Equality, Luck and Responsibility
Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter 1994
22 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2008
Date Written: December 19, 1994
Many of liberalism's political critics argue that it has no room for the ideas of responsibility and desert. In a recent article, Samuel Scheffler offers a philosophical diagnosis of that charge, and concludes that contemporary philosophical advocates of liberalism leave themselves open to it. According to Scheffler, liberalism is committed to a modernist and naturalist understanding of the universe and of social life. As a result, there is little room left for any idea of individual responsibility. I want to dispute Scheffler's diagnosis of the possibilities of a liberal doctrine of responsibility. I argue that the most robust notion of responsibility available lies at the heart of liberal political thought. Though liberals and their conservative critics surely differ on some fundamental questions of political morality, competing views about responsibility are not embedded at the root of those differences. Scheffler gives up the high ground too quickly. I will explicate the common notion of responsibility by exploring one important corner of modern thought about responsibility - the notion of corrective justice in tort law. I will show that the debate between liberals and conservatives is misrepresented when treated as a debate about whether individuals or social forces cause various problems. As a foray into tort law will show, issues about responsibility have a different structure.
I focus on corrective justice for three reasons. First, it seems an especially clear case of a system of individual responsibility. Second, it must constantly face a threat very much like the one posed by the naturalism that Scheffler points to. Third, it addresses that threat through the idea of equality. I do not mean to suggest that the view of responsibility entrenched in corrective justice is justified simply because it is entrenched in positive law. Its interest stems from the way in which it intertwines conceptions of responsibility and equality. As a result it provides an account of responsibility that is attractive when transferred to other domains.
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