Luck and Democratic Egalitarianisms: What are they?


The inquiry over justice and equality has been a never-ending debate in social sciences and humanities research. Among the countless speculations of justice, two theories stand out: Luck Egalitarianism (LE), pioneered by John Rawls, and Democratic Egalitarianism (DE), supported by Elizabeth Anderson. I will first introduce these two theories and then tackle how could they be used conjointly to understand equality.

Luck egalitarianism, or “the equality for fortune” perspective, maintains that there are two types of unfortunate people. The first group is born with undeserved bad luck, or brute luck, which can’t be foreseen or determined by the individual. The second are the ones who suffered from bad option luck—such as making insensible choices later in life. LE contends that since the allocation of brute luck is entirely arbitrary, no one should be put in a superior or inferior position because of that. Nevertheless, once brute luck is factored out, people should be responsible for their option luck, or choices they can control (Tan).

However, this theory is countered by Elizabeth Anderson’s democratic egalitarianism, which seeks to abolish oppression by hierarchy, claiming people should live in equal relations to one another regardless of their choices and achievements. She laid out two criticisms of Rawls’ theory: first, LE expresses disapproval message (such as pity) to the naturally disadvantaged; second, LE attributes the responsibility of the option luck solely to the individuals and refuse to spare the consequence. I will elaborate on Anderson’s criticisms of LE as well as both approaches’ limitations.

First, Anderson contends that LE “offers for granting aid to the worst off are deeply disrespectful of those to whom the aid is directed.” However, although LE might sound condescending when asserting the natural lottery, it intends to counter the effects of underserved luck on distributing resources (Dworkin). A person adhering to the luck egalitarianism doctrines would not express any disrespectful attitudes. Instead, she will ignore the factors that might make a candidate seem less well-prepared when assessing them. For instance, if she knows that people’s natural appearance is completely arbitrary, she will understand that holding a fixed beauty standard would present unfair barriers to those appearances not in the mainstream. Therefore, she would either embrace every kind of looks or abolish appearance as a judgment factor altogether. That’s what luck utilitarianism requires us to do—creating an inclusive environment where the effects of the natural lottery could come into play as little as possible.

Second, to alleviate citizens’ responsibility in their option luck, Anderson proposed that “Democratic equality guarantees all law-abiding citizens effective access to the social conditions of their freedom at all times.” But the problem with this claim would be the resources are limited. So if two students are completing with a scholarship, one chooses to study hard, and the other chooses not to, democratic egalitarianism will pardon the latter for his imprudence and give him equal respect. However, it’s impossible to divide the price in half and give it to both students. Therefore, the more hardworking one will get the scholarship because of his effort, as luck egalitarians would contend. Such reasoning also applies to the procurement of public office, social status, money, and opportunities: removing any natural lottery, the more sensible people choices are, the more likely they will get these rewards.

While democratic egalitarianism complements luck egalitarianism in important ways, one problem I found with the former theory is its excessive benevolence. For example, assuming everyone is equal from the start, everyone can work toward the way they want. But there are still some people, or the “slackers,” who choose not to work hard. They can always see farmers till for their kernels of nourishing corns and students transform their knowledge into meaningful uses, but these slackers choose to be oblivion. They choose not to work hard for themselves either because they don’t think it’s bad, or they don’t want to endure the troubles during the process. If they don’t think living without purpose is terrible, then there is no way for democratic egalitarians to be sorry for them. A just society needs to remove the barriers of some natural disadvantage and create opportunities for everyone to enter in a fair race. Of course, those who didn’t feel like paying the price can’t have all the social status and esteem others would have.

Although I might seem overly inconsiderate and critical here, I do believe that both LE and DE are valuable in refining our view of equality. A person must first understand that not everyone has received the same natural advantages, so it’s a severe error to judge people by their present achievements. Simultaneously, understanding some underserved limitations will allow us to generate compassion and respect for all citizens. So to assess a person’s life achievement, we don’t directly measure his final destination. Rather, we measure each person’s starting point and see how many miles they have traveled comparable to others. Consequently, by this method, becoming a baker is no less respectable than becoming a president. The premise of luck egalitarianism would lead to the conclusion of democratic egalitarianism. Hopefully, by combining the two approaches, we will create greater mobility, ensure more merit-based opportunities, and improve the lives of as many people as possible.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. (John Rawls)


Anderson, Elizabeth S. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, vol. 109, no. 2, 1999, pp. 287–337. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2020.

Dworkin, Ronald. “Sovereign Virtue Revisited.” Ethics, vol. 113, no. 1, 2002, pp. 106–143. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2020.

Tan, Kok-Chor. “A Defense of Luck Egalitarianism.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 105, no. 11, 2008, pp. 665–690. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2020.