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Moreover, assuming it were possible, the task of discerning precisely which disadvantages merit amelioration and which do not would involve intrusive surveillance. Critics argue these measures are especially distasteful in a society whose egalitarian ambitions are predicated on some measure of social solidarity. As Jonathan Wolff puts it, ‘shameful revelation’ is out of place in the egalitarian society that must complement its pursuit of justice with respect for persons.47 Policing the home life of welfare recipients, requiring that citizens use social benefits for certain designated expenditures through a coupon system, insisting that those on welfare submit to training or report for work are responses that are callous and disrespectful of the privacy and self-determination of individuals.

Nonetheless, I want to suggest that a flourishing account gives desert a role; not in determining entitlement to human flourishing, but in flourishing itself. Feeling deserving of resources – which comes from being productive – is constitutive of wellbeing just as resources themselves are. Not being hungry, of course, is a more important source of wellbeing than feeling deserving of food! Yet getting and feeling that one has earned what one is getting is better than just getting. Thus there are wellbeing grounds for a community to be wary of simply picking up the tab for bad choices. Morris concludes: ‘Would you think it unreasonable or unjust, that such community should insist on every sane and sound person working to produce wealth, in order that he might not burden the community?’48

We should consider the matter of individuals’ contribution, not in order to punish the under-contributors, but to help them enjoy more fulfilling lives. Working gives structure to one’s life, exposes one to different experiences and people, provides scope for cooperation and interaction with others in the public domain, enables one to develop skills and earn respect for them, to become self-directed, self-controlled and ethical.49 Instead of a sink-or-swim approach to equality which punishes the less productive, we should see non-contribution as itself a form of disadvantage, a shortfall in flourishing. And the community that socialism presupposes requires that all see themselves as full participants, something that Cohen, for all his luck egalitarian inclinations, also underscored.50

Luck egalitarians tend to be neutralists who eschew a social commitment to the idea of wellbeing; they are thus ill-placed to consider how responsibility is a constituent of living well. If we are seeking equality in living the good life, and if the good life is in some sense a life of self-mastery, then queuing for income does not render the beneficiary the equal of others. This is worth bearing in mind when considering the problem of ‘welfare bums,’ who as the phrase suggest, live lives that are in some sense contemptible.51 Of course, productivity is not necessarily constitutive of living well; some might venture that the pleasure-seeking grasshopper has a better appreciation of the good life than the toiling ant.52 The flourishing model has the advantage of taking a broad view of what constitutes a contribution to society. Once we steer away from the allocation of goods and focus instead on the constituents of flourishing we can give up productivist obsessions to embrace a wide-ranging view of the worthwhile.

Finally, we should stress the phenomenon of the undeserving rich – people whose wealth is the result of inheritance, dividends, mere ownership of assets. We can easily overlook how many of the wealthy are undeserving of their wealth and moreover, fail to contribute to society; as a Canadian socialist leader once put it, there are ‘corporate welfare bums.’53 Moreover, easy access to income means whole lives can be aimless and frivolous, devoid of projects, let alone exertion or struggle, and preoccupied with the status conferred by luxury goods, falling far short of the most basic notions of human flourishing. The perfectionist Thomas Hurka notes, ‘if it is corrupting to receive a welfare cheque…should it not also be corrupting to receive an inheritance or dividend cheque?’54 Thus the relation between responsibility, wealth and flourishing set out by our egalitarian theory should apply to both rich and poor.
Paternalism and Perfection

The view that we should hold people responsible for their choices follows from another liberal ideal: that we should respect people’s capacity to make such choices. Here we have the crux of a fundamental controversy facing the idea of egalitarian perfectionism. On the one hand, its focus on flourishing suggests people need direction as to how to live, and on the other, flourishing seems undermined by such direction. Perfectionism is dogged by the problem of paternalism.

The paternalism critique has two aspects. First is the charge that perfectionism is committed to a monist conception of human flourishing which prohibits diversity. Second is the charge that perfectionism is coercive. The perfectionist might appear to have an easy answer to the first charge in Marx’s communist man, who hunts, fishes, criticizes, and so forth; Marx’s ideal, however, offers not the diversity of pluralism, but rather that of a single, yet variegated, way of life – the Morris way of life, if you will, given William Morris’s own example of a life devoted to a variety of worthwhile activities.55 But what counts as a worthwhile activity? Beethoven, but not Bieber? Talking, not texting? Here we might note the ‘old fogey’ problem with perfectionism, whereby an old-fashioned or snobbish conception of taste or value underlies the perfectionist idea of the good.

Critics of perfectionism have certainly played up this stereotype. Dworkin, for one, offers examples of elite tastes such as plovers eggs and champagne, books and opera; if so-called worthy activities given priority, this would, he insists, be contrary to the liberal principle of treating people as equals (1985, 191-8). But is the old fogey anti-egalitarian? The old fogey can respond that ultimately his or her aim is that as many people as possible disavow the bad and avow the good, rather than preserving the good for the privileged and well off. Moreover, the fogey should concede that what counts as the good and what counts as the bad must be conceived in an open, plural and provisional way, for the sake of autonomy, but also for the sake of the good; Impressionism, after all, was deemed rubbish by art critics when it emerged in the nineteenth century. Just as Marx noted that the diversity of human beings requires an egalitarian distribution which apportions unequally, according to different human needs, so too must we recognise that like needs, human talents and interests are diverse, and thus human flourishing is variegated in character. Wellbeing figures as what we might call a ‘provisional universal,’ wherein wellbeing is a universal goal that can be aspired to in many different ways.

These considerations about pluralism do not, however, settle the second aspect of the paternalism critique, that is, that perfectionism involves compulsion. Neutralist liberals sometimes suggest that perfectionism involves the first form of choice restriction, that is, coercion, whereby people will be forced to subscribe to certain ways of life, as in the Spanish Inquisition. Egalitarian perfectionists certainly declaim coercion; after all, coercion was one of the grounds for Morris’s critique of capitalism: ‘while you live,’ he lamented, ‘you will see all round you people engaged in making others live lives which are not their own.’56

Egalitarian perfectionists would likely eschew this too. We only know what the good is in light of reasons. Choosing the putatively good without understanding why is a poor basis for making choices and it will also diminish our choice-making capacity in the long term. Objectivism about value, so central to perfectionism, thus gives us grounds to be uneasy about the diminishing of choice since our capacity to choose must be exercised in order to live well. On this view even the more benign examples of the restriction of choice – the use of incentives and efforts to institutionalise and enable worthwhile ways of living – are problematic insofar as they distort our choice-making capacity.

Living autonomously is an elusive idea: it involves freedom from the interference of others, but it also refers to a type of freedom, a moral freedom of self-determination. We do not live autonomously if we live lives that are purposeless, empty, plagued by ignorance and lethargy, even if no one stands in our way to do otherwise. We should see autonomy in terms of self-realisation, something that can be diminished by bad choices.

The debate about choice must take account of this modest ‘social thesis’ wherein persons are inevitably influenced by their environment. The idea of responsiveness to reasons, at the heart of our ideal of autonomy, involves a conception of the person with grounds for choice outside the self; the choosing self is not pure will, but a being responsive to considerations adduced by reflecting on external sources of information. The tastes of friends, the values of parents and those with authority or influence, formative experiences in one’s life, superficial factors such as the symbolic value of a pursuit, all contribute to choices about how to live.57

In market societies, many of these factors are the effect of advertising, packaging or ‘imaging,’ and are not conducive to choices made on the basis of reasons. Moreover, market actors who influence choices are not held to public account or democratic control. Indeed, the market, touted for supporting the neutralism of the liberal state because its exchanges are conducted according to the supposedly contentless measure of profitability, in fact makes for quite significant consequences for the kinds of values one can pursue. And the effects are often deleterious for human flourishing. Thus it is particularly damning of neutralist positions that they continue to evoke the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in making their case. Marx’s astute diagnosis of how our alienation under capitalism enables irrational strategies for fulfilment such as the fetishizing of commodities is prescient of the hyper-consumerism of contemporary society. (Capital 321)

Kymlicka, for example, uses the metaphor of a ‘cultural marketplace’ to defend the ‘free association of individuals’ who can forge shared cultures or good ways of life; thus ‘social perfectionism’ is to be preferred to ‘state perfectionism.’58 On the general question of the state’s role in promoting good ways of living, Kymlicka insists on a neutral position. This position, however, is at odds with Kymlicka’s multiculturalist views; in his argument for special rights for minority cultures, he in fact rejects ‘the cultural marketplace,’ contending that without state intervention some are disadvantaged in the pursuit of valuable ways of life.59

Confronting sources of the good that are vulnerable or threatened such as natural wilderness areas or historical artefacts, Kymlicka’s response, like that of other liberals, is that the state should offer support for the sake of neutrality, seeking to offset ‘wear and tear’ so that these pursuits remain options for future individuals. The reasons to think that the market will fail to preserve what has antecedently been selected as valuable are also the reasons to think the market will fail to identify the valuable in the first place. The political community cannot ensure a ‘valuable range of options’ without determining what the valuable, however plural, might be. After all, there will be many options that are threatened, and not all of them can or should be protected. It seems inevitable that protecting the valuable entails action that counteracts the market and what one economist calls its ‘myopic bias.’ 60 Given these inevitable bad forms of the social thesis, it is only proper that society attempt to exert good forms. ‘Why not take ‘(benign) advantage of a causal process that would occur anyhow?’ 61

Thus Hobhouse insisted that we should not coerce people for their own good, not out of indifference to the good, but because we value it, and know coercion cannot secure it; but he also insisted that our concern for the good should mean we arrange social conditions so people will elect to live good lives.62 Indeed, even Dworkin in his later work allowed that what he called ‘ethical liberalism’ can endorse ‘short-term educational paternalism that looks forward, with confidence, to genuine, unmanipulated endorsement.’63 Rawls, too, though he divorces political liberalism from more ‘comprehensive’ doctrines, nonetheless maintains that political institutions are ‘just and good’ to the extent that they allow ‘worthy ways of life.’64

If by coercion we mean society rendering some choices more attractive than others, then egalitarian perfectionism is guilty as charged, but then so is just about any polity. Liberal societies today, for example, encourage some ways of life and discourage others, in state support for the arts and education, and lack of support for, even discouragement of, other leisure activities such as the consumption of alcohol. Indeed in some domains today there seems an excessive, puritanical perfectionism which Morris, the plump, pipe-smoking and wine-drinking lover of beauty, would never have countenanced. 65

Thus the question is probably not whether perfectionism, but whither, since it is difficult to imagine any society not taking an interest in the values – however private – of its citizens. The most important way in which an egalitarian conception of flourishing can enable citizens to live well is equality itself. After all, bad choices are often made because people are vulnerable and vulnerability is especially likely where people are disadvantaged. Disadvantaged people are often under-educated, oppressed or alienated, prey to easy comforts, mind-numbing pleasures or imprudent investments.66

Principles of Egalitarian Human Flourishing

We can now formulate some general principles about egalitarian human flourishing:

1) A theory of equality should focus on the quality of people’s lives. A crucial, but non-exclusive, source of wellbeing is resources. But the reason we seek equality in the distribution of resources is in order to better equalise human wellbeing.

2) Flourishing is both a subjective and objective measure, and is a mix of three ideas: being able to choose how to live; living a life that involves self-mastery and objectively worthwhile pursuits; and personal contentment.

3) Flourishing differs from standard accounts of distribution that deploy a measure of equality which is also the thing that is equalized (e.g. resources or primary goods). Society should seek higher and more equal levels of human flourishing, yet flourishing itself cannot be equalized. Flourishing goals can only be achieved indirectly by such policies as, for example, ensuring a basic income, or the improvement of social sources of flourishing, be it culture or recreation.

4) We can live under ideal conditions for flourishing and still fail to flourish (the Eeyore problem). A flourishing approach is able, nonetheless, to consider all shortfalls in flourishing as potentially within the scope of public policy.

5) Egalitarian policy should not be concerned exclusively with resource distribution, but must also promote a social and cultural environment conducive to wellbeing. Society should foster good choices about how to live by means of support for egalitarian policies for the arts, education, nature, and culture more generally.67

6) Finally, egalitarian flourishing is able to avoid the pitfalls of egalitarian approaches that risk a harsh justice in order to punish the irresponsible, on the one hand, and on the other, perfectionist approaches that tend to the paternalistic. Active, contributing individuals flourish on this account, and thus the lay-about is treated, not as a shirker, but as a have-not in need of inculcation in living well. As Morris notes, ‘useful, honoured work’ serves as a ‘tribute to the community.’68 Fears that violations of individual autonomy will dog a perfectionist politics can be addressed by a conception of autonomy, coupled with a social thesis, which justifies improvements to the cultural environment to enable better informed choices conducive to self-determination.


The welfare state has marked both the triumph of the egalitarian vision of Karl Marx and its disappointment. On the one hand, most Western liberal societies have taken on some kind of obligation to assure access to the means of subsistence, and it is difficult to imagine the commitment to some redistribution of wealth, however unevenly assured, ever disappearing. On the other hand, this commitment is, in even its most ambitious forms, limited. It is, of course, evident in only some, privileged parts of the world. And even in those parts of the world where egalitarianism has had some impact, there is considerable pressure to limit equality to the provision of opportunities, severed from ideas about how to improve the way people live.

I have argued that equality should focus on human flourishing. Such a focus can address both the problem of individual responsibility that besets egalitarianism and the problem of paternalism that besets perfectionism. Wellbeing or flourishing does not admit of straightforward measurement or a catch-all formula or recipe. Yet it is flourishing, a partly subjective, partly objective criterion, that best captures what disadvantage and advantage amount to. And it requires, not just a radical redistribution of resources, but the maintenance of a rich cultural environment, and a constant, open and lively inquiry into that ancient question that inaugurated political philosophy and pervaded the doctrine of Marx: how should we live?

1 This paper draws on material from ‘Human Flourishing: A New Concept of Equality,’ in Daniel Weinstock (ed.) Neutrality Revisited, Pagrave Macmillan, London (forthcoming). For help improving on previous versions of this paper, I am grateful to the lively discussions of the colloquium on Liberal Neutrality: A Re-evaluation, at the Centre de Recherche en Ethique de l'Université de Montréal (CREUM), May 1-2, 2008, and the students in my equality seminar over the years. Thank you also to Anrash Abizadeh, David Bakhurst, Harry Brighouse, Andrew Lister and to my former doctoral student, Christopher Lowry, for his enlightening conversation about these issues. Many thanks, too, to the fellows of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who honoured me with a Visiting Fellowship that enabled me to begin work on this project.

2 For example, Rawls notes that individuals tend to be motivated by an ‘Aristotlean principle’ which attributes greater value to more complex and demanding tasks (A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1971, 424-33). And in distinguishing the comprehensive or perfectionist from the political, Rawls admits that there are issues such as ‘national parks and preserving wilderness areas and plant species and laying aside funds for museums and the arts’ which might legitimately enter political debate, and the ‘restrictions of public reason may not apply to them’ (Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 214–15). Rawls also qualifies his position by carefully noting that political values only normally or typically take precedence over the non-political. It appears that ‘there are circumstances in which, even with respect to constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, non-political values might trump political ones’ (S. Mulhall and A. Swift, Liberals and Communitarians, Blackwell, Oxford, 1997, p. 224).

3 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.: 1971, 94.

4 Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, New York: 1993, 214–15.

5 Mulhall, S. and Swift, A., Liberals and Communitarians, Blackwell, Oxford: 1997, 224.

6 Something bourgeois enthusiasts of Morris’s contribution to drawing-room decor are usually unaware of, or at pains to ignore. In these days of New Labour, it might be said that the British Left, too, looks like it is inspired more by Morris wallpapers than Morrisian socialism!

7 The discussion here draws on Sypnowich, ‘How to Live the Good Life: William Morris’s Aesthetic Conception of Equality,’ Queen’s Quarterly, Vol. 107, no. 3, 2000.

8 Morris, ‘The Socialist Ideal’ Collected Works, Vol. XXIII, 256.

9 Octavia Hill founded the National Trust in 1907 with the rationale that ‘The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all men.’ See the National Trust Website, http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk

10 Morris, ‘Art and Socialism,’ Collected Works, Vol. XXIII, 193, ‘How We Live and How We Might Live,’ 14.

11 Peter Stansky, William Morris, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, 17.

12 Morris, ‘How I Became a Socialist,’ 281. The inhabitants of Nowhere also lament that ‘the once-poor had such a feeble conception of the real pleasure of life.’ Morris, News from Nowhere, ed. Asa Briggs, Penguin 1984, 121.

13 Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in Marx and Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert Tucker (ed.), Norton, New York: 1978, 76.

14 David Leopold, The Young Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2007, 225.

15 Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 76.

16 Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme,’ Marx-Engels Reader, Tucker (ed.), 531.

17 Leopold, The Young Karl Marx, 225, 278.

18 Which Morris read and re-read to such an extent that in the course of less than two years it was so worn that it had to be rebound. See A.L. Morton, ‘Morris, Marx and Engels,’ Journal of the William Morris Society, August 1986, 7, 1, 45.

19 Morton, ‘Morris, Marx and Engels,’ 46.

20 For Marx, capitalist inequality means that work, what should distinguish human beings from other species and be the source of human fulfilment, becomes an alien activity, a mere means to satisfy external needs. Marx’s concept of exploitation centred on the unfairness of some people having more wealth than others because of a process whereby owners appropriate the product of workers. But the moral argument of exploitation also focused on the effect of alienation, pointing to what inequality does to people, how it affects their ability to live well. (Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,’ Marx-Engels Reader, ed. R.C. Tucker, Norton, New York,, 1978, 74.) Compare this with the divide J. Bruce Glasier seeks to make between Marx and Morris in

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