Social Equality: On The Aim Of Distributive Justice

Date of Award

May 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ken Baynes


egalitarianism, Rawls

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


One of the main debates in left political philosophy is that between social and luck egalitarians. Social egalitarians maintain that the aim of distributive of justice is to bring about socially equal relationships. By contrast, luck egalitarianism holds that the point of justice is ensure that distributive shares are unaffected by brute luck. In my dissertation, I defend social egalitarianism against luck egalitarianism through a series of essays on applied topics.

In Chapter One, I discuss Rawls's principle fair equality of opportunity (FEO), which states that the equally talented and motivated ought to have equal prospects of securing jobs and other positions of social advantage. Rawls gives this principle lexical priority over the difference principle (the principle that economic inequalities are just only when they work to maximally benefit the least advantaged), where this priority means that it is wrong to sacrifice FEO to realize more fully the aims of the difference principle. Many prominent luck egalitarians reject Rawls's contention that FEO is lexically prior. I show why they are mistaken.

In my second chapter, I discuss when FEO ought to obtain. Most philosophers think that FEO should obtain only once in peoples' lives - at the onset of adulthood - but I argue that we should reject one-off FEO. I show how the one-off view appears attractive only if we assume that luck egalitarianism is true. I maintain that once we embrace social egalitarianism, then we should endorse a different temporal conception of FEO. I argue that FEO should ultimately obtain intermittently throughout adults' lives.

In Chapter Three, I investigate where a concern for responsibility might fit into social egalitarian theories like Rawls's. I argue that we should amend the difference principle in the following way: those whose position the difference principle aims to maximally improve (the "least advantaged") should include only those persons that lack a range of other viable occupational options in higher economic tiers. In other words, the talented and skilled who occupy the lowest economic strata despite having better options available should be taxed at a higher rate than everyone else in the bottom income bracket. Talented and skilled people should expect as a matter of justice to contribute to production in such a way that efficiently makes use of their skills. By amending the difference principle in this way, I offer a unique approach to the concern for responsibility, which is distinct from what animates luck egalitarian criticisms of Rawlsian principles.

Finally, in Chapter Four, I investigate how, if at all, FEO should constrain parents' partial behavior toward their children. I argue that the most influential view about this - Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift's, which is motivated by luck egalitarianism - is implausibly restrictive. Nevertheless, Brighouse and Swift are right to contend that parents' behavior should be constrained to some extent. I then propose an alternative social egalitarian account that aims to avoid the negative implications of Brighouse and Swift's view.


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