By Our Hands: Agent-Relativity and Distributive Justice
In ordinary life we place special concern on what we do – that you read to your child, or that you honor your promise even when breaking it would add to the sum total of honored promises. Democratic citizens register a version of this agent-relative concern when they experience special horror at the injustices committed by their state. I argue that agent-relative reasons play no less significant a role in our thinking about distributive justice. Egalitarian theories should make essential back-reference to democratic citizens and, by their authorization, elected officials. Egalitarianism isn’t fundamentally a specification sheet of what distributive patterns should occur, but a system of time cards that describe the work we must carry out in our official role as citizens. This explains the non-fungible character of our distributive obligations – they cannot be handed off to non-official agents or institutions, however reliable or diligent. My approach builds on relational egalitarianism, bearing more directly on policy debates about the limits of private philanthropy, the permissibility of structural unemployment, and the stringency of the social safety net.
Eric Beerbohm is Frederick S. Danzinger Associate Professor of Government and the Committee on Social Studies at Harvard University and Director of Graduate Fellowships at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. His philosophical and teaching interests include democratic theory, theories of distributive justice, and the philosophy of social science. He is currently working on an account of democratic lawmaking addressed to legislators who find themselves in conditions that are unjust, corrupt, or collectively irrational. The project is an attempt to identify principles that bear upon political compromise, legislative leadership, and the limits of obstructionism. His book, In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2012), considers the responsibilities of citizens for the actions of their state. He has also written on the implications of moral uncertainty for political decision-making, the demandingness of deliberative democracy, and the moral risks imposed by anti-egalitarian social policies. A Marshall Scholar and Mellon Fellow in the Humanities and Social Sciences, he received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2008, B.Phil. in Philosophy from Oxford University, and BA in Political Science and the Program in Ethics in Society from Stanford University. He was a Faculty Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics in 2008-2009. He is a recipient of the 2012 Roslyn Abramson Award, given annually to two Harvard faculty in Arts and Sciences for "excellence and sensitivity in undergraduate teaching."
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