Michael Weber


Many people are moved by the thought that if A is worse off than B, then if we can improve the condition of one or the other but not both that it is better to improve the condition of A. Egalitarians are buoyed by the prevalence of such thoughts. But something other than egalitarianism could be driving these thoughts. In particular, such thoughts could be motivated, instead, by a combination of the belief that desert should determine how people fare and the belief that, for the most part, people are equally deserving. Shelly Kagan has pushed this line of argument, suggesting that desert should replace equality as a normative ideal. He argues that desert theory and egalitarianism often agree, and when they don’t intuition favors desert theory. A number of authors have offered responses to Kagan, including Serena Olsaretti, Fred Feldman, and Richard Arneson. However, I maintain that their responses are inadequate, primarily because they simply fail to capture the compelling intuitions that Kagan appeals to in making his case. There are other responses, however, and I consider three, each of which offers an egalitarian position that is compatible with Kagan’s most compelling intuitions. Thus, I maintain that Kagan has not sufficiently established that desert should replace equality as a normative ideal. There is still room for a genuinely egalitarian position, though Kagan’s reflections helpfully force egalitarians to further develop and refine their thinking.