Shameful Revelation
July 11, 2011

After reading my last post Mike Konczal suggested that I look into philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s argument against what he calls the “shameful revelation.” Wolff first sketched out the argument in a paper called “Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos,” and while I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy, I did find an interview excerpt in which he outlines the problem:

The main argument is that the forms of conditional systems of benefit that appear to follow from theories such as those of Dworkin can create a division in society and undermine self-respect, neither of which sit comfortably with the idea of a society of equals. Very soon after my paper was published, Elizabeth Anderson published her very influential paper ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ which coined the phrase ‘luck egalitarianism’ to describe the views of Dworkin, Cohen, Arneson, and others, and made a number of criticisms which seemed to be closely related to those I had made….

However, because of the affinities between some of my arguments and those of Anderson and Scheffler I have sometimes been ‘rolled up’ with them as a critic of luck egalitarianism. However, my real target in that paper is not so much the theory of luck egalitarianism but with what would happen if we tried to implement a system of making people bear the costs of their choices when we haven’t yet moved to a full, enlightened, system of equality. Essentially the argument is that the implementing luck egalitarianism requires society to filter out would-be free-riders, but to do this will often have costs (in self-respect) for those already at the bottom of the heap. In some cases they will have to declare that they lack employable talents others have, and this can be humiliating for them. I do not argue that it is necessarily humiliating, or that we couldn’t imagine a society where no one is humiliated by having to admit to themselves and others that they lack employable talents, but that in the circumstances of real societies this is likely to be a fairly common response. In that paper I argued that policies required in the name of fairness can undermine self-respect, and therefore we have to accept that the egalitarian ethos can have conflicting elements which need to be accommodated in some way.

You don’t hear this sort of argument in most of our public debates over welfare. The closest equivalent that springs to mind is the libertarian argument that welfare is injurious to the personal dignity and autonomy of its supposed beneficiaries. But Wolff’s argument is distinctly not libertarian, insofar as he stresses that he is not criticizing luck egalitarianism per se. Or, rather, he’s offering constructive criticism and inviting luck egalitarians and proponents of social welfare to figure out ways around the problem.

If there’s a way for luck egalitarians to escape the problem entirely, I can’t see it. But there are surely ways to minimize the effects. Where welfare programs that provide necessary services also fall into the “shameful revelation” trap, it’s worth considering alternative models.

For example: programs, like single-payer health care or a guaranteed minimum income, that get extended to all citizens regardless of individual need or competence. Or: cooperative models like trade unions, in which citizens — rather than having to supplicate themselves before a higher authority — form powerful coalitions and bargain for aid through their own agency and initiative.

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