04 June 2014


'What’s So Shameful about Shameful Revelations?' by Joanna Firth in (2013) 1 LEAP comments [PDF] that
Jonathan Wolff, amongst others, has criticised luck egalitarian theories of distributive justice because these theories require untalented citizens to reveal their lack of talent to the state. He believes that, even in an ideal egalitarian society, this would cause citizens to feel ashamed. Having to reveal facts that one considers shameful undermines one’s self-respect. The state should treat its citizens with respect and, thus, it ought not to treat them in ways that undermine their self-respect. In this paper, I argue that this shameful revelations allegation is false. In an ideal egalitarian society, people would believe that a person’s natural marketable talents are an inappropriate basis on which to measure her value. Emotions typically have a cognitive structure: one of the constitutive components of each particular emotion is a particular type of belief. Shame is felt when one believes that one does not possess some quality that one believes one needs to have in order to have value. So, since citizens of an ideal egalitarian society will not believe that a person’s value depends on her natural marketable talents, they will not feel ashamed of being untalented. This is good news. Luck egalitarian theories require citizens to reveal their untalentedness because it is necessary in order to achieve fairness in the distribution of resources and/or welfare. Wolff’s allegation therefore implies that fairness and respect will conflict in an ideal egalitarian society. But, if I am correct, we may be able to achieve both these values.
Firth argues that
All egalitarians ought to take both fairness and respect seriously. Egalitarian theories of distributive justice should, therefore, be sensitive to both these values. In ‘Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos’ Jonathan Wolff argues that even in an ideal egalitarian society, that is, a society where the inhabitants embrace and are guided by the underlying principles that inform the way that society is governed, these two values are very likely to conflict (Wolff 1998). Many prominent recent theories of distributive justice have been focused solely on fairness, and his argument is intended as a criticism of them: if, even at the ideal level, we must sacrifice respect to achieve full fairness, we shouldn’t seek full fairness and we should spend less time theorising about it. Wolff’s claim that fairness and respect are very likely to conflict has considerable prima facie plausibility and is well known. Further it has received explicit endorsement by some political theorists (e. g. Hinton 2001: 73; Lang 2009: 329) and is implicit in “What is the Point of Equality?”, Elizabeth Anderson’s famous polemic against fairness-focused theories (Anderson 1999). Wolff’s claim, however, is incorrect and in this paper I shall demonstrate why. But, before I do so, it is necessary to briefly rehearse Wolff’s argument. 
The prominent fairness-orientated theories Wolff has in mind are those that have come to be known as ‘luck egalitarian’ theories. Wolff accepts the basic insight of luck egalitarianism (and its conception of fairness): if a person is responsible for having a less than equal share of resources and/or welfare, then this inequality is not unfair (Wolff 1998: 97). To illustrate the insight, consider Will Kymlicka’s well-known depiction of it: the tennis player and the gardener.  Two single people of equal natural ability are each given a plot of land with equal potential. One person, the gardener, works hard and cultivates her land. The other person, the tennis player, idles around all day playing tennis. As a result, the gardener becomes rich and the tennis player becomes poor (Kymlicka 2002: 72-3). The luck egalitarian view is that if we required the gardener to transfer some of her wealth to the tennis player, it would be unfair because the tennis player is responsible for his poverty and the gardener for her wealth. Conversely, luck egalitarians hold that inequalities in resources and/or welfare that people are not responsible for, that is, inequalities that arise out of brute luck, are unfair. So, for example, if I were born without legs and, in my society, being legless gives one the additional disadvantage of it being more difficult to acquire further resources and/or welfare, this would be unfair. Additionally, luck egalitarianism would, other things equal, require that I be compensated by the state to mitigate for my disadvantage. 
In order to achieve a fair distribution, a luck egalitarian state would, therefore, need to collect information about how far each citizen is responsible for having the level of resources or welfare that they do. One piece of information that would be needed to find this out is the level of marketable natural talents (“talents” for short) that each individual has.6 This kind of data collection raises issues relating to privacy. However, even leaving these aside, Wolff argues that this type of data collection makes luck egalitarianism problematic because it undermines respect. He says:
Consider... the case of someone who is unemployed at a time of low unemployment and no particular shortage of jobs. To qualify for [state] benefits this person will have to show that he or she does not have the opportunities that others have. But, by hypothesis, ...the failure, if there is one, is... the lack of talent or aptitude for the jobs that are available. To press a claim, then, one is required not merely to admit but to make out a convincing case that one is a failure, unable to gain employment even when there is no difficulty for others. But think how it must feel —how demeaning it must be— to have to admit to oneself and then convince others that one has not been able to secure a job, despite one’s best efforts, at a time when others appear to obtain employment with ease (Wolff 1998: 114-115).
Wolff alleges that even in an ideal egalitarian society, having to reveal to oneself and the state that one is untalented would cause citizens to feel ashamed. Following Wolff, I shall call this the ‘shameful revelations’ allegation (Wolff 1998: 109). Causing citizens to feel ashamed in the process of granting them their distributive entitlements is not compatible with treating citizens with respect. So, if the shameful revelations allegation were true, then, there would indeed be a conflict between fairness and respect. In response to this  conflict, Wolff proposes that even at an ideal level, we have reason to prefer a system of unconditional state benefits over a luck egalitarian system. 
Wolff makes several other (related) arguments in the paper. For example, he discusses two different ways in which having to reveal one’s untalentedness might undermine one’s self-respect in a non-ideal luck egalitarian society, notes some problems with using two person examples and points to the dangers of solely doing ideal theory. However, I put these to one side and focus on the following version of the shameful revelations allegation: even in an ideal egalitarian society, having to reveal to the state that one is untalented would cause citizens to feel ashamed. 
A luck egalitarian could respond to the shameful revelations allegation by simply accommodating its claim. She might say, without much ado, that, of course, luck egalitarianism should be limited in its application by other values (like respect) and no one ever thought otherwise (Lippert-Rasmussen 2009). There are two versions of this view: that luck egalitarian fairness and respect should be traded off against each other or that luck egalitarianism is conditionally sound, i.e. sound only if it is consistent with respect. Alternatively a luck egalitarian might claim that the shameful revelations allegation provides welfare-based luck egalitarian reasons against the achievement of complete fairness in the distribution of resources. That is, if luck egalitarianism aims to equalise access to welfare, and collecting information about citizens’ talents will make them ashamed, then luck egalitarianism would not require this information to be collected (see e.g. Arneson 2000: 177). However, neither of these responses really challenge Wolff ’s argument, since both responses accept his main contention —that there is a conflict between fairness and respect in a luck egalitarian society. The first type of response clearly grants this main point. That the second does so is less obvious but, in fact, it concedes the problem and pushes it back a level. If one claims that welfare-based luck egalitarian reasons would prohibit making people reveal their lack of talents, then there is still a conflict between fairness and respect - it’s just that it’s been rebranded, in Wolff’s terms, as “fairness conflicted against itself” and, it seems, respect has won (Wolff 1998: 117-118). 
My argument does not take this concessive tack. I aim to refute the shameful revelations allegation itself and therefore show that the conflict Wolff points to is not real. My basic argument is as follows: emotions have a cognitive structure, that is, one of the constitutive components of each particular emotion is a particular type of belief. For example, one of the components of fear is the belief that danger is approaching or present. Shame is felt when one believes that one does not possess some quality that one believes one needs to have in order to have value (in some deep, but not necessarily moral, sense of the word ‘value’). So, in order to be ashamed of being untalented, one must believe that one’s value depends on the natural marketable talents one possesses. As I said, Wolff intends the shameful revelations allegation to apply to an ideal egalitarian society, where an ideal egalitarian society is defined as one where the inhabitants embrace and are guided by the underlying principles that inform the way that that society is governed. But believing that a person’s value, in any deep sense, depends on her marketable natural talents is highly inegalitarian (although admittedly in a different sense of the word to how it is used in the phrase ‘luck-egalitarian’). So it is my contention that in an ideal egalitarian society, people will not believe this and, therefore, will not be ashamed of being untalented. The shameful revelations allegation is false and we can, therefore, show that the conflict between fairness and respect is not real. In an ideal egalitarian society, the threat of people having to make shameful revelations will not provide a reason for us to have an unconditional state-benefit system. 
My paper will be structured as follows. Section I will outline what beliefs the citizens of a society must hold in order for the society be an ideal egalitarian one. Section II will explain the cognitive structure of emotions and give a brief conceptual analysis of shame. Section III will provide a summary of my argument and give its conclusion. I will consider and reject possible objections to my argument in section IV. (Namely worries arising from (i) the fact that some people in current society would say that marketable talents don’t add to a person’s value but would feel ashamed if they found out they were untalented and (ii) the fact that careers are important goods for many people). My paper only seeks to defend ideal luck egalitarianism from Wolff’s  attack (I would like to be clear about this). However, whether a theory is successful or not at the ideal level affects its application and, in section V, I will conclude by briefly and tentatively considering the real-world policy implications of my argument. 
Let me emphasise that in this paper I am discussing brute or natural talents, like physical abilities or raw intelligence rather than character-trait based talents like drive, ambition, or being hardworking. I limit my discussion in this way for three reasons. First, I am a compatibilist in the context of the free-will debate: crudely speaking, even though people do not choose their character traits, there is a sense in which they endorse them and I think this is a sufficient basis on which to hold them responsible for them. Second, even if one thinks people are not responsible for their character-trait talents in the relevant sense and that in an ideal luck egalitarian society it is inevitable that people will be ashamed of, for example, being lazy or unambitious this would significantly reduce the force of the shameful revelations allegation. The idea that lazy and unambitious people would be ashamed of claiming state benefits is nowhere near as alarming as the idea that those with, for example, a learning disability would be. Third, this is the meaning Wolff has in mind. 
Before getting into the meat of my argument, it is worth mentioning that Wolff has recently published ‘Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos Revisited’ (Wolff 2010). In this paper, Wolff explores some ways in which a person might be tested for untalentedness without shaming them or undermining their self-respect (e. g. by sensitive interviews combined with counselling). His main conclusion in the new paper is that:
[T]hings are very likely to go badly wrong if we set out an ideal theory of equality and then attempt to implement it in the real world without a great deal of further thought about how it would actually impact on people, and the relations between them (Wolff 2010: 349).
I do not disagree with this conclusion but it is obvious and, as Wolff himself says, ‘bland’ (Wolff 2010: 349). Further, the main idea of my paper (that in an ideal luck egalitarian society people would not be ashamed of being untalented) is not discussed in his new paper and the shameful revelations allegation is influential, important and interesting in its own right. For these reasons, unless otherwise stated, I will direct my arguments against the original paper.