Luck and Justice


In a piece in Sunday's Boston Globe, author Matthew Miller interviews William J. Bennett and Milton Friedman on the role of luck in shaping our life prospects. Both acknowledge that whether we fare well or badly, are rich or poor, has an enormous amount to do with factors beyond our control—genetics, parenting, education. Friedman goes further, recognizing that the notion of (any metaphysically deep version of) "free will" can't be justified. Miller makes a quick leap to what are, to him, the obvious redistributive implications of this view:

Bill Bennett, I thought, meet John Rawls—the late liberal philosopher who famously argued that public institutions should be designed to ameliorate the burdens of bad luck.

Matt Miller, meet Robert Nozick, who gave a reply to that line of argument that works as well today as it did 30 years ago. Rawls and Miller both assume a tight link between the life outcomes we're entitled to and a fairly robust notion of desert. But, as Nozick observes, this requires a defense. In his seminal Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he wrote:

It needn't be that the foundations underlying desert are themselves deserved, all the way down….Whether or not people's natural assets are arbitrary from a moral point of view they are entitled to them, and to what flows from them.

Nozick's memorable intuition pump invoked bodily organs. Nobody, he observes, can have done anything to deserve being born with two working eyes. It does not follow that we may forcibly remove one eye from a sighted person for transplant to a blind one. Entitlement does not (uncontroversially) require deep desert. Friedman's denial of free will, far from undermining this point, actually serves as a reductio. If, contra Nozick, we require desert to go "all the way down," then nobody can ultimately deserve or be responsible for anything, since our chocies and character are all ultimately the product of factors over which we had no control. In the everyday sense, we all make choices… but there is no infinite regress of choices. At some level, the choices are made by persons we did not first choose to be. That doesn't mean nobody deserves anything; it means that we have to remember that the "persons" morality enjoins us to respect are not free-floating Kantian egos, but "embedded" creatures (to borrow some communitarian jargon), with particular histories and capacities that are constitutive of them. Shake off the bad metaphysics and it becomes clear that "luck" is not a form of injustice requiring correction: it's one of the background conditions that gives rise to the sorts of beings who can be the subjects of a theory of justice in the first place.

Addendum: Will Wilkinson comments as well, observing that if "luck" is incompatible with desert (or at least entitlement), the argument cuts as heavily against the democratic process as the market process.