Editors’ Note: This forum is featured in our spring 2023 issue. Order a copy here.

People are unequal in endless ways. They are rich and poor. They belong to different genders, ethnic groups, and states. Some have or want to have children; others don’t. No one who is advocating for egalitarian justice argues for equality in all possible respects. But which of the differences matter?

Social egalitarians argue that equality requires people to enjoy equal social status: no one can be anyone else’s social inferior. On the most prominent social egalitarian view, inequalities in other goods matter only insofar as they bear on equality of social status. I am not a social egalitarian of this type because I think that social equality matters but it is not the only equality that matters. Social equality on its own is compatible with too many inequalities in the goods that people care about. People who are born not too well off or who lack access to fertility treatments, for example, may still enjoy equal social status, but they lack equality in other important ways. Perhaps social egalitarians can explain how those inequalities are incompatible with equal social status. But even if they did, those inequalities are objectionable not only when and because they bear on a person’s social standing. They are objectionable because people’s lives can go better or worse in ways unrelated to their social status.

Egalitarian views that care about inequalities beyond those of social status are sometimes called distributively egalitarian. I assume that the equality of flourishing view that Christine Sypnowich puts forward is a distributively egalitarian view. But, like Marx, Sypnowich offers a case for the system she prefers by focusing on criticizing the alternative, so we learn little of what her preferred view entails. What we know is that she is against liberal equality, including luck egalitarianism.

Liberal egalitarians are liberal because they think that distributive equality can be reconciled with individual freedom. (Luck egalitarians, such as myself, in addition object to bad brute luck disadvantaging people.) Sypnowich thinks that in their zeal to preserve freedom and choice, liberal egalitarians must endorse a punitive view: once you squander your opportunities, you do not get second chances. She also objects to liberal egalitarians endorsing neutrality—the view that the state must not play favorites between reasonable conceptions of a good life. (In fact, some prominent liberal egalitarians—including G. A. Cohen and Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen—don’t endorse neutrality.)

Why be a liberal egalitarian? Suppose we accept that the state ought to make sure that people flourish equally and that this idea has more than limp distributive implications. Flourishing may mean a life genuinely filled with music, as Sypnowich suggests. But it may also mean living in the countryside far away from the crowds. It may mean having children and access to in vitro fertilization (IVF). And so on.

If funding is needed to facilitate IVF there will be less for music. If music is well funded, there will be less for public transport in remote areas. So how should the egalitarian state decide how much to spend on each? One option is a democratic vote: this much for music, this much for IVF, and this much for internet access for remote parts of the country. But why would a vote deliver equality of flourishing rather than privileged funding for the mode of flourishing that majorities enjoy? We avoid such domination if we leave people at least some room to decide for themselves which ends to pursue in life, in conjunction with their communities but not ruled by them.

For this reason, Rawls advocates that each person should enjoy equal expectations of equal income and wealth (unless inequality would benefit the worst off) so that people can make their own choices about their own lives. Dworkin advocates granting each person equal resources: they are equal if each person has a fair opportunity to lead the good life she plans for herself. Contained in these proposals is the idea that if you act in ways that require you to have more than these fair shares—for example, by insisting that only handcrafted gold wallpaper will do—then granting you more would be unfair to others and create, rather than eliminate, inequality. But this attractive idea is miles away from the caricature of liberal egalitarianism according to which those who fare badly in part due to their avoidable choices must bear their fate. Accepting that the avoidability of an outcome may sometimes make a difference to people’s entitlements does not entail accepting that it should make much or all the difference.

An egalitarian society needs to offer people some (limited) independence from each other.

In fact, as Marc Fleurbaey, Andrew Williams, Serena Olsaretti, Tom Parr, and others (including myself) have argued, there is nothing in the concept of equality of opportunity that requires its proponents to give any weight to choice. The weight that is given can be calibrated such that, for example, choice can never justify disadvantage of a certain type. Everyone can be guaranteed essential medical treatment, decent housing, and a guaranteed income at the bar of liberal egalitarian justice.

So why not guarantee a life filled with music, too? Why leave any room for choice that may leave a person with less than they were shooting for? Because an egalitarian society needs to offer people some (limited) independence from each other. If my access to additional IVF, beyond what everyone might be guaranteed, depends always on how you vote (that is, if majorities decide) or on what you claim for yourself (that is, if you are always entitled to the outcome you pursue), then you are deciding for me far in excess of how far my life should be shaped by the fact that we share our world together.

These ideas about choice don’t rest on the simplistic sociological view Sypnowich imagines. First, we should not run together responsibility in the sense of authorship and responsibility in the sense of lacking a complaint against others if an outcome is made to stand. I am often struck by the fact that, although I am the author of the meals I cook, I have a powerful complaint if I have to eat them. Second, attributing choices to people does not mean seeing them as fully separate from their circumstances. It means accepting that agency can be constructed out of the metaphysical mash-up.

What of the rhetoric of equality of opportunity? A key thing on which Sypnowich and I agree is that Ben Jackson is right: equality of opportunity is a malleable concept. There are conceptions that are disastrous and cruel. But then there are conceptions of equality of outcomes that are disastrous and cruel, too. Egalitarians can argue for limiting people’s entitlements so that the choice of a life of music for some does not translate into less medicine for those who would rather have that, without thereby endorsing simplistic sociology. Equal flourishing cannot be secured outside of liberal equality.

We’re interested in what you think. Submit a letter to the editors at letters@bostonreview.net. Boston Review is nonprofit, paywall-free, and reader-funded. To support work like this, please donate here.