In an interesting post on the Fabian Society site, Martin O'Neill tries to show how political philosophy can help in making a case for reducing economic inequality, to illustrate the part it can play in 'staunch advocacy of a more egalitarian society'. The objective is one I share with him. I have yet to see a defence of existing disparities of wealth that I found even remotely persuasive. At the same time, I think Martin may be too sanguine concerning one point: and that is how widely accepted is one of the moral assumptions he sees as informing the argument for greater equality. Here is the passage in Martin's post from which my doubt arises. He writes:
My suggestion, and I think it's an uncontroversial one, is that every reasonable person agrees with this claim:
People's prospects in life should depend on what they do, not on who their parents were, or where they were born. Life chances should not depend on facts about people's social background.
And there are later echoes of this claim in the remainder of the piece, such as:
... if certain facts about the transmission of advantage and disadvantage hold true, then a commitment to a substantively egalitarian political programme is rationally inescapable.
Reasonable people believe that it is unfair to allow a world where accidents of social origin determine the distribution of the good things in life.
The problem I have with this is not that I reject the moral force of the idea Martin commends. I don't. It's that I don't think - oversimplifying, perhaps, for brevity - that all reasonable people are luck egalitarians; believing that inequalities due to a person's good fortune in life, of whatever kind, are to be corrected, so far as possible, by social and political policy. There are reasonable people, for example, who wouldn't favour a 100 per cent inheritance tax.
From an email exchange between the two of us, it transpires that Martin's view is more qualified than the first quotation above might suggest. A more accurate version of his position is that reasonable people accept that an individual's prospects in life should depend mainly on what he or she does, even if they (that is, reasonable people) don't give this principle absolute priority, even if they think it must be balanced against other considerations. But I don't think this moderation of Martin's claim entirely resolves the difficulty. What if someone's way of balancing the egalitarian principle against others is to give it a lower priority than something else? Imagine someone for whom a more important principle is that people ought to be able to pass on what they have legitimately earned to whomever they choose to settle it on - their children maybe, but not necessarily. This person favours trying to level up opportunities to an extent, where it is possible, but she treasures the freedom of persons to give as they think fit. Her view might be one that you like and endorse or one that you don't. But can we really say that this can't be the view of a reasonable person? I doubt it.
The key term here, of course, is 'reasonable'. What does it mean in the context? I take it that we need criteria of reasonableness which are indpendent of the matter at issue - namely, what should determine a person's prospects in life? If you make it definitionally true that it's unreasonable to oppose a (roughly) luck-egalitarian view, then Martin's claim about what every reasonable person will agree with would be tautologically true but unilluminating. From his emails to me, it's clear that that is not the way he means to understand 'reasonable'.