[Paleopsych] Alexander Brown: If We Value Individual Responsibility, Which Policies Should We Favour?

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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 [1]. 
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 
people’s 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 people’s 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 
Anderson’s 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 people’s 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.

I. Background

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" [3]. 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) [4]. 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 people’s voluntary choices and "option luck" 
but insensitive to their "brute luck" [5]. 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 people’s native endowments [6]. In this way fairness justifies in 
some cases, but limits in others, the redistribution of people’s 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 [7]. 
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 [8].

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 1950–1980, 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 [9].

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

themselves [10].

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 Right’s 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 
people’s 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 
responsibility-supporting values.

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 Anderson’s 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 
people’s 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 [12]. 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 Anderson’s 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 
consequential responsibility.

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 
public policy.

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 people’s 
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 [14]. 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 [15]. 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 
Darwall’s notion of "evaluative self-respect" [16]. 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 one’s 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 one’s skills and work for a living--these are all 
things that can enhance one’s 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 [17], Rawls claimed that the 
social bases of self-respect are perhaps the most important primary goods over 
which society has responsibility [18]. Rawls placed particular emphasis on the 
link between work and self-respect [19]. 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 [20]. 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 [21]. 
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 
individual-responsibility-promoting policies.

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 
Dworkin’s 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 [22]. 
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 [23]. 
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 [24]--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 Landesman’s 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 person’s good to 
do this, an aspect of his autonomy and self-determination" [25]. 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 
inappropriate" [26].

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 [27]. In fact, 
paternalism has been a major source of criticism against social welfare policy 
dating as far back as the Poor Laws of England [28].

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.

Human Flourishing

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 
success [29].

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 one’s 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 Dworkin’s example of the tennis player and the 
market-gardener (a re-telling of Aesop’s 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? Dworkin’s view is that people such as the tennis 
player should be held individually responsible for the lives they have chosen 
to lead.

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 [30]. 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 
two ways.

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 [31]. 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 [32]. Much the same insistence on work can be found in 
Anderson’s 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 [33].

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 [34]. In a similar vein Richard Arneson has argued that 
principles of egalitarian justice should be sensitive to deservingness [35]. 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 [36]. Philippe Van Parijs defends a similar 
right to unconditional basic income on the grounds that we value real freedom 
for all [37]. And Timothy Hinton supports a universal right to basic income on 
the ground that everybody has a claim to an equal share of the world’s 
resources, even those who do not work [38]. There are, then, different ways of 
interpreting fairness.

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 people’s 
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 one’s 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 people’s 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 one’s 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 Anderson’s 
case of the uninsured, negligent driver lying injured at the side of the road 
[39]. 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 people’s 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 people’s 
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 people’s own self-awareness.

On the surface, then, there does not appear to be any great difficulty in 
accommodating fairness as well as concerns about people’s 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 people’s 
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 [40]. 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 people’s 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 
the most

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

night, too."

"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" [41].

In contrast to this, from a forward looking perspective we consider what can be 
done to change people’s 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? [42]

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" [43]. 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 [44]. 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 
[45]. 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 
or under-employed.

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 world’s 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 everyone’s 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 [46].

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 people’s income and wealth outside of the 
protected sphere in order to fund autonomy-protecting policies. Otherwise 
libertarianism is bound to lead to some people’s 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 one’s own 
initiative and relying solely on one’s 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 [47].

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) [48].

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 
[49]. 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 
important reason.

However, if egalitarians do take on board this last mentioned point, will those 
various objections to responsibility-sensitivity set out in Anderson’s 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 Anderson’s 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] R. Nozick (1974) Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford, Blackwell), p. 149.

[4] 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.

[5] Dworkin, Equality of resources, p. 293.

[6] Ibid., p. 311.

[7] For an interesting discussion of this distributive bias see I. M. Young 
(1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, Princeton University 

[8] R. Malthus (1992) An Essay on the Principles of Population (Cambridge, 
Cambridge University Press), p. 101.

[9] C. Murray (1984) Losing Ground (New York, Basic Books), p. 180.

[10] Forward in D. Blunkett (2001) Towards Full Employment in a Modern Society 
(Norwich, HMSO), p. vi.

[11] See V. George and P. Wilding (1994) Welfare and Ideology (New York, 
Harvester Wheatsheaf), pp. 31-32.

[12] E. Anderson (1999) What is the point of equality? Ethics, 109, pp. 

[13] Ibid., p. 312.

[14] 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.

[15] See, for example, R. Arneson (1990) Is work special? Justice and the 
distribution of employment, American Political Science Review, 84, p. 1132.

[16] S. Darwall (1977) Two kinds of respect, Ethics, 88, pp. 36-49.

[17] Commission on social justice (1993) The Justice Gap (London, Institute for 
Public Policy Research), p. 16.

[18] J. Rawls (1971) A Theory of Justice (Oxford, Oxford University Press), p. 

[19] Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. lix.

[20] Ibid.

[21] 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.

[22] See Dworkin, Equality of welfare.

[23] Rawls, Political liberalism, p. 186.

[24] 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.

[25] B. Landesman (1983) Egalitarianism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 13, p. 

[26] Ibid., p. 37.

[27] D. Willets (1992) Modern Conservatism (London, Penguin), p. 150.

[28] See, for example, J. S. Mill (1994) Principles of Political Economy 
(Oxford, Oxford University Press), p. 132.

[29] Quoted in R. E. Goodin (1998) Reasons for Welfare (Princeton, Princeton 
University Press), p. 336.

[30] Dworkin, Equality of resources, p. 327.

[31] See Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. 181-182n.9, and (2001) Justice as 
Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press), p. 179.

[32] Dworkin, Equality of resources, p. 326.

[33] Anderson, op. cit. pp. 316-318, 321, 328.

[34] Ibid., pp. 323-4.

[35] R. Arneson (1997) Egalitarianism and the undeserving poor, The Journal of 
Political Philosophy, 5, pp. 327-350.

[36] A. Levine (1998) Rethinking Liberal Equality (New York, Cornell University 

[37] 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).

[38] T. Hinton (2001) Must egalitarians choose between fairness and respect? 
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 30, pp. 72-87.

[39] Anderson op. cit. pp. 295-6.

[40] 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 Anderson’s 
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.

[41] Aesop (1996) Aesop’s Fables (London, Penguin), p. 11.

[42] A similar differentiation of perspectives can be found in Schmidtz op. 
cit., p. 6.

[43] L. Mead (1997) From welfare to work, in A. Deacon (ed) From Welfare to 
Work (London, IEA Health and Welfare Unit), p. 20.

[44] 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.

[45] 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.

[46] 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.

[47] See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 440, and Political Liberalism, p. lix.

[48] Anderson reaches much the same conclusion: op. cit. pp. 323-324.

[49] See Dworkin, Equality of resources, and (2000) Sovereign Virtue 
(Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press), ch. 9.

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