Brute Luck, Option Luck, and Equality of Initial Opportunities

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Brute Luck, Option Luck, and Equality of Initial Opportunities

    Brute Luck, Option Luck, And Equality Of Initial Opportunities*

    Ethics 112 (2002): 529-557

    Peter Vallentyne


    In the old days, material egalitarians tended to favor equality of outcome advantage, on some suitable conception of advantage (happiness, resources, etc.).

    1Under the influence of Dworkin‟s seminal articles on equality, contemporary

    material egalitarians have tended to favor equality of brute luck advantageon

    the grounds that this permits people to be held appropriately accountable for the benefits and burdens of their choices. I shall argue, however, that a plausible conception of egalitarian justice requires neither that brute luck advantage always be equalized nor that people always bear the full cost of their voluntary choices. Instead, justice requires that initial opportunities for advantage be equalized

    2roughly along the lines suggested by Arneson and Cohen. Brute luck

    egalitarianism and initial opportunity egalitarianism are fairly similar in motivation, and as a result they have not been adequately distinguished. Once the two views are more clearly contrasted, equality of opportunity for advantage will, I claim, be seen to be a more plausible conception of equality.


    The concept of justice is construed in several different ways: as rightness of institutions, as rightness of distributions, as coercively enforceable duties, as what we owe others (as opposed to what we owe ourselves or owe impersonally), and as fairness (i.e., what we owe others in purely comparative terms). Here I am concerned with justice in the sense of what we owe others. So understood, justice is not concerned exclusively with the comparative issue of ensuring that individuals with equal claims get equal benefits (fairness). It is also concerned with ensuring that the claims of individuals are fully met (non-comparative justice).

    A plausible conception of justice requires, I shall assume, some sort of promotion of equality of material advantage (perhaps constrained by certain rights). Obviously, this assumption is highly controversial. Some (e.g., traditional libertarians) would reject the relevance of consequences generally and consequences for the disadvantaged in particular. Others would defend a sufficiency view, according to which justice requires that everyone have a

    3 Others would sufficient level of benefits, but does not further require equality.defend a prioritarian view, according to which justice requires promoting benefits,

    4but with extra weight given to those who are worse off. Still others would defend

    some kind of equality of social status quite independently of the effects on

    5material advantage. My goal here, however, is not to defend the relevance of


    material equality, but rather to defend a particular conception of material equality as the most plausible for the theory of justice.

     There has been a great debate about the appropriate equalisandum for material equality (and more generally about the appropriate object of concern for justice). Some (e.g., Dworkin, Rakowski, Steiner, and Van Parijs) ground the

    6 Others (e.g., equalisandum primarily in the competitive value of resources.

    7Arneson, and to some extent Cohen) ground it in well-being. Others (e.g., Sen

    8and to some extent Cohen) ground it in functionings. I shall here leave this issue

    open, and simply appeal to advantage, where this is whatever aspect of outcomes

    ultimately matters for individuals.

     There is, however, a second dimension to this debate. For, no matter what conception of outcome advantage one adopts, there is still the further question of whether it is equality of outcome advantage, equality of opportunity for advantage, equality of brute luck advantage, or something else that is the equalisandum. This paper focuses on this second issue.


    In the next section, I shall argue in favor of equality of initial opportunities for advantage and against equality of brute luck advantage. First, however, I shall examine, in this section, the distinction between brute luck and option luck. For this distinction can be, and has been, drawn in several different ways. It will


    therefore be useful to start by trying to sort out some of these issues. Throughout, option luck is understood as the complement of brute luck.

     Brute luck egalitarianism requires that brute luck advantage be equalized. But what is brute luck? Authors (including myself!) sometimes write as if brute luck is to be understood in the following terms:

Brute Luck as Not Foreseeably Chosen: The occurrence of an event is due to

    brute luck for an agent if and only if the possibility of its occurrence was not (for the agent) a (reasonably) foreseeable outcome of his/her choices.

    This understanding of the distinction between brute and option luck, however, is inadequate. To see the problem, compare two cases in each of which there are just two identically situated identical agents. In the first case, the agents have no choices and are simply exposed to the same natural lotteryexposure to

    lightning strikes, say. The outcomes of the lottery are clearly due to brute luck, since no choice is involved at all. In the second situation, each agent has two choicesto stop or to continue traveling during a stormbut their choices have

    no effect on the probabilities of being struck by lightening. Whatever choice they make, they are exposed to the same natural lottery as in the first situation. Each agent is fully aware of the outcomes of each choice (and in particular that the probability of being struck by lightning is not affected by what choice he/she


    makes). Each agent chooses (arbitrarily) to stop, and then one is struck by lightning and the other is not. Given that the possibility and probability of being struck by lightning, given their choices, were reasonably foreseeable by the agents, the above view of brute luck would classify this as non-brute luck (option luck). There seems, however, to be no reason to treat this case differently from the initial case. Both involve unavoidable inequalities in outcome luck. There was nothing

    the agents could have done to alter their exposure to the lightning strikes. Hence, the presence of fully informed choiceeven along with background equalityis

    9 not sufficient to make an outcome a matter of option luck.

     A better (normatively more relevant) understanding of brute luck is in terms of avoidability:

Brute Luck as (Reasonable) Unavoidability: The occurrence of an event is due

    to brute luck for an agent if and only if the agent could not have (reasonably) avoided the possibility of its occurrence.

    The notion of avoidability (like that of foreseeability) is to be understood as lifetime avoidability. That is, the issue is whether the agent could haveat

    some point in his/her lifeavoided the possibility of the result. The mere fact that a result is unavoidable for the agent shortly before its occurrence does not make the result a matter of brute luck. For the situation in which the result is


    unavoidable (e.g., that the loan shark will break my legs) may itself have been avoidable (e.g., by my not borrowing money from her at an earlier time). For simplicity, my examples and related discussion will assume that what is unavoidable in a situation was not earlier avoidable.

    This conception of brute luck rightly sees no difference between the lightning strikes of the first situation and those of the second situation above (since in both cases there is nothing that the agent could do to eliminate the possibility of the strikes). Most authors (e.g., Arneson, Cohen, Rakowski, and

    10 Indeed, it is present in Roemer) employ at least something like this conception.

    Dworkin‟s original definition:

    Option luck is a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn

    outwhether someone gains or loses through accepting an isolated risk he

    or she should have anticipated and might have declined. Brute luck is a

    11matter of how risks fall out that are not in that sense deliberate gambles.

     There is, however, a question concerning how avoidability is to be understood. On a strict construal, if an agent can avoid exposure to the risk of being struck by lightning by always lying on the ground, then lightning strike outcomes are not due to brute luck. A problem with this view is that it does not take into account the reasonability of avoiding the result in question. Lying on the


    ground may sometimes be reasonable, but it is certainly unreasonable in many contexts. Where lying on the ground is unreasonable, the fact that by doing so one can avoid lightning strikes seems irrelevant.

     On a looser construal, brute luck is taken to include all and only outcomes that are not reasonably avoidable by the agent. If, for example, lying on the

    ground was reasonable (e.g., because of warnings about stormy conditions), then failure to do so will make the results a matter of option luck. If it was not (e.g., because weather conditions were expected to be non-stormy), then failure to do so will not automatically make the results a matter of option luck.

    Of course, this raises the question of what counts as reasonable avoidability. An outcome is reasonably avoidable just in case there is, for the agent, some reasonable choice that avoids the outcome. But what makes a choice reasonable? One view is that it is in the agent‟s best interest. Another view is that

    it is adequately (either in absolute terms, or relative to the best choice) in the agent‟s interests. Of course, there are other possibilities as well. I shall not attempt to resolve the issue of how reasonability should be understood in this context. Instead, I shall note a general problem with appealing to reasonability.

    No matter how exactly reasonableness is understood, appealing to reasonable avoidability faces, it seems, a structural problem. Suppose that an agent has two choices and that the outcomes are completely determined by the choices (no risk is involved). (The same point can be made when outcomes are


    only probabilistically determined by choices.) The agent may choose to pursue an education and live a wonderful life or she may choose to become a drug addict and live a terrible life. The first option, let us stipulate, is a reasonable choice, whereas the second is not. Hence, the wonderful life is not reasonably avoidable (because it‟s the only reasonable option), whereas the terrible life is. Thus, if brute luck is understood as not reasonably avoidable, then the wonderful life outcome is brute luck and the terrible life outcome is viewed as option luck. It seems intuitively strange, however, to think that the wonderful life outcome is a matter of brute luck. The agent had a fully free choice (we can stipulate), and if she chose the wonderful life, it would seem that the outcome is a matter of option

    12 More generally, where two identically situated agents make different luck.

    choices, the differential impact of their choices is, it seems, option luck. Furthermore, it seems strange that the classification of wonderful life outcome would change (from brute luck to option luck) if an option were added that produced an equally wonderful, although different, life. In this case, the original wonderful life outcome would be reasonably avoidable (and hence deemed option luck), since the added option is also a reasonable choice.

    Perhaps these implications are not as troubling as they first seem. Alternatively, perhaps there is some other way of capturing the notion of

    13reasonable avoidability. I shall not pursue the matter further here, since

    ultimately I will argue against the normative significance of the distinction


between brute and option luck.

     The characterization of brute luck as (reasonable) unavoidability has some further problems. One is that at best it is a gross simplification of a more adequate general idea of inability to influence. Inability to avoid is one way that an agent

    can be unable to influence outcomes, but it is not the only way. Suppose that an agent has a choice between a 99% chance of 100 and a 1% chance of 0 on the one hand and a 1% chance of 100 and a 99% chance of 0 on the other. The agent is unable to avoid the possibility of each of the two outcomes, but she is able to influence the chance of their realization. The above characterization ignores how agents can influence outcomes by influencing their probabilities. A more general characterization is the following:

Brute Luck as (Reasonable) Inability to Influence: The occurrence of an event

    is due to brute luck for an agent if and only if the agent could not have (reasonably) influenced the possibility or probability of its occurrence.

     This is a more adequate characterization of brute luck, since it recognizes that avoidability is but one way that outcomes may be influenceable by an agent. There is, however, a further problem. The “if and only if” clause in this characterization is problematic. For it requires that an outcome be classified as non-brute luck as long the agent could have even some very minimal influence on


    the outcome. For example, if an agent has a choice between a 50% chance of 100 and a 50% chance of 0 on the one hand and a 50.00001% chance of 100 and a 49.99999 chance of 0 on the other, then the above condition holds that the result is entirely due to option luck (since she has some, extremely minimal, influence over probabilities). If, however, the two choices had identical payoffs and probabilities, then the result would be classified as brute luck (since she would have no influence over the outcome). It seems rather strange that a minute difference in probabilities should convert the entire outcome from brute luck to

    14 A more adequate characterization would replace “if and only if” option luck.

    with “to the extent that” and then have some method of apportioning outcomes

    between brute luck and option luck based on the degree of influence the agent had. It is not, however, clear that any plausible method of apportionment exists. Hence,

    15this is an open question for brute luck egalitarians to address.

    There is yet one more complication related to the reasonableness of choice that we need to consider. So far, we have been discussing issues that arise even when agents are fully informed. The new issue concerns how incomplete or false beliefs should be reflected in the characterization of brute luck. Often agents are unable to influence events the possibility of which they cannot foresee, but this is not always so. Some events may be unforeseeable but nonetheless influenceable. For example, an agent in the late 1970s may not have been able to foresee the possibility of catching AIDS from unprotected sex, but he could nonetheless have


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