Rescuing Justice as Fairness from Norman Daniels

Daniels’ extension of FEO seems unacceptable, for it seems to collapse two issues that ought to remain distinct in any “social structural” account of equality of opportunity, such as the one Justice as Fairness provides.

As I see things, Daniels starts from a good point, but then spoils it. The good point is that you can extend FEO in a plausible way to deal with certain cases where equality in the access to health care is at issue. He spoils it because he wants to extend it to an altogether different type of cases.

Case 1. Here we have two individuals with roughly similar “natural endowments” (similar biological constitution) from different sectors of society (e.g. different socio-economic classes): P and R. Suppose that P is born in a poor family, which cannot afford health insurance, and as a result gets sick three times as often as R, who is born in a rich family. Because P gets sick so often, he fails to express and develop his talents to the same degree as R.

Daniels can appeal to our intuition about such cases to claim, quite plausibly,  that FEO extends to access to health care. After all it seems wholly correct to say that, just like unequal access to education, inequality in the access to health care affects opportunities between P and R, so that they end up with different social positions even if the two even if they are equally motivated and endowed .

Consider the second scencario (case 2). Here we have two individuals who are born with different “natural endowments” from the same sector of society: U and L. More precisely, U has a congenitally higher disposition to get sick than  L, and since none of them has access to high quality health care, U actually gets sick twice as often as L. Because of more days free of pain, U has a more successful education and gains access to a more rewarding professional career.

Ought case two figure as a violation of FEO? I think the answer is clearly: no! The case does not differ substantially from that of people born with different talents, for which equal access to opportunity according to Democratic Equality is not an issue. From the point of view of Democratic Equality, inequalities in income and wealth between U and L should satisfy the difference principle.

Daniels disagrees: he wants to extend FEO according to an intepretation that treats case 1 and case 2 as instances of the same scenario, while avoiding the “luck egalitarian” implication of his way of dealing with case 2 by placing a (seemingly arbitrary) constrain: only departures from normal functioning determine a violation of FEO.

I fail to see what could motivate Daniels’ solution, except wanting to respond to Sen’ and Arrows’ criticism of Rawls.


One response to “Rescuing Justice as Fairness from Norman Daniels

  1. I no longer believe what I have argued in this post. I now believe that Daniels’ extension of Rawlsian justice is by and large coherent with the underlying motivations of the Rawlsian framework. The distinction between social and natural fortune does not have a foundational status, but a derivative one (and Rawls is by no means semi-consequentialist, in Pogge’s sense – see section 3.5. of “Realizing Rawls” – at least at the most fundamental theoretical level). However, I do not believe Daniels did a very good job explaining what makes his extension f of Rawls truly Rawlsian, hence inviting such replies as the one stated in this post.
    To explain why a distinction between natural and social fortune matters morally in the Rawlsian framework – I now believe – it is necessary to considers publicity constraints over the agreement in the original position. What matters for Rawls is the way in which primary goods which escape the direct control of fundamental social institutions (that is, primary natural goods) fail the test of public assessability. That is true in general for natural dispositions to develop traits that are non-pathologic natural endowments. It is not true for disease and illness which limit our opportunities in a publicly recognizable way, which can thus, and for that reason, it makes sense to treat them as if they were social, rather than natural conditions. I’m currently working at a paper which develops this idea.

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