Dick Arneson — Description of Research

In a book of photos of ‘Philosophers’ published in 2011, I provided this for my photo caption: “At the University of California in Berkeley in 1967, when I started graduate school in philosophy, you could hardly ignore the question, What conception of social justice makes the most sense. I have always resisted answers that suppose a society could be just and fair independently of whether or not its members are leading genuinely good lives.”

Marx and Mill.
Otherwise put, when starting out in philosophy my aim was to split the difference between Karl Marx and J. S. Mill, or in some way reconcile their views. “Mill’s Doubts about Freedom under Socialism” (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supp. vol. 5, 1979), “What’s Wrong with Exploitation?” (Ethics, 1981), “Prospects for Community in a Market Economy” (Political Theory, 1981), “Marxism and Secular Faith” (American Political Science Review, 1985), and “Meaningful Work and Market Socialism” (Ethics, 1987) are some of my essays working at this agenda. I didn’t make much progress. Much emphasis was laid on the liberal elements I discerned in Marx’s views.

Meanwhile I was struggling to comprehend John Rawls’s magisterial work A Theory of Justice. My Ph.D. dissertation criticized Rawls’s theory of justice from a broadly perfectionist standpoint. The idea was that Rawls went astray in failing to place an objective account of individual well-being—what makes someone’s life go better or worse for her—at the center of his theory of justice. I published none of this.

Equal opportunity for welfare and beyond.
Ronald Dworkin’s essays on liberal egalitarianism published in 1981 were eye-opening. They helped me put my finger on elements in Rawls’s ideas I was questioning. Dworkin’s positive views also seemed appealing in a way, but also problematic. Dworkin as I read him held that distributive justice requires providing for each person equal initial resources to live as she chooses, resources being interpreted to include personal talents as well as material resources. Justice requires equalizing unchosen and uncourted inequalities, not chosen and courted ones. Those formulations put personal responsibility front and center. If society provided you a fair start in life, and you took some gambles, or messed up, or voluntarily sacrificed for good causes, your resultant plight, if subpar, would not trigger justice duties on the part of others to bring you back to equal prospects. (If luck that could not be anticipated falls on you in the course of your adult life, that would call for further adjustment, on Dworkin’s view.)

Emphasizing personal responsibility is consistent with holding that our duties to others fundamentally involve helping them to lead genuinely fulfilling lives. Dworkin rejected what he called “equality of welfare” and instead embraced “equality of resources,” but it struck me that there were really two distinct and independent questions here—whether justice was a matter of bringing about opportunities for people or guaranteeing outcomes, and whether those outcomes or opportunities should be measured in terms of resources or welfare. Dworkin was in effect contrasting equal outcomes assessed by a welfare standard and equal opportunity for resources. But there are four possibilities here, not two. To my mind, Dworkin had overlooked the more promising possibility.

Following these thoughts, I wrote “Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare” (Philosophical Studies, 1989) and “Liberalism, Distributive Subjectivism, and Equal Opportunity for Welfare (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1990) and follow-up essays including “Is Work Special? Justice and the Distribution of Employment” (American Political Science Review, 1990), “Property Rights in Persons” (Social Philosophy and Policy, 1992), “Cracked Foundations of Liberal Equality” (written in 1992 for a volume that was not published until 2004),“What Do Socialists Want?” (Politics and Society, 1994) “Egalitarianism and the Undeserving Poor” Journal of Political Philosophy, 1997) “Real Freedom and Distributive Justice” (in a 1998 collection of essays), and “Equal Opportunity for Welfare Defended and Recanted” (Journal of Political Philosophy, 1999). On this view, justice is equal opportunity for welfare. G. A. Cohen was independently pressing a similar line of thought, so I was brought into contact with him, and with two other analytical Marxists, John Roemer and Jon Elster, both of whom I had met when I was a graduate student in Berkeley. Roemer and I had a shared history of political activism. These three, especially Cohen and Roemer, became long-term mentors, more through their writings than through personal contact. I would put Brian Barry in this same category of long-term mentor. I came under his intellectual wing starting in the 1980s.

Meanwhile Marc Fleurbaey knocked a decisive hole in my views. I first encountered his critique of equal opportunity views at a conference in Caen in 1996. He said, suppose society somehow puts in place a perfectly fair initial distribution of opportunities across persons. Now consider Bert, a young adult who squanders his opportunities by imprudent risky behavior, say by driving a motorcycle at reckless speed in a deserted setting where only he might be affected. He could purchase accident insurance but does not. Unfortunately he has an accident and is heading toward living out the rest of his life in a vegetative state. However, at small cost, we can provide him an operation that will restore him to normal mental functioning and good life prospects. Surely justice requires us to provide Bert the aid he needs. But equal opportunity views including equal opportunity for welfare say No. By assumption Bert had equal opportunity and was responsible via his own risky conduct for his present predicament. Giving more to him requires taking from others what is by assumption their fair share, which would be unjust.

Some equal opportunity doctrines are qualified or nuanced in ways that might enable them to escape or mitigate Fleurbaey’s critique, but the doctrine I was espousing had no reply. Thinking about the Bert example suggests a better line of thought. In my view, four features of Bert’s case should affect our response. (1) Helping him produces great gain at small cost, so there is a utilitarian case for helping. (2) Bert is young, and if not helped, he ends up very badly off in lifetime well-being. There is a prioritarian reason to help him. Priority says the moral value of obtaining a benefit for a person is greater, the worse off in terms of lifetime well-being the person would otherwise be. (3) Although Bert behaves badly and is responsible for his bad choice, he also suffers very bad option luck. His "punishment" one might say is disproportionate to his "crime" of irresponsible imprudent conduct on one occasion. (4) Bert in the example is not only imprudent, but viciously imprudent. But there is also virtuous imprudence. Suppose someone sacrifices her own well-being prospects voluntarily and reasonably in order to bring about greater well-being gains for others. Nir Eyal forcefully brought this last consideration to my attention.

To see that recognition of these four features lie behind our response to Fleurbaey’s Bert example, we can imagine varying these features of the example. As the cost of helping Bert increases and the benefit he would gain decreases, the case for aiding him is weakened. If we imagine Bert not as a young adult but as Grandpa Bert, who has already enjoyed an excellent life, we have less reason to give him further aid. If we shift to a many accidents version of the example, in which Bert repeatedly behaves recklessly and has many mishaps, each of which inflicts small brain damage, so he ends up facing bad life prospects as described, but his fault is much greater, again there is less reason to offer Bert further aid. Finally, if Bert had arrived at his present plight by heroic self-sacrificing action, rushing into a burning building to save the victims at great cost to himself, there would be by virtue of that circumstance another good reason to help him regain good life prospects.

Desert-catering prioritarianism.
Putting the four features together, we get this formulation: We ought always to choose actions and policies that would bring about the greatest reachable moral value--this is a matter of bringing about benefits and avoiding losses for persons, and the moral value of obtaining a benefit (avoiding a loss) for a person, is greater, (1) the greater the well-being gain she would get from it, and (2) greater, the lower her lifetime well-being total would otherwise be, and (3) greater, the more she is deserving over the course of her life. Call this deservingness-catering prioritarianism. This is stated as a fundamental moral principle; justice as I see it is the properly enforceable component of morality. In a slogan: Justice demands bringing about good lives for people, with good fairly distributed across persons. (What we owe to non-human animals of course also needs to be registered; leave this important complication to the side.)

This view takes the basic currency of justice to be outcomes not any sort of opportunities, capabilities, resources, or freedoms. Personal responsibility is a crucial element in any satisfactory account of social justice, but taking on board this point does not require an opportunity focus. If provision of opportunities were what in itself mattered morally, then if we could gain valuable opportunities for a person, but we somehow knew for sure the opportunities would do no good for her or anyone else, the moral imperative of providing opportunities would not thereby be lessened. In fact, in this scenario, the requirement to provide opportunities is extinguished.

I started working out the view sketched just above in “Rawls, Responsibility, and Distributive Justice” (written in 1996 for a volume edited by M. Fleurbaey. M. Salles, and J., Weymark, but not published until 2008), “Egalitarianism and Responsibility” (Journal of Ethics, 1999), “Perfectionism and Politics” (Ethics, 2000), “Luck and Equality” (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2001), “Luck Egalitarianism Interpreted and Defended (Philosophical Topics, 2004), “Desert and Equality” (in a volume edited by N. Holtug and K. Lippert-Rasmussen, 2007), “Luck Egalitarianism—A Primer” (in a volume edited by C. Knight and Z. Stemplowska, 2011), and “Dworkin and Luck Egalitarianism” (in Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice, 2018). This project is ongoing.

Liberalism, democracy, paternalism.
I’m a left-liberal in roughly the American sense of the term (that is, one who is for wide individual freedom, civil liberties, nondiscrimination, and broadly socialist or social democratic policies). But the liberalism that should attract our allegiance is the liberalism of J. S. Mill not Kant-inspired doctrines. That means we should have no truck with doctrines that give strict or absolute priority to freedom of speech and other civil liberties over well-being promotion and its fair distribution. This disposition of mine finds expression in “Against Rawlsian Equality of Opportunity” (Philosophical Studies, 1999) “Equality of Opportunity: Derivative Not Fundamental (Journal of Social Philosophy 2013) “Four Conceptions of Equal Opportunity” (Economic Journal, 2018). See also “Political Liberalism, Religious Liberty, and Religious Establishment” (in a volume edited by H. Dagan, S. Lifshitz, and Y. Stern, 2014); also “Freedom and Religion” (in Oxford Handbook of Freedom, 2018); also “Against Freedom of Conscience” (San Diego Law Review, 2010).

In the same spirit, my essays on the justification of democracy deny that anyone has an intrinsic moral right to a democratic say. The franchise is a bit of political power, and one does not ever have a right to power over another unless one’s having it would work out fairly for others, by way of having good consequences. Democracy under a wide array of modern conditions is justifiable, but only on instrumental grounds. See “Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just” (in Justice and Democracy, 2004), “The Supposed Right to a Democratic Say” (in a volume edited by J. Christman and T. Christiano, 2009), “Elitism” (Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, 2016) and “Reconsidering Nondemocratic Political Regimes” (San Diego Law Review, 2019).

Paternalism is standardly understood as restriction of a person’s liberty, against her will, for her own good. Suppose such paternalism actually succeeds in making the person better off. Is it still wrong? Conventional liberalism tends to condemn paternalism. I keep coming back to this topic. “Mill versus Paternalism” (Ethics, 1980) tries to recruit Mill to a qualified but absolute condemnation of paternalism. Later essays backtrack. “Paternalism, Utility, and Fairness” (Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 1989) argues that strict antipaternalism is unfair to bad choosers. “Joel Feinberg and the Justification of Hard Paternalism” (Legal Theory, 2005) argues for hard paternalism and affirms that each of us has a duty to make something worthwhile for self and others of the opportunity that consists in having an ordinary life to lead. See also “Nudge and Shove” (Social Theory and Practice, 2015) and “Egalitarian Perspectives on Paternalism” in Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Paternalism (2018).

Sometimes paternalism is understood differently, as action directed toward a person that is motivated by a negative judgment on the person’s capacity competently to manage her affairs within her legitimate sphere of authority. On this conception, meddling in my parenting activity with a view to improving the welfare of my child could qualify as paternalism. This conception merits flat rejection. The ground for its rejection would be that acting toward a person that is motivated by a belief, justified by available evidence, that the person is incompetent in some respect, is in itself never wrongfully disrespectful.

Consequentialism and nonconsequentialism.
As stated, desert-catering prioritarianism is a version of act consequentialism, the doctrine that one ought always to do an act, among those available for choice, that would bring about an outcome no worse, impartially assessed, than the outcome of anything else one might instead have done. Nonconsequentialism is then any moral doctrine that denies some element of act consequentialism. Of special interest are doctrines that hold that we are not always permitted to do what would bring about the best outcome, because that act might violate moral constraints we should respect, and even when constraints are not in play, not always required to do what would bring about the best, because each person has wide moral freedom to live as she chooses provided she does not violate moral constraints.

Some of my writing directly defends this generic consequentialist doctrine. “Consequentialism and Its Critics” (in the Cambridge Handbook of the History of Philosophy 1945-2015, forthcoming), “Consequentialism versus Special-Ties Partiality” (The Monist, 2003), and “Rawls versus Utilitarianism in the Light of Political Liberalism” (in a volume edited by V. Davion and C. Wolf, 2000). Some of my writing tries indirectly to support act consequentialism by showing that its implications for particular moral problems, on reflection, look plausible. See for example “Forgiveness and Consequences” (in a volume edited by D. Nelkin and B. Warnke, forthcoming), “Discrimination, Disparate Impact, and Theories of Justice” (in a volume edited by S. Moreau and D. Hellman, 2013), “Exploitation and Outcome” (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, 2013), “What Do We Owe To Distant, Needy Strangers?” (in a volume of essays on Peter Singer Under Fire, 2009), and “Moral Limits on the Demands of Beneficence?” (in a volume edited by D. Chatterjee, 2004).

But on this large, unsettled issue, we should be willing to play both sides of the street. After all, even if consequentialist theory is well articulated and understood, nonconsequentialism in ethics is still developing as a work in progress. It would be premature to try to arrive at a definitive verdict for consequentialism or nonconsequentialism prior to identifying the most plausible versions of both views. My essay on “Deontology’s Travails” (in a volume edited by H. Hurd, 2018) defends a moderate nonconsequentialism, holding that moral constraints give way when the consequences of abiding by them become sufficiently bad. This same line is pursued in “Side Constraints, Lockean Individual Rights, and the Moral Basis of Libertarianism” (in a volume edited by R. Bader and J. Meadowcroft, 2011), and also in “The Shape of Lockean Rights: Pareto, Fairness, and Consent” (Social Philosophy and Policy, 2005). See also “Self-Ownership and World Ownership: Against Left-Libertarianism” (Social Philosophy and Policy, 2010).

I consider fairness and equality between men and women in “Feminism and Family Justice” (Public Affairs Quarterly, 1997), “What Is Wrongful Discrimination?” (San Diego Law Review, 2006), “What Sort of Sexual Equality Should Feminists Seek?”(Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, 1998), and “The Meaning of Marriage and State Efforts to Facilitate Friendship, Love, and Child-Rearing” (San Diego Law Review, 2005).

The principle of fairness is a candidate deontological constraint that forbids free riding on cooperative schemes that supply public goods. “The Principle of Fairness and Free-Rider Problems (Ethics, 1982) defends the principle against Lockean libertarianism and “Paternalism and the Principle of Fairness” (in a volume edited by C. Coons and M. Weber, 2013) reinterprets the doctrine and defends it against various objections it has attracted over the years.

Self-defense can be viewed as a problem of distributive justice. When one person subjects another to lethal attack, that standardly creates a situation in which the bad of death must fall on someone, and the question arises, on whom is it more fair, all things considered, that this bad should fall? “Self-Defense and Culpability: Fault Forfeits First” (San Diego Law Review, 2018) offers a partial answer: when someone must die or suffer grievous harm and there is a person who is both seriously morally culpable with respect to this situation and significantly more culpable than anyone else involved, that specially culpable individual is the morally preferred target of lethal violence. This person could be a bystander or even conceivably a victim. This position is applied to just war theory in “Resolving the Responsibility Dilemma” (in a volume edited by S. Bazargan-Forward and S., Rickless, 2017), “Just Warfare and Noncombatant Immunity,” Cornell International Law Journal, 2006), and in a work-in-progress essay, “Distributive War.”

Culpability and deservingness.
The culpability issue that is central to these self-defense and just war essays reintroduces the deservingness idea that figures in desert-catering prioritarianism. What ultimately makes a person morally deserving or undeserving in a way that makes benefiting the person a higher or lower moral priority? The suggestion I pursue starts with the claim that one can only be morally responsible, at most, for what lies within one’s power to control, and a companion claim that the more difficult and onerous it would be to set one’s will toward what is morally right, the more one is deserving to the extent one does so, and the less one is undeserving to the extent one does not do so. To the degree that the actual decision problems one faces in life are due to luck beyond one’s power to control, to that degree what one is ultimately morally responsible for, what renders one morally deserving or undeserving (nonculpable or culpable), is, roughly speaking, not how one behaves in these decision problems but to what extent one makes good faith efforts to dispose one’s will toward the right and the good. And since we vary in given propensities to be conscientious in this sense, our deservingness scores must be adjusted for this further moral luck factor. Perhaps the no-moral-luck constraint eliminates moral responsibility and so differential deservingness altogether. But even if some version of free will libertarianism or compatibilism should turn out true, no-moral-luck will still have revisionary implications for judgments of individual responsibility and deservingness. Threading a path through this tangle of issues is a research task I hope to pursue. “The Smart Theory of Responsibility and Desert” (in a volume edited by S. Olsaretti, 2003) explores J. J. C. Smart’s proposal as to how we might sensibly the reconceive the idea of moral responsibility as a tool if the fact that human actions are caused events cannot be reconciled with some version of compatibilism or free will libertarianism.

What broadly egalitarian social justice theories imply regarding public policy issues and individual choices of action obviously depends on their scope. Some moral theorists hold that for one reason or another fundamental moral principles have limited scope. A common view is that justice principles vary in their demandingness depending on the density of the associations or interactions that individuals have to one another. We owe more to insiders than to outsiders, these theorists say. We owe more to members of our own political society than foreigners, and perhaps more to (most) presently living people than to future generations.

Cosmopolitanism and global justice.
Several of my essays take issue with the position just described and defend a strongly cosmopolitan doctrine that in a nutshell denies that national borders have intrinsic moral significance. “Extreme Cosmopolitanisms Defended” (Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 2016) pursues this line, as does “Guest Worker Programs and Reasonable, Feasible Cosmopolitanism” (Journal of Legal Studies, forthcoming). See also “Theories, Types, and Bounds of Justice” (in Routledge Handbook of Global Ethics, 2015), “Is Patriotism Immoral?” (Philosophic Exchange, 2013), and “Do Patriotic Ties Limit Global Justice Duties?” (Journal of Ethics, 2006). Extreme cosmopolitan doctrines include the position that at the fundamental level special ties never give rise to morally acceptable partiality toward relationship partners. A weaker extreme cosmopolitanism allows that we may have special tie duties to relationship partners with whom we are personally acquainted but denies that such duties arise among members of anonymous groups who lack such personal acquaintance. In the neighborhood of these views is a still weaker stance that maintains that morality includes a strong beneficence component that gives us large duties to assist people in need independently of their spatial or future temporal location.

Welfarism and individual-well-being.
In many of my writings one or another version of welfarism is assumed. The assumption is that what we fundamentally owe one another is promoting the well-being of individual persons. Versions of welfarism are distinguished and discussed in my 2019 Pacific APA Presidential address, to be published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association (2019). Welfare or well-being is prudential good—what makes someone’s life go better rather than worse for that very person. But what’s that? In most of my work, the nature of individual well-being is left as a blank to be filled in by whatever might happen to be the most plausible account of this matter.

In early essays I affirm that welfare is the satisfaction of one’s preferences that would withstand full information and critical scrutiny. This allows that my welfare is not determined by whatever my subjective preferences happen to be, because these preferences might not withstand critical scrutiny with full information. “Human Flourishing versus Desire Satisfaction” (Social Philosophy and Policy, 1999) rejects any form of preference or desire satisfactionism and –a separate and independent point—denies that to treat people fairly is to promote to a tolerable degree their welfare as measured by preference or desire satisfaction. “Cracked Foundations of Liberal Equality” (2004) rejects the claim that no feature of a person’s life, however objectively valuable it may, be can enhance her welfare unless she endorses it or has some other positive subjective attitude to it. “Does Fairness Require a Multidimensional Approach” (Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy, 2016) commits to an objective list conception of individual well-being. On this view, there are things that it is objectively good for any individual to get or have, and the more one gets or has tokens of any of these types of things, the better one’s life goes. The items on the list are thought to include such things as enjoyment, achievement, knowledge, and relationships of love and friendship. How nonarbitrarily to specify what belongs on the list is a big question. How to weight the different amounts of different goods in people’s lives so as to arrive at even rough overall assessments is another big question. I’m inclined to favor a bare objective list, lacking any structure. There are no thresholds for any type of good, such that if one is below that level, one’s life cannot be overall good, or such that if one has an abundance beyond some upper threshold, further gains along that dimension add decreasing extra value. There is no temporal shape that one’s life might have, say from rags to riches, such that having that shape in itself makes the life better for the one living it. This sketch of a view, to be credible, clearly needs filling in.

Basic equality; distributive and relational views.
What makes a being morally considerable, owed consideration? A plausible suggestion is that if you have rational agency capacities at least at a threshold level, you are a person with the rights and responsibilities that go with that status. (If you are an animal with subthreshold capacities, you are considerable, but not fully so.) But there’s a puzzle. We believe that all human persons share a fundamental equal status, all of us count the same in some basic sense. But individuals differ in rational agency capacities, cognitive, affective, and volitional. If I have higher status than a crocodile, by virtue of my possessing greater rational capacities, why don’t Alfred Einstein and Mother Theresa have a fundamentally higher status, by virtue of possessing greater rational capacities than I have? I address these questions without success in “What, if Anything, Renders All Humans Morally Equal?” (in a volume edited by D. Jamieson, 1999) and in “Basic Equality: Neither Rejectable Nor Acceptable” (in a volume edited by U. Steinhoff, 2015).

Recently, the idea that all persons share a fundamentally equal moral status as rational agents has suggested to some moral philosophers a reconsideration of what we owe to one another. In a welfarist view, the basic norm of equality is that each and every person’s life counts the same—a benefit for you counts the same as a same-sized benefit for me or for anyone else—in the determination of what is fair production and distribution of good. On what has come to be called a relational egalitarian view, the basic norm of equality is that all should relate as equals. We should regard each other and treat each other just in ways that befit out our equal value and status. Morality requires equal or fair relationships not equal or fair distribution of any stuff. These ideas resonate with a Kantian ideal of liberalism, rooted in the ideas of Immanuel Kant, and distinct from the liberalism of Mill that I espouse.

Many questions arise here. Perhaps relational and distributive dimensions of morality are compatible and somehow can be combined. Relational egalitarians including Elizabeth Anderson tend to hold that the relational dimension has priority—distribution matters only insofar as it is instrumental to relating as equals. This prompts the suggestion that perhaps it’s the other way round—relating as equals matters morally, and is of large importance, but only insofar as it is partly constitutive of attaining good lives for people or instrumental to that. My essays “Luck Egalitarianism and Prioritarianism” (Ethics, 2000) and “Democratic Equality and Relating as Equals” (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supp. vol. 36, 2010) push this suggestion, but indecisively. My “Why Not Capitalism?” (in a volume edited by A. Kaufman, 2015) criticizes a proposal by G. A. Cohen to the effect that considerations of relational equality form a crucial part of the moral argument for socialism over capitalism.

I’m currently working on coauthoring a book with Jason Brennan, on Capitalism—For and Against, in debate format. I’m also currently engaged in writing a short book on prioritarianism that outlines various versions of this doctrine and defends it against recent powerful criticisms from those who urge sufficiency not priority (what matters morally is that everyone have good enough prospects) or alternatively urge equality not priority (what matters morally is that everyone should have or get the same in some important respects).


This brief sketch of my research interests indicates I have made forays into a fairly wide range of issues and controversies. It is no doubt fair to say I am a jack of some trades and master of none.