What Is Unfair About Unequal Brute Luck? An Intergenerational Puzzle

How should we respond to inequality that arises from the fact that people are born to parents who are differently well off?

Simon Beard, a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, recently published a paper in Philosophia on luck egalitarianism, intergenerational justice and unfairness. 

Q. Dr Beard, what is the primary focus of your article 'What Is Unfair About Unequal Brute Luck? An Intergenerational Puzzle'?

The article discusses a philosophical problem in how we should respond to inequality that arises from the fact that people are born to parents who are differently well off. In general, children who are born to well off parents fare much better than those who are born to parents who are less well off. On the one hand, this should be a pretty straight forward case of injustice, because the children of the better off cannot point to any way in which they have chosen or deserved to fare better than the children of the worse off, so this inequality cannot be justified – it is just 'brute luck'. However, on the other hand, society often seems more relaxed about this inequality than other forms of inequality. This reflects the fact that people think that at least some forms of inequality CAN be justified, and believe that where parents are unequally well off because of some justified form of equality then we should not interfere simply because their children will be unjustifiably unequal in how well they fare.
The paper attempts to engage with this tension in a way that a lot of work on distributive justice doesn't and argues that there is a pretty simple weakness in some theories about distributive justice that makes then unsuited to responding to cases of this kind. This weakness is that these theories are concerned about the effects of what we can and cannot justify the distribution of resources, rather than focusing directly on what can be justified (what is brute luck and what isn't). This means that these theories struggle with cases in which one and the same thing (in this case parental inequality) both can be justified in one way (for instance from the perspective of differential parental choices and effort) but also cannot be justified in other ways (for instance from the perspective of its effects upon children). Once you see this, you realise that when people who may be unequally well off in ways that are justified decide to have children this can directly create a situation in which their inequality is no longer justified, and in which we should therefor take steps to redistribute between them to create a juster situation for their respective children.

Q. How did you conduct the research?

This idea came to me very fast in a seminar on distributive justice while I was completing my PhD. I pointed it out to the seminar leader who said it sounded important and I should write a paper out of it. Unfortunately, the idea was so small that the paper ended up being very short and it got rejected from a number of journals as too insubstantial. Much of my research on this topic thus involved finding a suitable set of references to the surrounding literature on distributive justice to demonstrate what was currently lacking from the debates on issues of inequality between children and how my idea could fill this gap. For me, this is a particularly frustrating aspect of research, but it is important as without this demonstration of a need for your contribution it is less likely that others will read it.

Q. What drew you to the subject? Why do you think it is important?
I have always been interested in the question of distributive justice between children. I had a very privileged childhood and believe that this has contributed a huge amount to my successes as an adult and that I would not have done as well had I had a different start in life. While some of this can be put down to pervasive social issues like gender, ethnicity, nationality and class, some of it is simply a product of being born to successful parents who could always provide for me and who were committed to my welfare. While in no way detracting from other aspects of our hugely unjust society, it always seemed to me that this further aspect of injustice gets left out of analysis and I think it should be included. We know that evolution has left us with an abiding desire to do what is best for our children and a sense that this is natural, but that does not mean it is not unjust that many can simply do far better for their children than others. 

It seems to me that when people decide that they want to have children they need to have more of a concern for the kind of world that their children will grow up into. This is a thought that is often expressed about environmental problems, but it also applies to social and economic ones. We should all want our children to grow up into an equal world in which everyone gets a fair chance in life, and if that means accepting more redistribution between parents so as to remove the unfair inequalities of things like childhood poverty (but also childhood excess and privilege) that would be good for everyone. I think that even those who are able to give their children a better start in life through private wealth thus have some reason to accept such redistribution and that this should be reflected in our theories of distributional justice.



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The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Wednesday 1 May 2019

Contributor: Simon Beard, Imke van Heerden

What Is Unfair About Unequal Brute Luck? An Intergenerational Puzzle