Personal responsibility in egalitarianism

Convener: Johanna Ahola-Launonen, University of Helsinki / Aalto University

How should personal responsibility be articulated in egalitarian theories? The idealized conception owes much to John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness (1971), in which the division of responsibilities is addressed by considering the society as a fair system of cooperation accepted by all. Thus, theoretically, the idealized notion of personal responsibility lies in reciprocation: it is reasonable to expect that citizens want to contribute to the basic structure of society. Personal responsibility is, more or less, implicitly assumed. This tacit conception is well justified, taking into account that Rawls’ theory concerns the necessary principles for the basic structure of a just society.

Moving to a notion that clearly explicates the responsibilities inherent in the basic structure, however, opens a door for criticism. What counts as reciprocation and will everyone want to participate? Egalitarian claims for universal and unconditional welfare structures have been accused of enforcing diminished agency and free ridership.

Although this accusation can be claimed to be simplified, asking for more concrete and less idealized articulations of personal responsibility is a valid demand, both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, the idealized conception could be made thicker, thereby increasing the theory’s validity and coherence. Practically, the ability to articulate personal responsibility would increase the feasibility of the theory by providing guidance of what egalitarianism should or should not look like. In order to be feasible, an egalitarian distributive theory must be able to answer to a certain amount of moral intuitions about personal responsibility. How could a theory be unconditional and universal in securing the citizen’s ability to be cooperative members of the society, and, at the same time, feasible in entailing a sufficient conception of personal responsibility? An influential attempt of trying to incorporate stronger notions of personal responsibility into egalitarianism is the known as luck egalitarian, or responsibility-sensitive approach, but this tradition has been shown not to be able to secure the original egalitarian goals – especially at the applied level. For instance, in healthcare ethics, the tradition has been accused of extensive monitoring, harshness, and non-egalitarianism.

This workshop aims to contribute to a thicker concept of personal responsibility in egalitarian theories that would allow for universal and unconditional welfare structures or other citizen goods. If (?) responsibility-sensitive or luck egalitarian solutions are not the answer, what would be? Suggestions have included thicker notions of reciprocation; responsibility as a virtue; conceptions of work ethic; and contribution ethic. Could a more viable theory emerge from these? Theoretical and applied contributions addressing the abovementioned issues are welcomed to the workshop.

To present a paper at this workshop, please send a 500 word abstract to The deadline for abstracts is 1st June. Full working papers (about 6000 words) are due two weeks before the workshop to be circulated among participants. The possibility to develop an edited collection of selected papers from the workshop will be actively sought.