[Paleopsych] Alexander Brown: If We Value Individual Responsibility, Which Policies Should We Favour?
checker at panix.com
Mon Jul 18 00:07:23 UTC 2005
Alexander Brown: If We Value Individual Responsibility, Which Policies
Should We Favour?
Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2005
[This article, which reassesses the role of individual responsibliity, could
not have been published a few years ago, as it takes away from the mandate of
the state to redistibute.]
Individual responsibility is now very much on the political agenda. Even those
who believe that its importance has been exaggerated by the political
right--either because the appropriate conditions for assigning responsibility
to individuals are rarely satisfied or because not enough is done to protect
individuals from the more harmful consequences of their past choices and
gambles--accept that individual responsibility is at least one of the values
against which a society and its institutions ought to be evaluated. One might
be forgiven for assuming, then, that we know exactly why individual
responsibility is important. The truth is otherwise. Surprisingly little
philosophical work has been undertaken to analyse and separate out the
different rationales that might be in play. Several possible reasons are
examined here including: utility, the social bases of self-respect, autonomy,
human flourishing and fairness. However, once we adopt a pluralistic view of
the value of individual responsibility we open up the possibility of value
conflict, which conflict can make it harder to arrive at definitive
prescriptions about which social policies best advance our concerns for
individual responsibility. It is nevertheless possible to draw at least some
conclusions about which policies we should favour. One important conclusion is
that sometimes it is better not to hold individuals responsible for their past
choices by denying them aid now, so that they might be better able to assume
individual responsibility at a later date.
The idea that each person bears a special responsibility for the success or
failure of his or her own life has long been a preoccupation of the political
right. It is argued that individuals should save for the future, rely on their
own hard work to satisfy their needs and adjust their personal ends to the
shares of resources they can reasonably expect to receive over the course of
their lives. A relatively recent development in normative egalitarian theory,
however, has meant that these ideas are no longer the preserve of the political
right. An important theme that has developed through the work of egalitarians
John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin is that whilst governments ought to show equal
concern for the lives of all citizens, not all inequalities are unfair. Rawls
and Dworkin argue that it is right to expect citizens to assume personal
responsibility for their own desires and preferences and so inequalities of
happiness and preference satisfaction do not raise a case for compensation .
A further implication is that since it would be unfair to force hardworking
taxpayers to support people who choose to be idle, individuals should be held
responsible for the trade-off they make between work and leisure, which means
that resulting inequalities of income should be born by the agents themselves
Fairness, then, offers one reason for adopting responsibility-sensitive welfare
policies. But I think it repays further investigation to consider more closely
why else individual responsibility is important. Whilst it is fairly obvious
that other reasons do exist, it is perhaps less well understood that these
different reasons (as well as different conceptions of fairness) do not entail
identical sets of responsibility-sensitive policies. One problem is that
insisting on individual responsibility for reasons of fairness may jeopardise
peoples future responsibility. So it can be difficult to arrive at definitive
prescriptions about which welfare policies best advance our concerns. In this
paper, however, I come down on the side of those responsibility-catering
policies which protect and promote peoples responsibility now and in the
In the first section I explore some of the history behind current philosophical
interest in the ideal of individual responsibility, including Elizabeth
Andersons recent polemic against normative egalitarian theory post-Dworkin.
Following on from this, section II introduces five rationales for promoting
greater individual responsibility. These are: utility (individual
responsibility tends to promote happiness and desire satisfaction),
self-respect (encouraging individuals to take greater responsibility for their
own lives and livelihoods can enhance their self-respect), autonomy (expecting
people to take individual responsibility for the success or failure of their
own lives is an important way of showing respect for their competence as
freethinking agents), human flourishing (individual responsibility is an
essential part of what it means to lead a good life), and fairness (assigning
responsibility to individuals for the situations in which they find themselves
can in some cases be the fairest way of resolving a conflict of interests
between taxpayers and welfare claimants).
Focusing on the examples of drug addicts, negligent drivers injured in road
traffic accidents, and people who prefer not to work, section III examines
potential sources of conflict amongst these reasons. In these cases holding
individuals responsible for their past mistakes can make them far less able to
assume responsibility later on.
Finally, section IV considers the wider implications of this value conflict and
examines whether it is nevertheless possible to elicit from the ideal of
individual responsibility (properly understood) something approaching a
coherent and attractive social welfare strategy. I defend two main conclusions.
The first is that if we deny the lexical priority of fairness, we should
protect peoples future responsibility in cases of value conflict. This means
that the State ought to intervene to help the victims of accidents who, as a
result of their own imprudence, have temporarily lost their capacities for
responsibility. The second conclusion is that ideally some taxpayers money
should be spent on giving people who are unemployed the practical support and
positive encouragement they need to assume greater responsibility for their own
livelihoods. In this section I also try to respond to the libertarian challenge
that these policies violate taxpayers rights and even the rights of people
whom we want to assume personal responsibility.
Current philosophical interest in individual responsibility owes much to the
work of Ronald Dworkin. In his two seminal articles on equality (first
published in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1981) Dworkin appeared to uncover
an important truth about equality, namely, that not all inequalities are
unfair--some inequalities are the responsibility of the individual. Dworkin was
certainly not the first contemporary philosopher to argue against flat
equality. Nozick, for example, had previously developed a powerful objection in
his stirring book, Anarchy, State and Utopia. For Nozick, it is a fallacy to
think that the State has at its disposal at any given time a pool of unattached
resources to redistribute as it sees fit. "There is no central distribution, no
person or group entitled to control all resources, jointly deciding how they
are to be doled out" . So the State does not have the right to redistribute
resources in the direction of equality. Similarly, F. A. Hayek argued that the
essence of liberty is when multitudes of individuals act on the basis of their
own knowledge and in pursuit of their own ends under the rule of law; this
liberty is undermined when State authorities intervene to promote a particular
result (equality say) . But whereas Nozick and Hayek appealed to fundamental
rights and individual liberty to argue against flat equality, Dworkin
demonstrated how subtler conclusions could be reached simply by focusing on the
ideas of fairness and individual responsibility.
For Dworkin, a society of equals is one in which the distribution of resources
at any given time is sensitive to peoples voluntary choices and "option luck"
but insensitive to their "brute luck" . This entails upholding those
inequalities of income and wealth that flow from choices about whether to
invest rather than consume, or to consume less expensively rather than more, or
to work in more rather than less profitable ways, but intervening (even in
market outcomes) to mitigate inequalities that reflect brute luck such as
shortfalls in peoples native endowments . In this way fairness justifies in
some cases, but limits in others, the redistribution of peoples income and
The fact that Dworkin incorporated responsibility-sensitivity into the debate
on distributive justice may not be all that surprising given the distributive
bias that has gripped academic work on justice over the past three decades .
But it should not be forgotten that individual responsibility has been prized
by another tradition for at least two centuries. Some historical perspective is
needed to understand this tradition.
The Poor Laws of England were an early attempt to improve the quality of life
and living conditions of the poor. But despite the laudable aims of the Laws,
critics argued that the overall effect was to remove a key incentive to hard
work and self-reliance. Whilst the Laws may have made some of the poor better
off materially, they made them worse off morally. Perhaps the clearest example
of this line of criticism can be found in Malthus Essay on the Principles of
The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand
to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole attention, and they seldom
think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving, they seldom
exercise it; but all that they earn beyond their present necessities goes,
generally speaking, to the alehouse. The poor law may, therefore, be said to
diminish both the power and the will to save, among the common people, and thus
to weaken one of the strongest incentives to sobriety and industry, and
consequently to happiness .
It is perhaps a gloomy picture of human nature that says when work is not
necessary to live, people tend not to work; that when having more children than
one can afford to look after triggers support from others, people tend not to
exercise birth control; and that when there is charity from government, there
is no incentive to save for the future and no reason not to spend all day in
the alehouse. But it is a picture that has endured in the work of the New
Right. In one of the defining studies of welfare policy in the twentieth
century, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 19501980, Charles Murray argued
that although American social welfare policy has aimed at helping the
poor--such as AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Families)--it has only
succeeded in eroding traditional moral distinctions and deepening their
In the 1950s, the reason for "getting people off welfare" was to keep them from
being a drag on the good people--meaning the self-sufficient people-- and to
rescue them from a degrading status. It was not necessary to explain why it was
better to be self-sufficient; it was a precondition for being a member of
society in good standing. In the late 1960s, with the attack on middle- class
norms and the rise of the welfare rights movement, this was no longer good
enough. Self-sufficiency was no longer taken to be an intrinsic obligation of
healthy adults .
The arguments of the New Right greatly influenced the politics of Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and it is perhaps a reflection of the electoral
success of conservative politics during this period that nowadays leaders of
all political parties, not just those on the conservative right, use the
language of individual responsibility to place themselves in a tradition of
thought that extols the virtues of hard work, delayed gratification, thrift,
and self-reliance. In the words of Tony Blair:
Our vision is of . . . [a] society where more opportunities, and more choices,
are matched by a greater responsibility on the part of individuals to help
Work is just one area of social welfare planning where the ethics of individual
responsibility has played a substantial role. The distribution and funding of
medical care is another example. It has been argued that people should assume
responsibility for their own health and so cannot expect the rest of society to
meet those medical needs that result from their taking unnecessary risks with
their health. The New Rights criticism of the National Health Service in the
United Kingdom, and of Medicaid and Medicare in the United States, is that
these schemes fail to recognise individual responsibility and in some cases
undermine it. The criticism is that when the State assumes responsibility for
peoples health care it removes the important link between conduct and
consequences and so effectively removes personal responsibility for ill health.
The upshot is that people lack the incentive to make prudent self-regarding
choices about their own health and may over time lose the capacity to do so
It is difficult to analyse this rich tradition of thought about the importance
of individual responsibility and boil it down to just a few policy
prescriptions, but among the proposals that have been put forward are: ability
testing for those seeking unemployment benefits to identify those who are
genuinely unable to work as opposed to just malingering; work opportunities for
the poor rather than handouts; social provision of basic health care services
but not for specialist treatment programmes for illnesses that are self-
inflicted; the transference of more and more medical costs, even for basic
health care services, away from social insurance schemes to the patients
themselves; the setting up of independent hospitals that manage their own
budgets and have the right not to treat those who are uninsured and cannot
afford to pay for treatment. Each of these policies upholds the following basic
principle: people ought to assume responsibility for their own welfare as
individuals and people who fail to do so are not entitled to the same level of
assistance as people who are unable to do so or who try to do so and then fail.
My aim in the next section of the paper is to investigate the appeal of this
principle and to explore more fully why individual responsibility matters. My
point so far is not that fairness provides an insufficient justification for
responsibility-sensitivity but that fairness is not the only value in play. The
reason I say this is that understanding the attraction of individual
responsibility may require answers to a range of questions. What do we owe to
each other? How should we live? What kind of society do we want to live in? And
answering these questions may in turn require an appeal to various
There is a further complication. Given the appeal of individual responsibility,
it might seem obvious that holding people responsible for the success or
failure of their own lives is morally desirable in all cases. Not so. In recent
years there have been some important philosophical objections to
responsibility-sensitivity in social welfare policy. Perhaps the most striking
objections appear in Elizabeth Andersons article, What is the Point of
Equality?. In this article Anderson argues (amongst other things) that strict
adherence to the idea of choice and responsibility entails treating individuals
in ways we have other egalitarian reasons not to want to treat them: that
hospitals may with fairness deny emergency medical treatment to uninsured
drivers injured as a result of their own negligent actions; that it is
acceptable to exclude certain sections of the disabled community from public
places if they are responsible for their own disabilities; that government
agencies should withhold disaster relief from farmers who knowingly set up
production in hazardous geographical areas; that society has a right not to
compensate police officers, fire fighters, and so on, for any injuries they
might suffer as a result of carrying out their dangerous duties; that we should
accept the present system of market-based rewards as the unintended result of
peoples free choices, even though the present system fails to recognise the
work undertaken by female carers in the home, leaving such women vulnerable to
exploitation, violence, and domination at the hands of men . For Anderson,
the more fundamental egalitarian task is to protect people from oppressive
social relationships and enable them to live as human beings and equal citizens
Whilst Andersons examples raise some important questions about responsibility-
sensitivity, luck egalitarians can make the following fairly obvious reply to
Anderson. Even if some individuals are responsible for the situations in which
they find themselves, it does not follow from this that distributive
arrangements ought to be based solely on the principle that voluntary
disadvantages deserve no compensation. The mere fact that some people face
social oppression or lack access to the capabilities necessary to function as
human beings and equal citizens may provide sufficient reason not to enforce
Nonetheless, in so far as insisting on individual responsibility can have
undesirable implications from an egalitarian or any other point of view, I
think it behoves us to be absolutely clear about why individual responsibility
matters. Only then can we judge whether or not these implications are out of
proportion with our aims in pursuing policies that are
responsibility-sensitive. Putting the same point another way, the claim that
personal responsibility is not the only thing that matters and should be
curtailed in respect of other, more traditional egalitarian concerns (social
exclusion, poverty, deprivation, oppression, and so on) is plausible, but to
make good this claim we must first consider the prior question of why
individual responsibility is important and what precise implications it has for
II. Why is Individual Responsibility Important? Support for policies which
promote individual responsibility can take many forms. One suggestion is that
we care about individual responsibility to the extent that it has beneficial
consequences for both individuals and society as a whole. But this suggestion
immediately raises two further questions. Firstly, what consequences do we care
about? And secondly, what should society do in respect of these consequences?
Utilitarianism provides some well-known answers to both questions.
In relation to the first question, classical utilitarianism will emphasise
pleasure and the absence of pain. In answer to the second question, it will
favour the greatest amount of pleasure all told. To see how this theory is
relevant to debates surrounding individual responsibility and social welfare,
consider the following question: should society, through the tax system,
redistribute money from the rich to the poor? At first glance it seems that
utilitarianism supports a policy of redistribution regardless of peoples
responsibility for being rich or poor. This is because money has diminishing
marginal utility: the more money people have, the less pleasure they derive
from additional amounts . However, a more sophisticated utilitarian
analysis of this question will also take account of the utility-enhancing
consequences of responsibility-sensitivity. What are these consequences?
For one thing, taxing the financial rewards given to hard-working
high-flyers--and in that sense ignoring any responsibility they might have for
their earnings--may reduce the satisfaction they derive from their work. It may
also reduce the incentive to work hard and thereby lower efficiency, innovation
and economic growth, which may in turn diminish overall utility. Requiring the
poor to work for their income may also increase utility. This might happen in a
number of ways such as: through the greater prosperity of those who take up
work, indirectly from an increase in the labour supply and reductions in social
exclusion and crime and, more directly, as a result of the satisfaction people
derive from earning their own keep . These are just some of the ways that
responsibility-sensitivity may enhance utility. So in the end utilitarianism
may support the policy of holding people responsible for earning their own
income and, therefore, of not taxing the rich for the sake of the poor.
The Social Bases of Self-Respect
Another noteworthy consequence is self-respect. This argument for individual
responsibility has to do with an alleged connection between individuals taking
control of their own lives and livelihoods and an increase in their
self-respect. In order to understand this argument it is necessary first to
know something about self-respect.
Self-respect is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down, but one thing we
can say with at least some degree of certainty is that it is not something we
can simply give to people like other ordinary material resources. Self-respect
is a feeling, sense, or impression one has of oneself. It has a psychological
standing. It also has a normative element. To see this, consider Stephen
Darwalls notion of "evaluative self-respect" . According to Darwall, this
kind of self-respect is predicated on our appraisal of ourselves as people. To
lack self-respect, in this sense, is to measure ourselves against the sort of
person we desire to be but then to form the impression that we come up short of
those standards. Although the object of evaluative self-respect is our own
character, conduct, power and so on, other people also help to shape the
perception we have. Not only do our interactions with others partly define the
standards of merit by which we come to measure ourselves, but they also offer a
constant test of whether or not we have lived up to those standards.
This last point helps us to see how self-respect can be linked to individual
responsibility. One of the ways in which people often develop self-respect is
through an awareness of their ability to take responsibility for their own
lives. To succeed in securing ones own long-term health and safety; to have
the self-mastery to develop and successfully pursue a realistic set of goals
and ambitions; to increase ones skills and work for a living--these are all
things that can enhance ones evaluation of oneself as a person with merit. The
basic point is that different facets of individual responsibility can be foci
for seeing ourselves in a favourable light. But how seriously should we take
self-respect as a reason to promote personal responsibility?
The idea that society should, through the social and economic instrumentality
of the State, promote self-respect is a conspicuous feature of current thinking
about social justice. This is due in large measure to the influence of John
Rawls. Even before the Commission on Social Justice in the United Kingdom
concluded that people have a right of self-respect , Rawls claimed that the
social bases of self-respect are perhaps the most important primary goods over
which society has responsibility . Rawls placed particular emphasis on the
link between work and self-respect . If jobs are not readily available in
the private sector, then perhaps jobs should be created in local government--so
great is the importance of self-respect . There is, of course, no
suggestion that encouraging greater individual responsibility through work is
the only way to promote self-respect. Other writers, for example, have
emphasised the role of co-operative ventures in promulgating self-respect,
where groups of individuals take mutual responsibility for their welfare .
But my central business in this section is merely to try to motivate the claim
that assisting people to work for a living can be a way of enhancing
self-respect, which is one of a number of reasons to favour
So there are, it seems, potentially a number of different benefits associated
with individual responsibility. Even so, would we still support
responsibility-catering policies if they failed to have these consequences--if,
for example, individual responsibility did not enhance self-respect? The short
answer is yes. Perhaps a life of individual responsibility has intrinsic value,
and this is what I want to explore now.
One reason for thinking that individual responsibility has intrinsic value is
that it characteristically involves the exercise of autonomy. To see how
individual responsibility might involve the exercise of autonomy, consider
Dworkins example of Louis, who develops expensive tastes for plovers eggs and
pre-phylloxera clarets as a result of reading magazine articles about
lifestyles of the rich and famous. Should he receive additional public funds to
help him pay for his new tastes? One reason for thinking that public funds
should not be made available is that people cannot fairly expect the rest of
society to foot the bill for the preferences they have freely developed .
Rawls, for example, believes that under a fair division of social
responsibility, citizens would be expected to adjust their personal ends to
reflect their reasonable expectations of income and wealth. Lack of preference
satisfaction as such would not raise a case for further redistribution .
This line of reasoning may or may not be sound-- Cohen and Anderson have
suggested that the proposed assignment of responsibility under equality of
resources is unsound on the grounds that unchosen preferences do raise a
legitimate case for compensation --but the point I wish to emphasise here
is that fairness is not the only justification for assigning responsibility to
individuals in this way. Another argument has to do with the value we place on
the exercise of autonomy.
Precisely this argument can be found in Bruce Landesmans article,
Egalitarianism. In this article Landesman considers Rawls suggestion that in a
just society it is the responsibility of the individual to adjust his or her
personal ends over time. Landesman claims that not only is this outcome just,
but also morally sound. He points out that part of this process of adjustment
is taking control of personal ends and altering them to fit changing
circumstances. And, according to Landesman, "it is a part of a persons good to
do this, an aspect of his autonomy and self-determination" . Thus, if
learning to revise our personal ends to better suit our situations (or else
delay gratification) is bound up with the exercise of our autonomy, which is,
in turn, a good thing, then allowing individuals to rely on taxpayers to
satisfy their expensive tastes would be, as Landesman puts it, "morally
The argument from autonomy is not exhausted by the example of well-being. In
the case of income and employment, conservatives insist that dependency on the
State is as bad for dependants as it is for taxpayers. It is argued that the
lot of the poor should be left to the reflections of those individuals who find
themselves in poverty, and not decided by welfare officials. This raises a
question about the legitimacy of the modern welfare state, which (to varying
degrees) allows people to rely on others to look after them. It has been
suggested that when people are dependent on welfare handouts, it is the State
and not they who exercise autonomy over what happens to them . In fact,
paternalism has been a major source of criticism against social welfare policy
dating as far back as the Poor Laws of England .
It can seem important, then, for the State to place responsibility with
citizens for what happens to them because such treatment shows respect for
autonomy. This respect has to do with adopting policies that treat people as
though they are competent to be left in charge of their own lives. No doubt
this involves a variety of different things, but responsibility-sensitivity is
certainly one way of showing respect for autonomy.
A different reason for valuing individual responsibility takes as its starting
point the following question: what is a good life? What is particularly
disturbing to some people about public dependency is not so much that it is
unfair to those on whom individuals are dependent, but what it says about, and
does to, the character of the person who is dependent. This argument is less
concerned with the assessment of actions in terms of whether or not
unemployment is a voluntary choice, and more with the character of the agent
who allows himself to be dependent on others. The Victorians, for example,
condemned the Poor Laws for fostering a range of vices including intemperance
and over population, but at the heart of the criticism was a concern for a
breakdown in the virtue of self-reliance. One develops the virtue of
self-reliance by acting as a self-reliant person does and the Victorians
believed that the Poor Laws prevented individuals from acting in this way.
Why is it good for a person to be self-reliant? There are many instances in
ordinary moral discourse where good is identified with what comes naturally
and this appears to be one of them. According to this interpretation,
self-reliance is a natural disposition that can be subverted by human
intervention such as social welfare provision. For example, in 1979 the
Conservative Party in the United Kingdom argued for the reform of the Welfare
State on the basis that humans naturally tend towards self-reliance. The
following passage is taken from its election manifesto:
We want to work with the grain of human nature, helping people to help
themselves--and others. This is the way to restore that self-reliance and
self-confidence which are the basis of personal responsibility and national
The suggestion, then, is that human beings characteristically and essentially
rely on their own powers to meet their needs--they forage, hunt, produce, or
else trade their talents in order to obtain the resources they need to survive;
they decide how, and when, to do these things and what degree of effort will be
required and for how long. So to be dependent on others even though one is
capable of looking after oneself, is to confound ones own nature. Dependency
in this sense is an alienating or dehumanising experience, something
antithetical to human flourishing.
We have seen that individual responsibility can be desirable both for its
beneficial consequences and for the intrinsic value such a life may contain.
But what other reasons might we have for caring about individual
responsibility? As I have already mentioned, some egalitarians stress a
connection between individual responsibility and fairness.
To see this connection, consider Dworkins example of the tennis player and the
market-gardener (a re-telling of Aesops classical fable of the Grasshopper and
the Ants). Suppose there are two equally talented people who share the same
social background and have an opportunity to privately own and use equally
valuable sets of ordinary material resources. One wants to be a market gardener
and selects land and raw materials that will allow him to produce as much of
what others want as possible. The other person wants a similar amount of land
and raw materials, but for use as a tennis court. Assuming the market gardener
is more successful at trading with other members of the community, he will soon
have a greater share of resources than the tennis player. What should we do?
Should we allow these inequalities to develop or should we force the market
gardener to hand over some of his resources to the tennis player in order to
maintain the status quo? Dworkins view is that people such as the tennis
player should be held individually responsible for the lives they have chosen
Equality requires that those who choose more expensive ways to live--which
includes choosing less productive occupations measured by what others
want--have less residual income in consequence . Some egalitarians, then,
uphold individual responsibility on grounds of fairness. However, I should make
it clear at this stage that there is as yet no settled view about the exact
link between fairness and individual responsibility. Even within the
egalitarian literature there are different ways of defining fairness and so the
link between fairness and individual responsibility needs to be qualified in
The first point is that there can be more than one rationale of fairness for
enforcing individual responsibility. Whereas some egalitarians (such as Cohen)
believe that the fundamental egalitarian impulse is both to eliminate the
influence of brute luck on distribution and to hold individuals responsible for
their voluntary choices, other writers (such as Rawls) light upon the idea of a
reasonable division of responsibility, which division takes account of the
decisions of moral agents placed under conditions of equality. The first
rationale says that those who are lazy (say) should be held responsible for
their lack of income in so far as this is a voluntary choice. The second
rationale says that that the lazy should be held responsible for their lack of
income in so far as this constitutes a reasonable division of responsibility.
Partly as a result of this, a second qualification is that egalitarians also
disagree about when it is right to enforce consequential responsibility on
individuals. Consider again the issue of unemployment. According to Rawls, a
reasonable division of responsibility is one in which people who prefer to surf
all day rather than work for a living are entitled to fewer resources, which
share reflects the extra leisure time they have at their disposal . Dworkin
also accepts the work requirement. He argues that within a hypothetical
insurance market that caters to the risk of being insufficiently talented to
earn at different levels of income, the most popular insurance policies would
be those that require policyholders to prove (as a condition of receiving any
payments) that the reason why their income falls below the insured level is
that they have insufficient talent and not simply that they choose to be
under-employed . Much the same insistence on work can be found in
Andersons article. Whilst she claims that everybody is entitled to access to
the capabilities necessary to function as human beings and equal citizens,
Anderson also insists that in the vast majority of cases individuals do not
have a right to unearned income, but should gain access to income via some type
of paid employment .
Nevertheless, Anderson draws a further distinction between idle surfers (say)
and non-wage-earning carers, who are entitled to recognition for their useful
contribution to society . In a similar vein Richard Arneson has argued that
principles of egalitarian justice should be sensitive to deservingness . On
this reading of fairness, we should treat differently the person who prefers to
surf all day rather than work for a living and the daughter who selflessly
devotes herself to the care of an infirm sibling or elderly parent.
Some egalitarians, however, argue that every citizen has a right to unearned
income whatever his or her daily activities. Andrew Levine, for example,
insists that governments have a responsibility to support even surfers--as a
requirement of liberal neutrality . Philippe Van Parijs defends a similar
right to unconditional basic income on the grounds that we value real freedom
for all . And Timothy Hinton supports a universal right to basic income on
the ground that everybody has a claim to an equal share of the worlds
resources, even those who do not work . There are, then, different ways of
Notwithstanding the above complications, in this section I have introduced five
main reasons for thinking that individual responsibility is important: utility,
the social bases of self-respect, autonomy, human flourishing and fairness. I
do not claim this list to be exhaustive. No doubt other significant reasons
have been left out. But I hope I have at least been able to motivate the claim
that fairness is not the sole justification for pursuing
responsibility-sensitive social welfare policies.
To illustrate this pluralism of values consider the issue of employment. One
reason for preferring individuals to earn their own means of subsistence is if
this maximises overall utility. A second reason is if it enhances peoples
self-respect. A third reason is that by expecting individuals to be
self-reliant we show respect for their autonomy. A fourth reason is that
earning ones own keep is part of a flourishing human life. A final reason is
that forcing taxpayers to support the voluntarily unemployed is, under certain
conceptions of fairness, exploitative or unfair. How are these reasons
Whilst fairness condemns the able-bodied freeloader who lives off the
hard-earned income of others, utility and self-respect do not condemn the
welfare scrounger as such. According to these values, there is nothing
intrinsically wrong with a life of idle dependency--only when it detracts from
utility and self-respect is this lack of individual responsibility bad. The
differences do not end here. Human flourishing will support policies designed
to help and encourage individuals back into the work-place, even if this is
more expensive than simply withdrawing benefits. Fairness, on the other hand,
is limited to the claim that the idle have no right to financial support.
Finally, respect for autonomy implies that although it would be a good thing
for individuals to take control of their lives by working for a living, the
State ought to respect peoples voluntary choices. So if an adult wants to lead
a life of idle leisure and fully appreciates what he or she might lose by not
having a job, respect for autonomy implies two things: firstly, that he or she
should have less residual income as a consequence; and secondly, that no undue
influence should be heaped on his or her decision not to work.
III. Value Conflict Perhaps if policy makers were in a position to take on
board and respond to these different reasons separately, each reason would
present no particular difficulty. Taken together, however, it might prove
difficult to construct a coherent approach. Once we introduce different values
we also introduce the possibility of value conflict. It is conceivable, for
example, that insisting on fairness and respect for autonomy will place limits
on the extent to which the State can advance the goals of human flourishing and
self-respect. Consider two examples.
Fairness, Autonomy and Human Flourishing
Imagine that someone has fallen into a lifestyle of heavy drug use, among the
effects of which are that he can no longer afford to satisfy his cravings or
control them. Let us suppose that he has caused the situation in which he now
finds himself. He may not have chosen to ruin his life, but let us assume for
the sake of this argument that his negligence in becoming hooked on this way of
life alone warrants this judgement. What should we do? Fairness would appear to
suggest that since he is responsible for the mess in which he finds himself, it
would be unfair to force taxpayers to pay for his mistakes. But suppose we
believe that taking control of ones own personal ends is an essential part of
what it means to lead a good life. Taking this into account, we may decide
instead not to abandon the addict to his stupor; we may decide that he should
have access to specialist care and therapeutic treatment for his addiction. The
basic thought is that if we wish to see him recover his capacity for
responsible agency, in the sense of conquering his addiction and taking
responsibility for his desires and desire satisfaction, at least some
taxpayers money should be spent on the relevant assistance to get him back on
track. It looks as though there is a conflict of values. On the one hand, we
may want him to recover his self-control. But on the other hand, we may also
want to uphold the demands of fairness and this implies that we should not
force taxpayers to pay for his treatment.
There are plenty of more familiar examples of this sort. Think of Andersons
case of the uninsured, negligent driver lying injured at the side of the road
. Do we seriously believe the ambulance should leave the man where he is
once it has been ascertained that he was responsible for the accident and has
no insurance? Surely not. Imposing consequential responsibility on him now may
result in his being unable to act more responsibly in the future. And yet we do
not want to ignore fairness. This is a responsibility-responsibility trade-off.
If we assist everybody, we protect peoples future responsibility and the
values of autonomy and human flourishing embodied therein, but we also unfairly
ignore the fact that some people are responsible for the situations in which
they find themselves. But if we do not offer assistance, we uphold fairness
potentially at the cost of not protecting his future responsibility.
Now some may suggest the following solution to these difficulties. The State
could make it a legal requirement that people who run certain types of risk buy
a minimum amount of insurance from approved private insurers. (Obviously in the
case of illegal activities such as drug taking the State would first need to
legalise the activity and find a way to register users.) The insurers then pay
out if people find themselves in the position of having to give up work and go
into drug rehab or undergo treatment for injuries suffered as a result of car
accidents for which they were responsible. Whilst this may limit peoples
autonomy in one sense, it ensures that people have access to the care they may
need at a later date, which in turn protects their future autonomy. In reply to
the potential criticism that this is paternalistic, it may be pointed out that
people often accept rules that require them to do things they know they should
do precisely because they realise--in their more reflective moments--that left
to their own devices they may fail to do these things through carelessness or
weakness of will. There is nothing disrespectful about this paternalism,
because it appeals to peoples own self-awareness.
On the surface, then, there does not appear to be any great difficulty in
accommodating fairness as well as concerns about peoples future
responsibility. Or is there? One problem with compulsory insurance is that it
may be difficult to collect premiums from individuals on a fair basis. Ideally,
people ought to buy insurance for each of the risks they run and pay different
amounts for their insurance depending on the degree of risk they expose
themselves to. Nevertheless, in practice some people may have insufficient
money to buy insurance at the premiums fixed by the insurance companies and
this may be due to their own choices about work, leisure and consumption rather
than any unfairness in the distribution of income opportunities. This means
that people who are unable to buy insurance but who nevertheless are minded to
run the risk and flout insurance rules will be left uninsured, subject to legal
sanction and without access to treatment if misfortune strikes. In order to
accommodate this problem, insurers could allow such people to buy the required
insurance coverage at discount prices and raise the premiums of people who buy
higher coverage to cover any slack in the premiums paid by the poor. In this
event, however, insurance rules become a form of redistribution of insurance
costs from the prudent to the imprudent. This result may protect peoples
future responsibility but it ignores fairness.
Perhaps then the State should take over the provision of insurance across a
range of dangerous activities and lifestyles. How might this make things
fairer? The answer is by requiring people to mutually insure themselves against
different sorts of risks. For example, forcing non-drug-takers to contribute to
an insurance scheme for drug rehab may be fair to the extent that it represents
a quid pro quo for forcing drug-takers to contribute to an insurance scheme for
risks they do not take. But the obvious difficulty with this suggestion is if
it is the same people taking all the risks, thereby placing an unfair share of
the burden on the generally more prudent.
Clearly the foregoing points do not constitute a knock-down objection to rules
requiring people to buy insurance. Perhaps in a society where there is an ethos
of personal responsibility everyone will put aside a fair amount of money for
insurance or else will refrain from engaging in activities for which they
cannot afford to buy insurance. Alternatively, taking people as they are,
perhaps we should not insist that individuals pay equal amounts for their
insurance after all. It may be that the capacities required for making prudent
choices about risk and insurance (and for avoiding bad outcomes whilst engaged
in risky activities) are a function of genetic endowment and upbringing rather
than personal responsibility--in which case, a degree of redistribution in
insurance costs is not an unfair result . I readily accept both of these
arguments. Instead, my point is that if some people do fail to set aside enough
money to buy their own insurance but insist on taking the risks anyway and if
this tendency is their own responsibility, then rules requiring people to buy
insurance cannot solve the problem of how to protect peoples future
responsibility whilst at the same time upholding fairness.
What about asking people to pay society back once they have recovered? This may
be possible in some cases, but we must also bear in mind the possibility that
some people might never be able to repay the debt. Some addicts, for example,
might be able take responsibility for their ends in the future and lead a
normal life but fail to earn enough to repay the cost of their treatment.
Others might be so damaged by their past experiences that they are unable to
work to support themselves financially. To take another example, an uninsured
driver might, with physiotherapy and special equipment, be able to work again
and purchase insurance against future accidents but could be left unable to pay
the cost of this assistance. The point is that sometimes a person might be able
to regain his capacity for responsible agency but is unable to repay society
the money it pays out to achieve this end.
I believe that reflecting on the foregoing practical considerations ought to
make us question why we value individual responsibility and whether fairness is
important value. If we also value individual responsibility because we think it
is a good way of life for people to lead, then sometimes it might be desirable
to waive personal responsibility now, so as to leave people more able to assume
responsibility later on.
Looking at the role of perspectives in social welfare policy can also help to
make clearer the tensions between different responsibility-supporting values.
Two perspectives seem especially relevant. From a backward looking perspective
we focus on the causes of misfortune, and in some cases we note that a person
has only himself to blame. The question defining this perspective can be stated
as follows: why should society help individuals who are responsible for their
own downfalls? As the Ants put it:
"What did you do this past summer?"
"Oh," said the grasshopper, "I kept myself busy by singing all day long and all
"Well then," remarked the ants, as they laughed and shut their storehouse,
"since you kept yourself busy by singing all summer, you can do the same by
dancing all winter" .
In contrast to this, from a forward looking perspective we consider what can be
done to change peoples behaviour for the better, and in some cases we realise
that a person can only be helped and encouraged to behave more responsibly in
the future if we do not withdraw aid. The point is that if the Ants do not
agree to help the Grasshopper, then he will probably starve to death and the
Ants will be unable to impress upon him the importance of working hard during
the summer. The question defining this alternative perspective can be expressed
in the following terms: what, if anything, can we do to foster a greater sense
of individual responsibility among individuals who, in the past, have failed to
take responsibility? 
Trying to give equal weight to both perspectives may highlight tensions within
our system of values. Whereas the backward looking perspective is often
motivated by considerations of fairness alone, the forward looking perspective
involves a much wider set of ethical concerns, such as the desire to promote
human flourishing. At the level of public policy the dilemma is this: should
we, on the one hand, enact a policy of offering treatment only to those drug
addicts, negligent drivers, and so on, who are capable of paying for it either
at the point of delivery or at a later stage, or should we, on the other hand,
enact a policy of assisting all drug addicts, negligent drivers, and so on,
regardless of their ability to pay now or later?
Fairness and Self-Respect
My case here is not limited to examples of people who suffer a temporary loss
in their capacity for responsible agency. The blind pursuit of fairness can
also detract from strategies designed to enhance self-respect. Take employment
as an example. Some egalitarians have developed a conception of
responsibility-sensitivity which, in the case of unemployment, implies that
people who are able to work and support themselves do not have a right to
taxpayers money. Under this proposal, the main task of welfare officials in
dealing with those who are unemployed would be to judge whether or not a
claimant has a valid excuse for being out of work. This certainly is one way of
catering to individual responsibility, but there are drawbacks with this type
of system. There is little or no evidence to suggest that this strategy can
increase levels of work among the most recalcitrant work-shy. On the contrary,
studies in the United States and Britain have shown that denying aid to people
who elect not to work is not sufficient for a change in their pattern of
behaviour and underlying work ethic. "Merely to deny aid does not tell people
what they should be doing instead of being dependent. It is not prescriptive
enough" . Why should we care? There are a number of reasons, but one
notable concern is that this may constitute a missed opportunity for promoting
the benefits of work and with it increased self-respect. By maintaining aid
there is always a chance that a person may, at a later stage, agree to learn
new skills and engage in job-searching behaviour. The result may be a new job
and an increase in self-respect.
Now I do not claim that maintaining aid is necessary for promoting work in
every case. Clearly there will be people for whom the threat of losing benefits
will be a powerful incentive to find work, and once in work they will have
self-respect because they no longer rely on the State. Nor do I claim that paid
employment is necessary for self-respect. There will be people whose
self-respect is not greatly influenced by lack of earned income one way or the
other: they do not need to earn a wage in the market place or be encouraged to
look for work to have a sense of their own value. Indeed, some people may
derive self-respect from engaging in leisure activities that they might not be
able to engage in if they worked for a living . I also do not deny that
promoting individual responsibility may have adverse consequences for some
people: there is the problem that in trying to encourage people to work we risk
humiliating, or setting up for a fall, people who are in fact incapable of work
. Nevertheless, from the fact that cutting aid does not always inhibit
efforts to promote work as one social basis of self-respect, it does not follow
that we do not have to take seriously the possibility that it might do so for
some people. Without the benefit of hindsight, we cannot know how someone would
have responded had the rules dealing with eligibility been drawn differently.
It all depends on the individual.
Furthermore, even if we accept the fact that there are other social bases of
self- respect besides paid employment, this does not mean we should ignore this
basis. If we are truly committed to promoting self-respect and we have reason
to suspect that lack of work and lack of support for work can detract from the
social bases of self-respect in an important way, then perhaps we should
suspend our obsession with fairness for a moment--an obsession that tends to
focus all our efforts on weeding out unworthy or bogus claimants--and spend at
least some taxpayers money on initiatives that are aimed at directly
challenging the behaviour and work ethic of those who are habitually unemployed
In this section I have explored potential sources of conflict between different
responsibility-supporting values. However, I should emphasise before we go any
further that my argument is limited in scope. I claim only that conflict can
arise given some conceptions of fairness and under some circumstances. I do not
say that value conflict will arise no matter how fairness is defined and no
matter what the circumstances might be.
By way of illustration, so far I have focused on a reading of fairness that
says people who "get themselves into trouble" are not entitled to public
assistance. On this reading of fairness, since the drug addict negligently
allowed himself to fall into this lifestyle and the jobless man is voluntarily
unemployed, they do not have a right to redistribution. Yet, as mentioned
above, there are other conceptions of fairness. Some egalitarians believe that
everyone is entitled to real freedom or an equal share of the worlds resources
and, therefore, that even the drug addict and the jobless man have a right to
income from the State. Perhaps the value conflict will disappear if the world
is organised around this conception of fairness. How so?
If someone with a recreational drug habit has a steady stream of income he will
either be able to pay for insurance against addiction or buy the drugs he needs
should he become an addict. The second option may not be everyones idea of a
fully flourishing life, but at least he is taking responsibility for his own
ends, in one sense, since he is paying for what he wants with the share of
resources he can fairly expect to receive. It may be possible to construct a
similar argument in the case of the jobless man. With a steady stream of income
he can fend for himself and, though he does not work for a living, this public
recognition by others may provide an alternative source of self-respect.
The key point, then, is that forms of responsibility-sensitivity that might be
appropriate under some conceptions of fairness might not be appropriate when
fairness is defined differently. This means that there are fairness rationales
that do and there are fairness rationales that do not support the claims of the
drug addict and the unemployed man to unconditional income. A further
implication is that if there is value-conflict, it is contingent on how
fairness is fleshed out.
IV. Which Policies Should We Favour? It is tempting to say that we value
individual responsibility for each of the reasons that have been considered
here. If this is true, then selecting a suitable regime of individual
responsibility may not be easy. Yet I believe the foregoing arguments do have
at least some practical implications for social welfare policy, which
implications I now want to try to bring out.
Initially, one implication is that if we value individual responsibility not
simply for reasons of fairness but also for autonomy and human flourishing
(say), in some cases we have reason not to hold people individually responsible
for the adverse consequences of their past choices by denying aid, so that they
might be better able to assume responsibility or lead a more responsible life
later on. What does this mean? For one thing it means that the State ought to
protect the capacity for responsible agency of all citizens. This implies that
drug addicts should have access to specialist treatment regardless of their
ability to pay and that negligent drivers should be taken to hospital and cared
for even if they are uninsured .
However, this assumes that of the collection of values discussed in this
article (utility, the social bases of self-respect, autonomy, human flourishing
and fairness) fairness is not lexically prior and so can be trumped in cases of
conflict. Nonetheless, some may insist that fairness is the dominant value and,
therefore, should take priority. On this view, if upholding fairness means
enforcing consequential responsibility on individuals at certain times by
denying them aid, then we should do so whatever the consequences.
Admittedly, if this is the view one takes of fairness and its priority amongst
other values, this is the conclusion one should draw. But I should make it
clear at this stage that this is not the only view on offer. Some may believe
that it is more important to help people recover their capacity for responsible
agency because of utility or self- respect or autonomy or human flourishing
than it is to insist that people bear the consequences of their past choices
for reasons of fairness. I do not intend to try and settle this argument here.
Instead, I merely suggest that accepting other responsibility- supporting
values besides fairness opens up certain dilemmas about social policy and that
resolving these dilemmas by asserting the lexical priority of fairness is far
from self-evidently correct.
There is, however, a further wrinkle. Libertarians may claim that it is morally
insupportable for the State to intervene to protect responsibility in the ways
specified above. How so? Libertarians argue from the value of autonomy to very
strong rights of non-interference to life, liberty and property. The basic
thought is that since it is valuable for individuals to select a way of life
that best suits them and for them to act in accordance with this
self-determination, it is morally fitting that they should have a protected
sphere of property and action. So even if we agree both that individual
responsibility can lead to self-respect and can itself embody autonomy and
human flourishing, which are perceived as good things, and that moral agents
ought to pursue individual responsibility in their own lives and ought to help
others to pursue it in theirs, it does not follow from this that the State
ought to enforce this as a collective activity. On the contrary, libertarians
may insist that people have rights to property and the State violates those
rights by forcing them to contribute to responsibility- protection. On this
view, getting people off drugs (say) is rightly a matter for private
individuals and charities to pursue, perhaps with some special responsibility
falling on family members.
This is one example of a standard libertarian argument against
welfare-supporting intervention by the State. It rests on the claim that
individual citizens have an inviolable right to live in society and retain
their income and wealth without being forced to take a part in the welfare of
others. However, accepting the value of autonomy does not entail
libertarianism. An opposing view is that if part of the justification for very
strong rights to non-interference is that we value autonomy, then it is morally
appropriate to leave a proportion of peoples income and wealth outside of the
protected sphere in order to fund autonomy-protecting policies. Otherwise
libertarianism is bound to lead to some peoples misadventures going untreated,
which, in turn, will have an adverse effect on their future autonomy. On this
view, it is acceptable to impose taxes on people who are capable of exercising
individual responsibility to ensure the same capacity for all. None of this is
intended to demonstrate that autonomy cannot be used to justify at least some
very strong rights to non-interference. Rather, the point is that using
autonomy to justify the very strong rights of taxpayers to reap all of the
rewards of their labours is questionable in situations where the result is
detrimental to autonomy.
A second major implication of my investigation is that ideally some taxpayers
money should be spent on giving people who are unemployed the practical support
and positive encouragement they need to assume greater responsibility for their
own livelihoods. I do not claim that valuing this type of individual
responsibility logically entails government action to promote it, but I do
think it offers a practical reason to act. This reason takes the following
form: if we value A, and doing X, Y and Z will help to foster A, then we have a
prima facie reason to do X, Y and Z. This can be done in different ways such
as: by giving the idle access to income from the State in so far as this
enables officials to exert influence over their attitudes and behaviour and
encourage them to assume responsibility in the future; free or subsidised
education and training; free or subsidised travel and child care; tax
exemptions; perhaps a limited role for society as an employer of last resort.
However, at this stage in the argument I may face the following objection. Is
not individual responsibility about being proactive, acting on ones own
initiative and relying solely on ones own resources to make both ends meet? If
this is true, then surely it is muddled thinking to believe both in the value
of individual responsibility and that government should intervene to encourage
individuals to assume responsibility. This is an interesting objection but I do
think it has an answer. Perhaps in an ideal world individuals would assume
responsibility for their own lives spontaneously. But it does not follow from
this that lesser degrees of individual responsibility are worthless. We may
value acts of individual responsibility that flow from individual initiative
above acts of individual responsibility that result from government
intervention. Even so, holding this view about the relative value of acts of
individual responsibility is perfectly consistent with the claim that all acts
of individual responsibility can be valuable.
The discussion to this juncture has brought us to the suggestion that because
we value individual responsibility government should pursue efficient means to
foster it. But another issue must also be addressed. Do the ends justify the
means? To answer this question we must surely start with an assessment of how
much we value individual responsibility. According to this justification, it
must be shown that we place sufficiently high value upon individual
responsibility to warrant the costs involved and that there is no alternative
policy that would yield the same result at lesser cost. This then requires a
response to the further question: how can it be shown that the society in
question values individual responsibility? No doubt there are different ways of
showing that we value individual responsibility, but presumably the clearest
expression is through the decision of voters to accept the policy.
In addition to this we must bear in mind the libertarian challenge that people
have rights and there are things no government may do to them or make them do
without violating their rights. In respect of responsibility-protection, I have
argued that the State is justified in levying taxes on people in order to
protect the capacity for responsible agency of everyone, including those who
get themselves into trouble. But the present case is different. The question is
this: what right does the State have to force taxpayers to fund
I accept that the libertarian challenge is more difficult to accommodate in
this case. There are nevertheless two possible counters to this challenge. One
counter is that, although people should be able to exercise their autonomy and
decide what ends they want to promote, in a democracy people agree by means of
voting to abide by the decision of the majority. So if the majority of voters
are in favour of responsibility- supporting policies, the minority are bound by
this decision and their rights are not violated.
However, even if the argument from democracy is denied by libertarians, a
second counter is that although individuals have rights of non-interference to
life, liberty and property, they also have rights to other things including the
social bases of self-respect. The basis of this counter is that because
self-respect plays such a crucial part in making life worth living, the State
has a responsibility to secure the social bases of self-respect. Thus, in so
far as work is one of the most important social bases of self-respect, the
State ought to secure the means to foster it .
A further desideratum is that the proposed means for promoting individual
responsibility should respect the autonomy of those targeted. As I have already
noted, the political right has often criticised welfare-supporting intervention
by the State on the grounds that it is paternalistic. It is conceivable that
the same charge will be levelled against State intervention aimed at fostering
acts of individual responsibility. But, in reply to this concern, it is a
further implication of my investigation that even if most people within a
society endorse a conception of the good that extols hard work, delayed
gratification, self-reliance, and so on, the State is not entitled to impose
this conception on its citizens. Now this does not mean that governments should
refrain entirely from espousing views about human flourishing. Governments
often express views about how people can best look after their own interests.
But it does imply that governments should be careful about how they advance
work (say) as the best way of life-- for example, single unemployed mothers
should not be made to feel as though they are doing something wrong by not
earning a living in traditional labour markets. Officials may offer guidance
about how best to make work pay, but ultimately they should respect the sincere
belief of many single unemployed mothers that staying at home to look after
their children is the best outcome for them (and their children) .
Whilst I hope the above policy prescriptions are plausible, I am aware that
they complete only part of the picture. Inevitably there will be more detailed
questions about how, more exactly, policies should be defined and implemented.
Suppose we believe that people should have access to medical and therapeutic
treatment if this will help them recover their responsibility--what if a person
continually drops out-- should he or she continue to receive the opportunity?
And suppose we believe that the idle should receive income from the State in
the hope that they might assume responsibility later--for how long should we
make this income available? When do we cut our losses? And if a society does
take up the challenge of promoting individual responsibility through work
(say)--just how far may it pursue this end? Exactly how much money should be
spent and what kind of encouragement is legitimate?
It is conceivable that political philosophy may have something useful to say
towards the resolution of even these awkward questions. Dworkin, for example,
looks to both real and hypothetical insurance markets to determine more
precisely the proper division between individual and collective responsibility
. More likely, however, is that when we are faced with detailed questions
about how responsibilities for social welfare should be divided--where
practitioners have to implement principles of distributive justice, achieve
political goals and treat individuals with respect, but at the same time
respond to the views of voters and the practical demands of efficiency and
cost--a variable approach is needed, in which policies are adjusted as and when
the balance shifts too far in the direction of any single value. So even if we
agree that individual responsibility is important, and for a number of reasons,
in the end we may just have to accept the fact that there are no simple answers
to questions about which policies we should favour.
Let us take stock. We have seen that there are many rationales for pursuing
responsibility-catering policies and, furthermore, that these reasons do not
always support enforcing consequential responsibility. So, in light of all
this, should egalitarians continue to advance principles which are
responsibility-catering? Nothing I have said so far implies that egalitarians
should abandon responsibility-sensitivity in favour of flat equality. What I
have tried to show is merely that what we mean by "responsibility-sensitivity"
and "responsibility-catering policy" depends on the particular values in play.
Even so, I do think egalitarians should be more aware that fairness is not the
sole reason why individual responsibility matters and may not even be the most
However, if egalitarians do take on board this last mentioned point, will those
various objections to responsibility-sensitivity set out in Andersons article,
What is the Point of Equality? continue to be important? My tentative answer is
that if egalitarians do accept a pluralistic view of the value of individual
responsibility, then egalitarian theory will be susceptible to fewer of the
objections put forward by Anderson. Obviously, to investigate this question
fully we should consider all of the objections raised by Anderson, but for
reasons of brevity I shall try to make do with one illustration.
Consider again Andersons case of the uninsured driver lying injured at the
side of the road. According to Anderson, accepting the requirement of
responsibility- sensitivity entails that it would be acceptable to withhold
assistance. But I hope I have been able to demonstrate that there is no such
entailment. The reason, as we have seen, is that sensitivity to individual
responsibility can mean different things depending on which value is most
important in any given case. If treatment will help the driver to assume
responsibility at a later date, either in the sense that he will be able to
repay the debt or at least return to work and purchase insurance against future
accidents, then the may well be justified.
This raises one final question: what should we do in cases where there is no
reason of responsibility to intervene--where someone is responsible for the
situation in which he now finds himself and there is no hope of helping him
assume responsibility in the future? Reflecting on what I have argued so far I
hope the reader will not assume I am suggesting that responsibility is all that
matters. I do not think this. A society may have other reasons--let us call
them humanitarian reasons--to assist people whose chances of future
responsibility are at best slight. That we should relieve suffering and help
the stricken is a moral injunction that does not, and need not, rely on the
assumption that we are thereby placing people in a better position to assume
responsibility later. Sometimes we are not. Nevertheless, arguably it is a
matter for each society to decide the relative importance of humanitarian aid
and holding people responsible for the consequences of their voluntary choices,
and there is no guarantee that any society will decide to give priority to
Alexander Brown, Department of Philosophy, University College London, Gower
Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK. alex.brown at ucl.ac.uk
Much of this paper derives from my University of London Ph.D. research on
individual responsibility. In this respect I am indebted to Jonathan Wolff, not
only for his many useful observations and suggestions but also for his patient
support. In addition to this I must record my gratitude to Alex Voorhoeve for
his helpful thoughts on early drafts of this paper and Richard Arneson for his
encouragement of my inquiry. Finally, I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers
for their valuable comments.
 See J. Rawls (1982) Social unity and primary goods, in A. Sen and B.
Williams (eds) Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press), and R. Dworkin (1981) What is equality? Part 1: equality of welfare,
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10, pp. 185-246.
 See R. Dworkin (1981) What is equality? Part 2: equality of resources,
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10, pp. 283-345, and J. Rawls (1996) Political
Liberalism (New York, Columbia University Press), esp. pp. 181-182n.9.
 R. Nozick (1974) Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford, Blackwell), p. 149.
 See F. A. Hayek (1960) The Constitution of Liberty (London, Routledge), ch.
15, and (1976) Law, Legislation, and liberty Volume 2: The Mirage of Social
Justice (Chicago, University of Chicago Press), ch. 9.
 Dworkin, Equality of resources, p. 293.
 Ibid., p. 311.
 For an interesting discussion of this distributive bias see I. M. Young
(1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, Princeton University
 R. Malthus (1992) An Essay on the Principles of Population (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press), p. 101.
 C. Murray (1984) Losing Ground (New York, Basic Books), p. 180.
 Forward in D. Blunkett (2001) Towards Full Employment in a Modern Society
(Norwich, HMSO), p. vi.
 See V. George and P. Wilding (1994) Welfare and Ideology (New York,
Harvester Wheatsheaf), pp. 31-32.
 E. Anderson (1999) What is the point of equality? Ethics, 109, pp.
 Ibid., p. 312.
 For further analysis of this argument see K. Arrow (1971) A utilitarian
approach to the concept of equality in public expenditures, Quarterly Journal
of Economics, 85, p. 409.
 See, for example, R. Arneson (1990) Is work special? Justice and the
distribution of employment, American Political Science Review, 84, p. 1132.
 S. Darwall (1977) Two kinds of respect, Ethics, 88, pp. 36-49.
 Commission on social justice (1993) The Justice Gap (London, Institute for
Public Policy Research), p. 16.
 J. Rawls (1971) A Theory of Justice (Oxford, Oxford University Press), p.
 Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. lix.
 See D. Schmidtz (1998) Taking responsibility, in D. Schmidtz and R. Goodin
(eds) Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility (Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press), pp. 93-4.
 See Dworkin, Equality of welfare.
 Rawls, Political liberalism, p. 186.
 See G. A. Cohen (1989) On the currency of egalitarian justice, Ethics, 99,
pp. 906-944, and R. Arneson (1989) Equality and equal opportunity for welfare,
Philosophical Studies, 56, pp. 77-93.
 B. Landesman (1983) Egalitarianism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 13, p.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 D. Willets (1992) Modern Conservatism (London, Penguin), p. 150.
 See, for example, J. S. Mill (1994) Principles of Political Economy
(Oxford, Oxford University Press), p. 132.
 Quoted in R. E. Goodin (1998) Reasons for Welfare (Princeton, Princeton
University Press), p. 336.
 Dworkin, Equality of resources, p. 327.
 See Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. 181-182n.9, and (2001) Justice as
Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press), p. 179.
 Dworkin, Equality of resources, p. 326.
 Anderson, op. cit. pp. 316-318, 321, 328.
 Ibid., pp. 323-4.
 R. Arneson (1997) Egalitarianism and the undeserving poor, The Journal of
Political Philosophy, 5, pp. 327-350.
 A. Levine (1998) Rethinking Liberal Equality (New York, Cornell University
 See P. Van Parijs (1991) Why surfers should be fed: the liberal case for
an unconditional income, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20, pp. 101-131, and
(1995) Real Freedom for All (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
 T. Hinton (2001) Must egalitarians choose between fairness and respect?
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 30, pp. 72-87.
 Anderson op. cit. pp. 295-6.
 For one version of this view see R. Arneson (1997) Postscript to Equality
and equal opportunity for welfare, in L. Pojman and R. Westmoreland (eds)
Equality (New York, Oxford University Press), p. 239. I ignore here Andersons
recent objection that: "In adopting mandatory social insurance schemes for the
reasons they offer, luck egalitarians are effectively telling citizens that
they are too stupid to run their lives, so Big Brother will have to tell them
what to do. It is hard to see how citizens could be expected to accept such
reasoning and still retain their self-respect." Anderson op. cit. p. 301.
 Aesop (1996) Aesops Fables (London, Penguin), p. 11.
 A similar differentiation of perspectives can be found in Schmidtz op.
cit., p. 6.
 L. Mead (1997) From welfare to work, in A. Deacon (ed) From Welfare to
Work (London, IEA Health and Welfare Unit), p. 20.
 Catriona McKinnon has recently defended unconditional basic income for all
precisely on this basis. See C. McKinnon (2003) Basic income, self-respect and
reciprocity, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 20, p. 148.
 For more on this see J. Wolff (1998) Fairness, respect, and the
egalitarian ethos, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 27, pp. 97-122. A similar
point is made by Arneson in his is work special? p. 1133.
 On Rawls interpretation, the aim of keeping people as close as possible
to the ideal of citizens as normally functioning and fully co-operating members
of society is no less directed at people whose functioning falls below that
ideal due to lifestyle choices, than at any other citizen. So, even where an
individual is responsible for his or her own misfortune, the social contract
argument generates principle of justice which direct the State to restore
people by medical or psychiatric treatment as required. See Rawls, Political
Liberalism, p. 185n.15, and Justice as Fairness, p. 175. Much less clear is
what Rawls thought about the costs of securing basic health care for all and
whether they should fall equally on society at large or in differing degrees to
specific individuals and groups of individuals depending on their degree of
responsibility. But whatever he thought about this, it is difficult to
interpret Rawls as claiming that hospitals can turn people away with justice,
if it is ascertained that they have no insurance and cannot afford to pay.
 See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 440, and Political Liberalism, p. lix.
 Anderson reaches much the same conclusion: op. cit. pp. 323-324.
 See Dworkin, Equality of resources, and (2000) Sovereign Virtue
(Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press), ch. 9.
More information about the paleopsych