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Distributive Justice, Dignity, and the Lifetime View

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Distributive Justice, Dignity, and the Lifetime View

Abstract

This paper provides a critical examination of the strongest defenses of the pure lifetime view, according to which justice requires taking only people's whole lives as relevant when assessing and establishing their distributive entitlements and obligations. The paper proposes that we reject a pure lifetime view and replace it with an alternative view, on which some time-specific considerations--that is to say, considerations about how people fare at specific points in time--have nonderivative weight in determining what our obligations are to them.
Distributive Justice, Dignity and the Lifetime View
Paul Bou-Habib
Department of Government
University of Essex
pbou@essex.ac.uk
Abstract
This paper provides a critical examination of the strongest defences of the pure lifetime view,
according to which justice requires taking only people’s whole lives as relevant when assessing
and establishing their distributive entitlements and obligations. The paper proposes that we reject
a pure lifetime view and replace it with an alternative view, on which some time-specific
considerations – that is to say, considerations about how people fare at specific points in time –
have non-derivative weight in determining what our obligations are to them.
It seems a fair generalisation to say that very old members of our society often face greater
hardships in life than younger members. People in their 80s suffer more often from illness, and
many are less wealthy and socially more excluded than people in their 30s or 40s. Our immediate
reaction to this discrepancy might be to think that there is an injustice here, and that the young
have an obligation to make greater efforts at ameliorating the conditions of the elderly. But once
we reflect on the fact that the young will themselves be old, and that the old were once young,
we might find ourselves with a different reaction. We might think that what matters for
determining whether the young have obligations towards the elderly is not how members of
different age groups fare relative to each other in the present, but whether life as a whole will
have been, in some sense, fair to them all. After all, this case is not dissimilar from another one
where that reaction seems apt: imagine that one group of travellers is passing through a difficult
stage, as another group are passing through an easy stage, of the same journey. Would there be
anything unfair about that difference between them if the latter group will soon be passing
through the same difficult stage themselves?
That both of these reactions are reasonable raises a difficult question for anyone seeking
to determine what the young owe the old, or, more generally, what justice demands between
members of different age groups.1 Those two reactions reflect two fundamentally different views
about how the fact that each person’s life stretches over time affects what obligations others have
towards her; and any theory of distributive justice, in order to be complete, needs to take a stance
on which of these two views about (what I will call) the temporal subject of justice is correct.
There are two related respects in which a theory of distributive justice is incomplete until
it provides a view of the temporal subject of justice. First, as I remarked above, a theory of
distributive justice needs such a view in order to settle questions about the obligations of justice
in a particular range of cases, namely those involving members of different age groups. That is, a
view on the temporal subject of justice is needed to widen the range of judgements a theory of
justice can support. But secondly, and more fundamentally, a theory of distributive justice must
presuppose a particular view on the temporal subject of justice to make any determinate
judgement about what is owed to any individual. For unless we know whether whole lives or
temporal stages of a life are the subject of justice, general ideals of justice such as, for example,
that people should be equal in their opportunities or outcomes, are insufficiently determinate: we
just don’t know what the ideal of equality demands until we know whether opportunities or
outcomes should be equal between people’s lives as a whole or between parts of different
people’s lives.
In this paper I address the question of the temporal subject of justice. My aims are, firstly,
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to provide a critical examination of the strongest defences of the lifetime view, according to
which justice requires taking people’s whole lives as relevant when assessing and establishing
their distributive entitlements and obligations (section 2). Second, I want to develop an
alternative view, on which some time-specific considerations – that is to say, considerations
about how people fare at specific points in time – have non-derivative weight in determining
what our obligations are to them (section 3). Before embarking on these tasks, I identify, in
section 1, the most salient considerations that I suggest a defensible view about the temporal
subject of justice should accommodate.
1. Three relevant considerations: responsibility, compensation, and hardship
That the question of the temporal subject of justice has been relatively neglected by theorists of
distributive justice may be in good part due to the fact that most theorists endorse, most often
without discussing it, a particular answer to that question, namely, the lifetime view.2 As
mentioned above, this is the view that justice requires taking only people’s whole lives as
relevant when assessing and establishing their distributive entitlements and obligations. How
people fare during parts of their lives, or at any given moment in time, should not be given
independent, non-derivative weight as a matter of justice; it is important only derivatively of
what ultimately matters, which is the quality of people’s whole lives. A temporal parts view, by
contrast, holds that what is of fundamental importance is only how people fare over parts of their
lives. On a temporal parts view, I shall say, there are time-specific obligations of justice.
It will be helpful to clarify at the outset the nature of the difference between a lifetime
view and a temporal parts view. The two kinds of view differ over the time-spans over which a
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background distributive principle applies, where by “background distributive principle” I mean
an incomplete principle of distributive justice that specifies only the currency and the pattern of a
just distribution, where the demands of justice thus conceived are thought to identify people’s
fundamental, i.e. non-instrumental, claims of justice. An example of such a principle might be
the principle that people should, as a matter of justice, enjoy equality of welfare.3
A temporal parts view maintains that the time-spans over which a background
distributive principle applies are temporal parts of their lives. It holds that people’s fundamental
claims in distributive justice are to having their conditions over temporal parts of their lives be in
line with a particular pattern of distribution, as measured in a particular currency. Different
temporal parts views identify the relevant temporal parts of lives in different ways. One such
view might hold that it is simultaneous parts of people’s lives that should be compared – for
example, that the simultaneous parts of different people’s lives ought to be equal. Another
possibility is to hold that it is non-simultaneous parts that should be compared. An example,
here, would be a corresponding segments view, which holds that we should compare
corresponding parts of different lives – for example, different people’s childhoods, adulthoods,
and old ages.4 A lifetime view, by contrast, is any view that maintains that it is people’s entire
lives that must be brought into line with a background distributive principle. So, to illustrate, if
one person has enjoyed more welfare than another during the simultaneous first halves of their
lives, an egalitarian lifetime view would require that this inequality be reversed during the
second halves of their lives, whereas the simultaneous equality version of the temporal parts
view would not. Note that, apart from adopting a temporal parts view on its own (a pure
temporal parts view), or a lifetime view on its own (a pure lifetime view), we also have the
option of endorsing a combined view that includes both types of view. It is not incoherent, for
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example, to maintain of two non-overlapping lives that it is of fundamental importance that both
are equal both at the level of their whole lives and at the level of their simultaneous parts.
In this section, I suggest that two important considerations – considerations about
responsibility and about compensation – tell against adopting a pure temporal parts view. But I
also identify a third consideration – which I refer to as the hardship consideration – which casts
doubt on pure lifetime views. This sets the stage for the rest of the paper, which aims to convert
that doubt into a conviction against pure lifetime views and to develop an alternative view of the
temporal subject of justice.
Before proceeding, I need to state an assumption I will be making in the arguments that
follow. I shall assume that individuals are personally identical over time, and indeed, in standard
cases, over their entire lives. This assumption is relevant for a discussion of the temporal subject
of justice. To the extent that individuals are not personally identical over time, the temporal parts
view gains in plausibility. For example, on the view of personal identity defended by Derek
Parfit, according to which personal identity inheres in psychological continuity over time and
according to which such continuity may not necessarily span the course of a whole life, it may be
more plausible to insist that temporal parts of lives are the temporal subjects of justice since
those temporal parts would map onto what are, in effect, different persons within those lives.5
While this suggestion is important, I do not examine it here. The reasons for this, and for
assuming personal identity over time, are two-fold: first, I do not wish to rule out the lifetime
view at the outset, but to examine its full merits; second, I think that there are other arguments in
favour of the temporal parts view (at least as a component of a hybrid view) than those that rest
on a relatively controversial picture of personal identity. It is those arguments I focus on in this
paper.6
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(i) Responsibility
It is widely accepted among theorists of justice that a person’s claims of distributive justice at a
given moment in time should sometimes reflect her earlier exercises of responsibility. Justice,
including egalitarian justice, does not require that we attend to someone’s disadvantage if she is
in the relevant sense responsible for that disadvantage herself. If someone is badly off or worse
off than others as a result of her own choices, for example, humanity may tell in favour of
helping her, but she has no claim of justice that others come to her aid. Different theorists of
justice formulate and justify this responsibility constraint in different ways: some believe it is
grounded in a commitment to the separate principle of desert, others that it is implied by the
demands of equality themselves, properly understood. Moreover, they identify different
necessary and sufficient conditions for responsibility, and will accordingly support different
judgements as to what disadvantages and inequalities are compatible with justice.7
These differences, however, should not be relevant here. For any version of the
responsibility constraint seems to tell against our adopting a temporal parts view, or at least, a
pure temporal parts view. According to a temporal parts view, whether a person’s fundamental
claims at a given stage of his life are satisfied depends only on the nature of his condition during
that stage (or, more fully, on whether his condition during that stage fulfils a background
principle that regulates distribution between that stage and the equivalent stages of other people’s
lives). A temporal parts view thus “insulates” people’s claims during those parts of their lives
from the impact of their exercises of responsibility during other parts of their lives. For example,
a temporal parts view that emphasises simultaneous equality would require that people who are
currently better off should transfer resources to people who are currently worse off, even if the
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latter were themselves, during some earlier part of their lives, responsible for being currently
worse off. Similarly, a corresponding segments equality view that required equality between
people’s childhoods, their middle ages, and their old ages, would require that an old man be
given extra resources to ensure that his old age is as good as the old ages of members of the
previous generation, even though he may need those resource transfers as a result of having
imprudently squandered, at some earlier point in his life, the opportunity of a good old age.
It might be suggested that a temporal parts view can accommodate responsibility in the
following way. The view would require that there should be simultaneous equality but it would
allow departures from simultaneous equality when these are due to differential exercises of
responsibility in earlier parts of people’s lives.
We should note two points about this suggestion. First, the view proposed is not, strictly
speaking, a temporal parts view, since it does not apply a background distributive principle to
temporal parts of people’s lives. A “responsibility-sensitive” background distributive principle
would say that people should be equal, not in their outcomes, but in their opportunities. Applying
that principle to temporal parts would yield the view that people should have equal opportunities
within parts of their different lives, so that their outcomes within those parts should reflect their
earlier, differential exercises of responsibility within those same parts. It would not yield the
view, proposed in the previous paragraph, that the outcomes within parts of different people’s
lives should reflect their differential exercises of responsibility during previous parts of their
lives.
But, secondly, although the view does not qualify as a temporal parts view, we should
not exclude it from consideration merely on that definitional ground. Let us then note, for now,
the possibility of a quasi-temporal parts view that accommodates responsibility by making
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distributions between parts of different lives reflect differential exercises of responsibility during
previous parts of lives. I shall point out below that this view will still fail to accommodate the
third of our guiding considerations regarding hardship, and that we should look for a different
answer to the question about the temporal subject of justice.
Considerations of responsibility tell against a pure temporal parts view. On the lifetime
view, by contrast, there is no injustice in simultaneous inequality or in inequality between key
stages of people’s lives, when the people who are worse off or suffer a disadvantage are
themselves responsible for it.8 This conviction may well account for why people are often drawn
to the lifetime view.
(ii) Moral compensation
A second consideration that informs our judgements about the temporal subject of justice, and
that also tells against a pure temporal parts view, is that benefits and harms at different moments
in a life morally compensate for each other. A benefit morally compensates a person for a harm
if both, taken together, satisfy a person’s moral claims (by “moral claims” here I mean
fundamental claims of distributive justice). The possibility of moral compensation over time is a
blessing we often take for granted. Suppose you told your child that you would spend some time
together this morning, but that you now won’t be able to do that, after all. If moral compensation
over time were not possible, you would not be able to make up for that. But you can make up for
that: you can spend more time with her this afternoon or this evening or some other time, and her
claim to spending a substantial amount of time with you will have been satisfied that way.
The moral compensation consideration implies that we ought to reject pure temporal parts
views.9 If benefits and harms at different times within a life morally compensate for each other,
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then whether or not a person’s fundamental claims at a given stage of his life are satisfied is
something that will depend both on the nature of his condition during that stage and on the
nature of his conditions during other stages of his life. According to a temporal parts view,
however, whether a person’s fundamental claims at a given stage of his life are satisfied does not
depend on his conditions at any time other than during that stage. On a corresponding segments
view, for example, if a first person’s middle age is less good than a second person’s middle age,
then that should be remedied, even if the first person’s young age was, or his old age could be,
better than the second person’s young or old age. What’s more, if nothing can be done to make
the first person better off during his middle age, there would be no reason, on this view, to do
anything for him to offset that fact in his old age, because, on this view, such moral
compensation is not possible. Indeed, the view would actually imply that if the first person’s old
age were made better off (for no good reason, on the view in question), this would create a
further injustice, for it would make his old age better than other people’s old ages. The
simultaneous equality view would have similar implications. If, as seems plausible, we accept
that benefits and harms at different times within a life morally compensate for each other, then
we should reject these pure temporal parts views.10
(iii) The hardship consideration
While considerations about responsibility and compensation push us away from pure temporal
parts views, a question hovers over the proposal that we should endorse a pure lifetime view. The
lifetime view requires that the balance between the benefits citizens receive across the different
stages of their lives be struck in the way that best secures for them the whole lives to which it
says they have a fundamental claim. But this seems to entail the following worrying conclusion:
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it may mean that there should be no entitlement on the part of citizens to receive support during a
particular phase of hardship so long as the alternative entitlement they could thereby enjoy would
improve their whole lives more, and even if that alternative entitlement weren’t necessary to
alleviate hardship. I will refer to this concern as the hardship consideration.
More can be said about the hardship consideration than I will here. For my purposes, I
need to highlight three main points. The first is that I shall use “hardship” in a technical sense,
according to which it refers to conditions of persons that we intuitively believe we have an
obligation to help alleviate. Examples of hardship might include physical or mental suffering and
material deprivation, and it seems increasingly plausible to regard these conditions as examples
of hardship, in my technical sense, the longer their duration.11 Note, however, that when
assessing a given view of our obligations from the perspective of the hardship consideration, our
focus shouldn’t be on the examples just given, but on the status they are intended to exemplify –
i.e. that of being of a condition that we intuitively believe we have an obligation to help alleviate
– and it may be that, under certain circumstances, a person’s suffering or material deprivation,
does not exemplify that status.
The second point is that the hardship consideration I am levelling against the lifetime
view is a version of the challenge that recent critics of luck egalitarianism like Elizabeth
Anderson have levelled against that view.12 There is one difference, however. Anderson and
other critics of luck egalitarianism seem to think that that view is liable to the challenge posed by
the hardship consideration as a result of their having constrained their demands of justice by
demands of responsibility. I do not disagree that a theory may become vulnerable to the hardship
challenge as a result of incorporating responsibility. Indeed, it was precisely on this ground that I
suggested we reject the responsibility-sensitive quasi-temporal parts view discussed in the
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previous section. But I am also suggesting that the hardship challenge is potentially levelled
against any lifetime view, even if we adopt it, not because of our belief in the importance of
responsibility, but because of our convictions about the possibility of compensation I examined
above.
Thirdly, I would like to emphasise that accommodating the hardship consideration need
not commit us to the implausible view that citizens must be entitled to support in cases of
hardship regardless of the trade-off such an entitlement would effect at other stages of their
lives. Still, because hardship is not something that should be taken lightly, the lifetime view’s
commitment to trading-off entitlements between stages of a life does place a burden of
justification on it. We need to be assured that the specific way in which the lifetime view
commits us to trading-off entitlements at one stage of life against entitlements at other stages fits
with our intuitions about how it ought to respond to cases of hardship.
2. The strategy of derivative concern
In this section, I consider a strategy proponents of the lifetime view might use in order to show
that the lifetime view can accommodate the hardship consideration. They can argue that once we
identify the correct background distributive principle that we should apply to people’s entire
lives, we will notice that it actually requires, as a means to its fulfilment, that no one is left to
suffer hardship at any stage in their lives. The hardship consideration can thus be accommodated
without abandoning the view that people’s claims of distributive justice apply, non-derivatively,
or most fundamentally, at the level of their entire lives. People in hardship at any stage of life
must always be supported, not because they have a fundamental claim at each stage of life to
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such support, but because this is what will ensure for them the entire lives to which they do have
a fundamental claim. Let me call this the strategy of derivative concern.
To assess the merits of this strategy, it is helpful to distinguish between interest-based
and ambition-sensitive versions of the lifetime view. Taking Norman Daniels and Ronald
Dworkin as representatives of these respective versions, I argue that neither version enables us to
prosecute the strategy of derivative concern.
The interest-based version of the lifetime view
According to Daniels’ prudential lifespan account, people’s entitlements at different stages of
their lives consist of those resources they would prudently allocate to those stages out of a “fair
lifetime share” of resources, on the assumption that they are ignorant of their ages and of their
conceptions of the good.13 Daniels characterises “fair lifetime shares” in Rawlsian terms, that is,
in terms of expectations of social primary goods over the course of a whole life. His rationale for
appealing to prudent allocation under conditions of ignorance is simple: such reasoning will
identify a spread of entitlements over people’s lives that is likely to render their lives better than
they might otherwise be and in a way that is not biased against any specific age group. His
rationale for imposing the hypothetical constraint of a “fair lifetime share” is that this ensures
that people’s lives are as good as they can be compatibly with treating all lives fairly.
Daniels maintains that a prudent allocation of our fair lifetime share over the different
stages of our lives is one that guarantees what he calls age-relative normal opportunity
throughout life – that is, the opportunity to pursue the range of plans that are normal for a
particular stage of life, such as, for example, the variety of educational paths we might pursue
during childhood and adolescence, or the variety of career or child-rearing plans we might
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pursue during adult years. Prudence recommends age-relative normal opportunity throughout life
because it is possible that we may revise our plans of life as we age and that we therefore no
longer derive welfare from the plan of life we are, at any given stage of life, pursuing.14
The general requirement of age-relative normal opportunity throughout life implies
certain concrete entitlements across different age groups. It implies, for example, that amounts of
health care resources allocated to people in different age groups may differ substantially,
compatibly with the demands of justice, since maintenance of age-relative opportunity range, to
which all age groups are entitled, may be more expensive during one part of life than another.
Even if we grant that the specific implications Daniels draws from the prudential account
actually follow from it – that is, that a prudent allocation of a fair lifetime share over the different
stages of a life would indeed be one that preserves age-relative normal opportunity range at each
stage – the prudential lifespan account still faces a serious problem.15 It can yield entitlements
that accord with our convictions about hardship only by restricting the pattern in which our fair
lifetime shares are allocated across the different stages of our lives in a way that disrespects the
autonomy of people whose ambitions require it to be allocated other patterns. Consider Hebe, for
example, a person who is firmly in the grip of a youth-orientated conception of the good, so that
she prefers, for the same money-value, less than age-relative normal opportunity while old in
order to have more than age-relative normal opportunity while young. Assume that Hebe is not
asking for something that is worth more money than her fair lifetime share, so that her having it
would not leave others with less than their fair lifetime shares. To insist that Hebe’s fair lifetime
share take a form that is insensitive to her ambitions, even when her receiving it in an ambition-
sensitive form would impose no additional costs on others, seems unjustified.
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The ambition-sensitive version of the lifetime view
While an interest-based version of the lifetime view recommends entitlements that allocate our
fair lifetime shares of resources over our lives in a pattern that serves our greatest interest, the
ambition-sensitive version recommends entitlements that allocate our fair lifetime shares in a
pattern that is most sensitive to our ambitions. The most important example of this version of the
lifetime view is Ronald Dworkin’s theory of distributive justice, equality of resources.16 The
problem with Dworkin’s theory, I suggest, is that it is incapable of accommodating the hardship
consideration in a robust way.
According to Dworkin, people’s fair entitlements over the course of their whole lives are
“ambition-sensitive” either when they secure a pattern of resources over their live that reflects
their own choices about how resources should be spread over their lives and when they
compensate people for brute luck in line with a hypothetical insurance package they would
purchase. The hypothetical insurance cover people are entitled to is worked out by assuming: (1)
people are allocated an equal share of money with which to purchase insurance to cover their
entire lifespans, (2) they are ignorant of their level of exposure to various risks against which
they might insure, and (3) they purchase insurance in line with their own ambitions.17 We should,
for example, determine the kinds of publicly provided health care to which people are entitled,
and the tax contributions they must make towards it, by determining the kind of health insurance
package, and corresponding premium, they would select for their whole lifetime under those
three hypothetical conditions.18
Dworkin’s ambition-sensitive version of the lifetime view clearly upholds the
responsibility and compensation considerations. It requires that people’s claims at any point be
sensitive to their own exercises of responsibility by allowing their outcomes at any given
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moment in time to reflect either their earlier choices, or their own preferences for insurance.
Furthermore, it upholds the compensation consideration by insisting that people make their
choices and are covered by insurance on the basis of equal lifetime shares of money. Consider
Hebe again, who wants to dedicate a substantial amount of her equal share of resources to the
earlier parts of her life, in full knowledge that this will mean that she will have only very few
resources available while old. While this decision may seem imprudent, it should be allowed on
Dworkin’s view.
The problem with Dworkin’s version of the lifetime view is that it seems incapable of
meeting the hardship consideration. That consideration, recall, is that there are certain conditions
of persons that we intuitively believe we are obligated to help alleviate. Now, as we have seen,
according to Dworkin, the kinds of resources that must be available for people who suffer
through bad luck is something that must be determined according to the hypothetical insurance
model. And while it is likely that many people would like to avoid many forms of conditions that
constitute hardship in my technical sense, it is by no means clear that they will want to avoid all
of them. It is quite possible, for example, that some people’s ambitions would not lead them to
provide enough insurance for their very old age, say in the form of adequate long-term care, and
yet, despite that fact, we would still believe, I submit, that we are obligated to alleviate the
conditions they would have to endure without such care. The ambition-sensitive approach
therefore fails to adequately accommodate the hardship consideration.19
Dworkin might reply to this objection in several ways but none are convincing. First, he
can emphasise that since basing welfare provision on each individual’s hypothetical insurance
choices would involve prohibitive information-gathering costs, people’s welfare claims are to be
modelled in a statistical way, that is, on “what people of ordinary opinion and prudence would
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have done in the hypothetical circumstances.”20 That approach, so it might be suggested, would
yield conclusions that fit better with our intuitions about the obligations we have to alleviate
hardship.
This reply does not escape the objection raised two paragraphs ago. To point out that the
insurance approach in its statistical form insures against a large part of those conditions that we
intuitively believe we ought to help alleviate for each other, is not to vindicate that approach. It
may just mean that it converges in large part with some other standard for identifying those
obligations. What needs to be further shown is that in cases in which the insurance approach
does not match up with our intuitions, it is our intuitions, and not the approach, that we would be
prepared to revise. That, however, does not seem to be the case: even if people on average would
not insure against long-term care, we would still, I submit, believe ourselves to be obliged to
alleviate the conditions the elderly would have to endure without such care.
Second, Dworkin makes two further points that might be seen as accommodating the
hardship consideration. He says, first, that even if people’s welfare claims were modelled on
their insurance choices, paternalistic considerations would justify not asking them to internalise
the costs of their choices when these would lead to hardship; and secondly, that a concern with
protecting the interests of others who would be called upon to respond to their hardship would
justify forcing everyone to insure so that each provides for his own relief from hardship.21
We should note the following concerns about these two points. First, as far as the
paternalism Dworkin invokes is concerned, it seems desirable for a view to avoid reliance on it if
possible. Although Dworkin does not find the paternalism involved here problematic, it would be
preferable if we could robustly accommodate the hardship consideration without relying on
premises that alternative views of the value of freedom would reject, and it is an open question as
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to whether there is such a possibility.
Second, as far as Dworkin justifies a system of compulsory insurance that avoids
hardship out of a concern for the interests of those who would otherwise be called upon to
support those in hardship, we need an account of why others would indeed have any such
obligation towards those in hardship.
In section 3 below I put forward a view that answers both of these points at once. It gives
a non-paternalistic justification for why we should prevent hardship, which seems to me to
capture the urgent moral concern that makes us respond to hardship in the way we do. Moreover,
the view I shall offer also accounts for why others would indeed have to respond to hardship, so
that a concern with their interests can be said to underwrite compulsory insurance. My view,
however, is a departure from a pure lifetime view, which, as I have shown in this section, cannot
by itself accommodate the hardship consideration, at least not without resorting to paternalism.
Having considered the extent to which two leading versions of the lifetime view enable
us to derive appropriate concern for people facing hardship, we can now see that the failure of
that strategy is not specific to these two versions, but applies to all versions of the lifetime view.
The strategy of derivative concern must (a) provide an attractive account of the lifetime we must
help secure for each other and (b) derive from it the conclusion that we must support each other
during hardship at any stage of our lives. The problem with the strategy is that it cannot do both
of these things. Dworkin’s ambition-sensitive version of the lifetime view is attractive insofar as
it describes that lifetime as one that is lived in the light of our own ambitions. But embracing this
account comes at the expense of our being unable to guarantee support for persons in hardship.
On the other hand, while Daniels’ interest-based version of the lifetime view may succeed in
providing that guarantee, it can achieve that result only by describing the lifetime we must secure
17
for each other in a way that is partially insensitive to the ambitions we may wish to pursue in life.
Stated most generally, then, the reason the strategy of derivative concern fails for all lifetime
views is this. No lifetime view can both insist that the lifetimes we must help to secure for each
other are lifetimes that reflect our own, different ambitions in life, and that, as a means to
fulfilling that end, we must guarantee support for each other during the hardship we might
experience at any stage of our lives. Embracing the pure lifetime view must therefore come at the
expense of the hardship consideration.
3. Dignity and time-specific constraints
In this section I argue that we should combine and constrain the lifetime view with a temporal
parts view that is grounded in an account of dignity. We must assume, as the lifetime view
demands, that each person is to be allocated a fair lifetime share of resources but we must insist
that each person’s dignity constrains how people’s fair lifetime shares of resources may be
allocated over the different stages of their lives. More specifically, I will argue that dignity
constrains us to ensure that our fair lifetime shares are allocated over our lives in such a way that
either (a) we can always endorse our life plans or (b) we always have a decent set of
opportunities at each stage of our lives. Combining the lifetime view with a dignity-based
constraint provides, I believe, a more promising way of accommodating our three guiding
considerations about responsibility, compensation and hardship than the competing views I
examined above.
The account of dignity I will sketch is not intended to square with all of the many ways in
which we use the concept of dignity in ordinary speech or in philosophical treatments of the
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subject. The term “dignity” has been used to refer to a status that turns on a person’s rank in a
social hierarchy, or on the extent to which a person conducts herself in a morally upright way, or
on the degree to which a person displays fortitude in the face of adversity, or simply on whether
she or he is a human being.22 The sense in which I shall use “dignity” covers much, but not all,
ordinary usage, and follows a broadly Kantian tradition, in which the term refers to a person’s
capacity for living autonomously.23 My aim is not to offer a comprehensive justification for the
interpretation of dignity I shall be relying on, but only to show that there exists at least a
plausible account of dignity, which, when combined with a lifetime view, would enable us to
satisfactorily accommodate the three guiding considerations about how we should answer the
question about time.24
The account of dignity proposed here consists of three central claims. The first two have
been put forwarded by many others, and although they are not uncontroversial, I shall not
attempt to add to the arguments that have been made in their support. The third claim in my
account is a distinctive one (so far as I am aware) and I shall therefore devote more time to
providing support for it.
(i) Intrinsic value
Dignity is a name for the intrinsic value we, as persons, have, in virtue of our (internal) capacity
to direct our lives in the light of our appreciation of value. The notion of intrinsic value is
complex, but I invoke it here to convey only this point: our capacity for autonomy is “non-
prudentially valuable” – that is, it is valuable independently of whether and how it is valuable for
the person whose dignity is in question. Some might deny this and insist that our dignity is
valuable only because it is ether instrumentally necessary for, or constitutive of, our welfare. My
19
account of dignity rejects that claim and assumes that dignity is valuable even when it does not
stand to our welfare in either of these ways, although of course it may also do that.25 In the next
sub-section, I explain why my temporal parts view must insist that dignity is an intrinsic value if
it is to succeed in accommodating our three guiding considerations regarding responsibility,
compensation and hardship.
(ii) The internal capacity for autonomy
The ground of a person’s dignity – the property that gives her dignity – is her internal capacity
for autonomy, by which I mean the various psychological conditions that are necessary for her to
be able to direct herself in the light of her appreciation of value, such as, for example, her
capacity to critically reflect upon the ambitions she wishes to pursue in life, and her capacity to
revise those ambitions in the light of new evidence. Three points need to be emphasised here.
First, how exactly we should characterise the internal capacity for autonomy has been the subject
of prolonged controversy.26 My account of dignity will remain agnostic with respect to that
controversy. Secondly, by the “capacity for autonomy” we might also mean to refer to certain
conditions external to the person, such as freedom from interference by others or the availability
of a range of meaningful options for action. My account excludes such external conditions from
the ground of a person’s dignity, in the sense that whether or not someone has the ground of
dignity does not depend on, and does not vary with whether, she has access to certain external
conditions for realising her autonomy. Were these to be included, this would yield the perverse
implication that a person who has the internal capacity for autonomy but who is interfered with,
or deprived of meaningful options, lacks the properties that confer dignity upon her. In denying
that freedom from interference and the availability of meaningful options are part of the ground
20
of a person’s dignity, we of course do not imply that those external conditions cannot be part of
what a person’s dignity demands that others secure for her. Indeed, as I shall argue below,
respecting people’s dignity does require, typically, that we secure for people certain external
conditions at all stages of their lives.
A third point addresses the concern that an autonomy-grounded account of dignity is too
narrow in a couple of respects. It might be suggested, firstly, that children and persons with
serious cognitive impairment still possess dignity even if they are not fully capable of autonomy.
Secondly, it might be suggested that we can violate a person’s dignity without undermining her
capacity for autonomy, for example by ridiculing her in a way that involves treating her as a
mere object. Both suggestions imply that the ground of dignity is different from, or at least
broader than, the capacity for autonomy.
In response to this concern notice, first, that objections can be raised against both
suggestions just made about the narrowness of autonomy as a ground for dignity. One might
insist, firstly, that our disinclination to refuse children and the cognitively impaired the status of
dignity discloses not our belief that they have dignity, but that others hold strong moral
obligations towards them, a belief that is compatible with maintaining that children and the
cognitively impaired have a moral status different to that of dignity. Against the second
suggestion, one could argue that to ground dignity in autonomy in no way implies that the duties
dignity demands are restricted to duties of non-interference with autonomy but allows that those
duties include the duty to refrain from symbolically denigrating people in treating them as if they
did not possess autonomy, as we would do, for instance, if we treated them as mere objects.
A second response to the concern about narrowness is less controversial. Even if it were
true that the capacity for autonomy is too narrow a ground for dignity, this would not undermine
21
the proposal developed here that dignity generates a plausible constraint on the lifetime view.
For that proposal need presuppose only that what dignity demands includes respect for
autonomy, in a sense I outline immediately below, and not also that its ground is restricted to
respect for autonomy.27
(iii) Time-specific autonomy
The first two claims in the account of dignity sketched so far – namely, that dignity is an intrinsic
value of persons and that it is grounded in the capacity for autonomy – follow a broadly Kantian
tradition of thinking. Where my account is unusual is in its third claim, which further specifies
the nature of the capacity for autonomy in which dignity is grounded and teases out the temporal
dimension of that capacity. So far, I have referred to that capacity as the capacity to give shape to
one’s life in the light of one’s own appreciation of value. Now, so described, that capacity is still
open to interpretation: it might be interpreted, first, as the capacity of a person at one particular
stage of her life to give shape to the life of that person at all other stages (for example, the
capacity of a young adult to give shape to the life that lies ahead). Alternatively, it might be
interpreted as the capacity of a person at each and every stage of her life to contribute to giving
shape to her life as a whole. To illustrate, consider a case in which a person, at an earlier stage of
her life, contemplates pursuing a life plan that may severely restrict her opportunities at a later
stage of her life. If her dignity inheres in the capacity for autonomy interpreted in the first of our
two senses – i.e. as a capacity of an earlier self to give shape to the life of that person overall
would not disrespect her dignity. But if her dignity inheres in the capacity for autonomy
interpreted in our second sense – i.e. as a capacity of a person at each and every stage to
contribute to giving shape to a life – it may.
22
It is a crucial element of the temporal parts view defended here that we should understand
a person’s dignity in the second sense, that is, as inhering in a person’s capacity for autonomy at
each moment in her life. What might be said in favour of this time-specific interpretation of the
capacity for autonomy?
Consider the following example. Imagine a society in which everyone, near the beginning
of their adult lives, makes a set of choices about how their whole lives should unfold. This
society has set aside a week for this purpose – Lifetime Decision Week – during which all 21-
year olds must decide the kind of career they would like to pursue during their lifetimes, whether
they want to marry, whether they want to have children, what kind of religion they will follow, if
any, and so on. Suppose now that at the end of the week, once all young adults have made their
choices about these things, they voluntarily take a pill that ensures that they never change their
minds about their choices in the future. In this society, people’s lives will be, in good measure,
the results of their own choices.28 But it is difficult to accept that their lives embody the value of
autonomy, and indeed, it is more plausible to say that they have acted in a way that offends
against that value. This intuition, I believe, illustrates the appeal of time-specific autonomy: we
do not lead autonomous lives by having our earlier selves make choices that affect and bind our
later selves, independently of the attitude which our later selves have towards those choices, so
that our whole life, or as much of it as possible, is the result of an early choice. Rather, what
matters, for our autonomy, is that our lives are endorsed as they are lived, and that we
continuously affirm our plans of life as we pass through all the stages of our lives.
Which constraints does the value of dignity impose on how people’s fair lifetime shares
must be allocated over the different stages of their lives? I will not attempt to answer this
question comprehensively but only to the extent necessary for showing that the value of dignity,
23
when combined with a lifetime view, gives us the most plausible answer to the question about
justice and time.
A person’s dignity is protected at a given time when she can live in the light of her
appreciation of value, and hence autonomously, at that moment in time. For this ideal to be
achieved, it is necessary that one or the other of the two following conditions is met, where each
condition, on its own, is sufficient for dignity.
First, a person’s dignity is respected if that person endorses the plan of life that has
placed her in the circumstances she finds herself in at a given moment in time. By “endorsing” a
plan of life, I mean “deciding in favour of it given the alternative life plans she might have
pursued”. A person who endorses a life plan regards a difficult condition she might find herself
in at a given moment in time as a “price worth paying” for that life plan, where her assessment of
whether it is a price worth paying takes place against a background assumption of how many
resources are available to her overall.29 Furthermore, to endorse a life plan does not imply that
one is actively pursuing it. It may be the case that a person is no longer pursuing a life plan, e.g.
that of having a satisfying career, perhaps because she no longer can, or because she no longer
values that sort of thing, but she can still endorse that plan in the sense that she can recognise that
it played a valuable role in her life given the type of person she was when she pursued it.
The claim that endorsement of one’s life plan at a given moment in time is sufficient for
dignity needs to be clarified in the following way. What is being claimed as sufficient for dignity
is a person’s endorsement of a life plan that allocates a fair lifetime share of resources over her
life. It is not sufficient for her dignity that she endorse just any life plan. It is possible that a
person might endorse a life plan that places her in a servile, or, in a some other way inferior,
position to someone else, e.g. a life plan that involves always serving the interests of her husband
24
at the expense of her own, no matter what the relative importance is of their respective interests.
That a person endorses such a life plan is not sufficient for her dignity. My claim that
endorsement is sufficient presumes that a person is selecting between life plans that allocate a
fair lifetime share of resources over her life, a presumption that does not hold in the case of the
servile wife.30
Secondly, a person’s dignity is protected if that person has access to a decent set of
opportunities to engage in valuable activities at each particular stage of life, regardless of
whether the first condition above is satisfied, that is, regardless of whether that person endorses,
at any particular stage of her life, the life plans that have given shape to her life overall and
affected that particular stage in the way they have.31 Like the endorsement condition, the decent
opportunities condition is sufficient for dignity, and it is justified on the basis of the underlying
idea that a person’s dignity inheres in her capacity at each moment in time to live in the light of
her appreciation of value. If a person has decent opportunities at a given moment in time, she
need not endorse the life plan that has affected her present condition in order for her dignity to be
protected. To illustrate, consider a person who no longer endorses her plan of life – if she could
go back in time, she would chose a different plan. Nevertheless, she has plenty of opportunities
available to her at this stage of her life. Imagine she regrets having saved up to such an extent
that she now, in the final decade of her life, lives in luxury, when she might have used up some
of those savings, with better results, earlier on in her life. Were we to assume that the
endorsement condition is a necessary condition for dignity, we would have to conclude,
bizarrely, that her dignity is not protected in this last decade of her life. We should instead say
that her ample opportunities are sufficient for her dignity to be protected.
25
Accommodating the three guiding considerations
I believe that a combination of the dignity-based temporal parts view and a lifetime view
constitutes the most plausible basis for accommodating our three guiding considerations about
justice and time. Let us first consider the hardship consideration. The dignity-based temporal
parts view constrains us to ensure that our fair lifetime shares are allocated over our lives in such
a way that either (a) we can always endorse our life plans or (b) we always have a decent set of
opportunities at each stage of our lives. Now, it is impossible to demonstrate in the abstract that
this test ensures that our fair lifetime shares are allocated in such a way as to protect us against
all cases of hardship, but it is difficult, I submit, to think of troubling cases it would allow. In
particular, it seems fair to say that physical or mental suffering or deep material deprivation
would be ruled out by the dignity-based test. Most people would not regard these conditions as
prices worth paying for their life plans, and these conditions would also severely limit their
opportunities. The dignity-based temporal parts view would thus constrain us to allocating our
fair lifetime shares over our lives in a way that prevents these conditions from occurring.
It might be objected, however, that there are some cases of hardship that would not be
ruled out by my account of dignity, in the sense that the latter will fail to support obligations to
people at least in some cases of hardship. This objection might be pressed in two ways. First, my
account of dignity allows people to remain in conditions that result from life plans they endorse,
and it seems possible that people can endorse life plans that leave them in conditions we would
classify as hardship, such as severe pain or poverty, for example. Here, my response is to bite the
bullet: if a person genuinely endorses her life plan (and recall the above requirement that she
must have had a fair lifetime share available with which to pursue alternatives) – that is, if she
would genuinely have pursued the same life plan again – then, while helping to alleviate her pain
26
or her poverty might be good thing to do, it is not, I submit, a moral obligation, and her condition
thus does not amount to a case of hardship in my technical sense – that is, as a condition we
intuitively believe we have a moral obligation to alleviate.
The other way the objection might be pressed is by suggesting that it is possible that a
person could be in severe pain or deep poverty while having a decent set of opportunities
available to her, in which case, again, my account would say that we have no obligation towards
her (on grounds of dignity). My response here is to deny the compatibility of conditions we
would classify as hardship, such as severe pain or deep poverty, with a person’s having a decent
set of opportunities available to her. It is of course possible for people to soldier on with a
backache in their successful careers and family life, but if they can do this, then the pain is not
severe enough to count as hardship.
Let me next consider how including the dignity-based temporal parts view as part of our
answer to the question about the temporal subject of justice enables us to accommodate the
responsibility and compensation considerations, both of which, recall, militate against temporal
parts views in general. Here the claim that dignity is of intrinsic value plays a crucial role.
Notice, to begin with, that the conflict between the responsibility and compensation
considerations, on the one hand, and our obligation to respect people’s dignity, on the other, is
not a necessary one, in the sense that it is not bound to occur in all possible scenarios. In fact, it
is possible to arrange things so that that conflict disappears, or at least so that the scope of cases
in which it exists diminishes significantly. More specifically, it is possible to remove options
from people, which options, if people exercised them, would threaten their future autonomy. For
example, one can prohibit people from gambling to the extent of leaving themselves destitute, or
one can prohibit people from spending income earlier in their lives that they could have saved up
27
for their pensions. Removing such options would not go against the responsibility and
compensation considerations: these two considerations do not speak to the range of options that
should be available to people, but require only that certain consequences should follow in case
certain options are exercised. If the relevant options are removed from people, we can then
honour the responsibility and compensation considerations without leaving people in conditions
in which they live without dignity.
The question, of course, is whether it is indeed legitimate to remove options from people
in the ways just suggested. It is here that the fact that dignity is an intrinsic value plays a crucial
role. For suppose, for a moment, that dignity mattered only because of the impact respecting it
has on our welfare. If that were the case, it would be difficult to justify removing options from
people on the grounds that these would threaten future dignity. A person might level the same
complaint against this proposal that he could level against the interest-based version of the
lifetime view we examined above in section 2: it is either paternalistic or otherwise disrespectful
of autonomy to insist that he refrain from acting, or from receiving portions of his fair lifetime
share in ways that harm only his own welfare. However, if, as I am maintaining, a person’s
dignity has intrinsic value, then removing options that threaten his dignity can be justified on
grounds that are welfare-independent and respectful of autonomy. Let me explain the nature of
that justification more fully.
Consider, first, a simple way in which one might seek to appeal to the intrinsic value of
dignity in order to justify removing options from people. One might argue that we may remove
options from people that threaten their dignity simply because we may prevent people from
responding inappropriately to matters of intrinsic value. In other words, the argument is that we
may force people to maintain a proper relationship to matters of intrinsic value. Now that
28
argument faces a powerful objection. It is not obvious why someone’s failing, or the prospect of
his failing, to respond appropriately to an intrinsic value calls for forcible prevention, as opposed
merely to moral condemnation, at least in cases in which that failure does not harm others.
Indeed, one might claim that, in such cases, it ought to be a matter for each person’s conscience
how he interprets, respects or seeks to realise an intrinsic value in his life. Consider, for example,
the intrinsic value that is so central to the abortion controversy, the sanctity of human life. As
Dworkin argues, it may be more plausible to maintain that people on opposite sides of that
controversy ought to tolerate each other in their different, conscientious interpretations of human
sanctity, than to maintain that one side may impose, through the apparatus of the state, its own
interpretation of that value on the other side.32
Instead of appealing to the claim that we may force people to realise certain intrinsic
values in their lives, we can appeal to a second and more plausible argument for why matters of
intrinsic value, such as respect for dignity, justify removing options from people. A person who
puts himself in a situation in which he lives without dignity confronts others with a dilemma.
They can either ignore his condition, in which case they fail to abide by a moral obligation they
have to respect his dignity, or they can abide by that obligation at the cost of having to relinquish
some of their resources to him. In light of this, it may be reasonable for others to remove options
from a person so as to protect themselves from being confronted with that dilemma.33 Notice that
this argument does not assume, as did the simpler argument of the previous paragraph, that the
intrinsic value of a person’s dignity just by itself justifies the forceable removal options from that
person. It assumes only that that intrinsic value generates a non-enforceable moral obligation of
support on others, and it gives us the conclusion that they may forceably remove options from a
person, by adding the additional assumption that they may limit their exposure to incurring that
29
moral obligation of support.
One might object that this argument for why the intrinsic value of dignity allows us to
prevent people from leaving themselves in conditions of hardship is incongruous with the
underlying spirit of the hardship consideration: the latter points to the fact that we must be
concerned for the conditions of others, whereas the argument I have just sketched focuses on the
interests of those who witness their conditions. When we learn of people in hardship, so the
objection might go, our moral attention is captured, surely, by their hardship, and the threat to
their dignity it involves, not by the burden that alleviating their hardship would impose on us.
Notice, however, that nothing in the argument I have just put forward disagrees with that.
Indeed, the argument crucially depends on the claim that we have a strong moral obligation to
help others who cannot live with dignity, and it is not incompatible with that claim to maintain
that we may reasonably prevent others from acting in ways by which they will foreseeably
impose that moral obligation on us.
Dignity vs. time-specific priority
Before concluding, I would like to strengthen the appeal of my proposal by arguing that it is
more plausible than the only other combined view that has been proposed. According to
McKerlie, we should combine what he calls the “lifetime priority view” with the “time-specific
priority view”.34 Both views are versions of the more general view known as prioritarianism.
According to prioritarianism, the moral value of assigning a benefit is greater, the worse off the
condition of the person receiving the benefit (worse off, that is, in absolute terms). Now,
McKerlie believes this principle applies both when the “worse off condition” refers to the
condition of a person’s whole lifetime, and when it refers to the condition of a part of a person’s
life. So, he believes that prioritarianism needs to be applied twice, to lifetimes and to parts of
30
lives, and that we must find some way of weighing lifetime priority against time-specific priority
when they conflict.
Combining a lifetime view (whether lifetime priority or any other) with the time-specific
priority view is a promising way of accommodating the consideration about hardship. If the
moral value of assigning a benefit is greater, the worse off the part of life to which it is assigned,
the conclusion follows that greater benefits must flow to those who face hardship at any time.
However, I believe that the time-specific priority view provides a less plausible basis for
accommodating the responsibility consideration than a dignity-based temporal parts view.
In the previous section, I argued that a dignity-based temporal parts view can plausibly be
reconciled with the responsibility consideration. We can ensure that dignity is respected
compatibly with holding people responsible by removing options from people. Furthermore,
because our removing those options is justified by appeal to an intrinsic value grounded in our
autonomy, we would not incur the charge of failing to respect autonomy. It is difficult to see how
the time-specific priority view can be reconciled with the responsibility consideration in the
same way. Time-specific priority demands a response to persons who have low levels of welfare
at specific times. In view of this, it cannot justify our removing options from people on welfare-
independent grounds. Indeed, to uphold time-specific priority, McKerlie’s view may be liable to
the very same kind of objection he has levelled against Daniels’ prudential lifespan account.35
4. Conclusion
From a certain point of view, it may appear irrational for us to establish entitlements for age
groups in a way that fails to ensure that our whole lives go as well as possible. Such policies may
31
appear to rest on little more than an emotional response to the vivid hardship we see people
having to endure in the here and now. We see residents in care homes having to endure a life of
very limited means, or victims of Alzheimer’s gradually enshrouded in the darkness of their
disease. It is difficult under such circumstances not to endorse generous welfare policies. It may
be said that we should resist this tendency, and broaden our focus by endorsing entitlements in
such cases only if they form part of an optimal lifetime’s set of entitlements we should design for
all citizens.
In this paper I have argued that the fact that our moral attention is captured by the
hardship people undergo during parts of their lives may in fact be the proper response to the
intrinsic value of their dignity. That point has not been sufficiently acknowledged, I believe, by
proponents of the lifetime view, and it leaves them incapable of plausibly accommodating our
convictions about the appropriate response we should have to the hardship of others. That it is
intrinsically important that a person’s dignity always be respected does not mean, of course, that
the state should refrain from designing entitlements in terms of their impact on the quality of
people’s whole lives. But it does mean that the latter is not the only concern in view of which
those entitlements should be designed.36
32
1 The first explicit treatment of this question was offered by Norman Daniels in Am I My Parents’ Keeper?
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). I examine the central argument of that book in Section 2 of this
paper.
2 The lifetime view is endorsed by John Rawls, for whom “the claims of those in each phase [of life] derive
from how we would reasonably balance those claims once we viewed ourselves as living through all phases
of life,” Justice as Fairness: a Restatement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 174.
Another proponent is Thomas Nagel, who writes: “the subject of an egalitarian principle is not the
distribution of particular rewards to individuals at some time, but the prospective quality of their lives as a
whole, from birth to death,” in Equality and Partiality, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 69.
The lifetime view is assumed also by Ronald Dworkin when he writes that his egalitarian “envy test” is to be
applied over lifetimes. See Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 76;
Richard Arneson also endorses the lifetime view in “Equality and Equality of Opportunity for Welfare,”
Philosophical Studies 6, (1989): 77-93, as does Norman Daniels in Am I My Parents’ Keeper?.
3 Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams discuss a number of questions surrounding the currency and
pattern of distributive justice in their introduction to their edited collection, The Ideal of Equality (London:
Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, 2000).
4 The “simultaneous equality” and “corresponding segments” views are distinguished by McKerlie in
“Equality and Time”.
5 See Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), Ch. 15.
6 McKerlie also argues that we have personal identity-independent reason to endorse a temporal parts view in
“Justice Between the Young and the Old”, pp. 168-174. I discuss McKerlie’s argument in Section 3.
7 There is an increasingly large literature on the responsibility consideration that I cannot discuss here. For a
representative set of writings invoking the responsibility consideration, see, Richard Arneson, “Equality and
Equal Opportunity for Welfare”; G. A. Cohen, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics, 99 (1989);
Hillel Steiner, “Choice and Circumstance,” in Ideals of Equality, ed. Andrew Mason, (Oxford: Blackwell,
1998); and Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), Chs. 2 and 9.
8 As McKerlie puts it, “[t]hinking in terms of lifetimes allows us to take responsibility into account,” in
“Justice Between the Young and the Old”, p. 154.
9 As Thomas Nagel writes, the possibility of moral compensation is a reason “for taking individual human
lives, rather than individual experiences, as the units over which any distributive principle should operate,”
Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 120.
10 The compensation-based argument against the pure temporal parts view may need to assume that moral
compensation can exist between all phases of a person’s life, since otherwise it does not rule out temporal
parts views that identify temporal parts that are shorter than an entire life but long enough to encompass the
period within which moral compensation within a life is possible. One might object that moral compensation
is not possible between all the phases of a person’s life on the grounds that individuals do not remain
personally identical over time. As I mentioned earlier, I assume personal identity over time in this paper; the
personal identity-based objection to the moral compensation argument therefore does not apply. My reason
for assuming this, recall, is that I want to suggest that we have a personal identity-independent reason for
endorsing a temporal parts view (and hence for resisting the moral compensation argument).
11 For a valuable discussion of the nature of suffering, see Jamie Mayerfeld, Suffering and Moral
Responsibility, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Ch. 2.
12 See Elizabeth Anderson, “What’s the Point of Equality?”, Ethics, Vol. 109 (1999): 287-337.
13 For the fullest statement of the account, see Norman Daniels, Am I My Parents’ Keeper?. For a later
statement of the account see also, “The Prudential Lifespan Account of Justice across Generations,” in
Norman Daniels, Justice and Justification.
14 Daniels, Am I My Parents’ Keeper?, p, 76.
15 For the objection that the implications Daniels identifies do not follow from his account, see Dennis
McKerlie “Equality Between Age-Groups,” pp. 286-8.
16 Dworkin develops his theory must fully in Sovereign Virtue but see also his responses to critics in
“Sovereign Virtue Revisited”, Ethics 113 (2002)
17 Dworkin uses the hypothetical insurance model in order to determine compensation for a number of
different kinds of brute luck, including disability, unemployment due to lack of talent, and poor health. See
Sovereign Virtue, Chs. 2, 7 and 9. The differences between these various kinds of brute luck and insurance
are not relevant for my discussion here. For helpful discussion of Dworkin’s insurance model see Colin
Macleod, Liberalism, Justice and Markets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
18 A key reason for why an ambition-sensitive lifetime view should employ the hypothetical insurance model
is that our ambitions in life are profoundly informed by our attitudes to risk, and that our entitlements thus
reflect our ambitions fully only when they also reflect our attitudes to risk. See Sovereign Virtue, Chs. 7 and
9.
19 Many commentators on Dworkin have identified as problematic his theory’s inability to compensate for
some forms of bad brute luck we may find problematic. For this line of criticism, see G. A. Cohen, “On the
Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics 99 (1989): 906-944, Michael Otsuka, “Luck, Insurance, and
Equality,” Ethics 113 (2002): 40-54, and Robert van der Veen, “Equality of Talent Resources: Procedures or
Outcomes,” in Ethics, 113 (2002): 55-81. While these critiques of Dworkin focus on the theory’s putatively
insufficient egalitarian credentials (in that it does not fully neutralise the unequal impact of bad brute luck)
my focus, like Anderson’s (see her “What is the Point of Equality?”) is on the fact that it cannot even
securely guarantee help for certain absolute harms.
20 See Dworkin, “Sovereign Virtue Revisited”.
21 Dworkin makes this point in his reply to Elizabeth Anderson’s critique. See “Sovereign Virtue Revisited”,
p. 114.
22 Lennart Nordenfelt distinguishes four meanings of dignity in “The Varieties of Dignity”, Health Care
Analysis, Vol. 12, (2004): 69-81; For a historical overview of the concept of dignity see Herbert Spiegelberg,
“Human Dignity: A Challenge to Contemporary Philosophy,” in R. Gotesky and E. Lazlo (eds.) Human
Dignity: This Century and the Next (London: Gorden and Breach, 1970); for a conceptual analysis, see Aurel
Kolnai, “Dignity”, Philosophy, Vol. 51, (1976): 251-271. For the connection between dignity and fortitude,
see David Beyleveld and Roger Brownsword, Human Dignity in Bioethics and Biolaw, (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004), p. 253.
23 For Kant’s view that autonomy is the ground for dignity see his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals
(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), p. 53. For more recent discussions of the relationship
between autonomy and dignity, see Thomas E. Hill Jr., Autonomy and Self-Respect (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1991) and Robin S. Dillon (ed.), Dignity, Character, and Self-Respect (London: Routledge:
1995), pp. 14-18.
24 Although I shall not discuss the specific lifetime view with which we should combine the dignity-based
temporal parts view I shall be proposing, the rationale for the latter view will tell in favour of certain lifetime
views over others, namely those that accommodate autonomy. I explain the connection between dignity and
autonomy below.
25 For the view that autonomy is valuable only as a constituent element of welfare, see John Stuart Mill, On
Liberty, ed. Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978), Ch. III.
26 For an overview of controversy, see John Christman, “Constructing the Inner Citadel: Recent Work on the
Concept of Autonomy”, Ethics 99 (1988): 109-124.
27 I would like to thank an anonymous referee for pressing me to address the concern that autonomy may be
too narrow a ground for dignity.
28 One might object that what is disturbing about the idea of a lifetime decision week is only the fact that it
results in important decisions being made in a hurried way, because they must all be taken together at once,
rather than their being the result of proper deliberation, and in response to whatever opportunities arise
organically, as one moves through life. The reply to this objection is that lifetime decision week would still
be disturbing even we imagine that individuals make very thoughtful and highly sensible decisions about
their lives on the basis of extremely detailed information about their future prospects. Lifetime decision week
is disturbing not merely because it might lead to imprudent decisions, but also because it prevents individuals
in the future from re-assessing their lives in the light of the values they will come to appreciate.
29 Recall that we are considering here, what role dignity-based considerations play in setting time-specific
constraints on a fair lifetime share view. So it is legitimate, on this combined view, to hold that genuine
endorsement depends on a person’s having had available a fair lifetime share of resources on the basis of
which she might have pursued alternative life plans, and furthermore, that it does not depend on her having
had available to her more than her fair lifetime share.
30 I would like to thank an anonymous referee for pressing me to clarify the endorsement condition. For a
related discussion of servility and its relationship to dignity see Thomas Hill, Autonomy and Self-Respect
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Ch. 1.
31 While I do not think there is a precise formula for guiding our judgements about when a person’s
opportunities are so meagre as to threaten her dignity, I think we can form reasonable judgments about when
a person’s set of opportunities are so small that we can say “her life is no longer unfolding in light of what
she deems valuable”.
32 I am grateful to Andrew Williams for alerting me to the relevance of Dworkin’s argument in this context.
See Dworkin, Life’s Dominion (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 101.
33 I have developed this argument more fully in Paul Bou-Habib, “Compulsory Insurance without
Paternalism” Utilitas 18 (2006): 243-263.
34 See Dennis McKerlie, “Priority and Time”.
35 It is open to McKerlie to argue that (1) time-specific priority need not be welfarist but could be autonomy-
focused, so that it requires prioritising support for those most lacking in autonomy at a specific time, and (2)
that autonomy is intrinsically valuable. These two points would bring his combined view closer to mine.
36 I would like to thank the following people for their comments on previous drafts of this paper: Richard
Arneson, Fabian Freyenhagen, Dennis McKerlie, Serena Olsaretti, Andrea Sangiovanni, Andrew Williams
and two anonymous referees.
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