below. As autonomous individuals, we all, individually and subsidiarily, bear responsibility both for the consequences of our actions and for ameliorating unequal conditions.
This corresponds to the conditions of our shared life. Lake successfully manages to introduce the dramatis personae of the debate e. Journal of International Studies. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.
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