The Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues


George Sher


In my book Equality for Inegalitarians, I combined a sufficientarian approach to the distribution of resources and opportunities with an egalitarian approach to the distribution of a more abstract good that I called “the ability to live one’s life effectively.” As I defined living effectively, it requires a degree of success in the pursuit of one’s rational aims, so there is an obvious danger that even if two people both have sufficient resources and opportunities, the difference in the amount by which they exceed the threshold will cause them to differ in their ability to live effectively. However, to block this implication, I argued that lacking the means to accomplish one’s ends is itself a reason to scale back one’s aspirations. By thus relativizing a person’s rational aims to the resources and opportunities at his disposal, I attempted to reconcile my commitment to the equal distribution of the ability to live effectively with my acceptance of inequality at the level of resources and opportunities.

To illustrate what I had in mind, I offered an example involving the eponymously named Morey and Les. Even if Les has significantly fewer resources than Morey, I wrote, the two may still be equally able to live their lives effectively if the impact of Les’s having fewer resources and opportunities is simply to give him reason to reduce his aspirations by a commensurate amount. If Morey can afford an education at a top law school while the best that Les can do is a year at a local community college, then Morey’s rational ends may include a career in corporate law or high finance while Les’s may extend no further than a steady job at an auto body shop. Assuming that Les and Morey are both able to achieve their rational ends, and that nothing else prevents either one from living his life effectively, the prevailing economic inequality will not render their society unjust.

In the years since the book’s publication, this passage has proven troubling to readers who want more equality than I am willing to supply, and my aim in the current paper is to address some of the objections that it elicits. By confronting these objections head-on, I hope both to deflect their force and to clarify the vision that animates the account at which they are addressed.





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