Fairness, responsibility and social mobility

Martin O'Neill

When can we legitimately hold individuals responsible for an action or a behaviour? Much of the recent thought on fairness and responsibility comes from a particular direction.

While such thoughts are generally not punitive in their origin or motivation, their results can nevertheless be decidedly harsh in their implications. From this direction of thinking we find such recommendations as: smokers or the obese might be charged extra for their medical care, or that the indolent should lose their benefits, or that it would be fair to favour a systematic privatisation of pension provision, where the imprudent bear the consequences for their lack of planning.

Now, those who think along this direction need not end up making such harsh recommendations. It all depends on one’s precise views about choice and responsibility, and one’s understanding of their relationship to justice and equality. Such debates are the bread-and-butter of political philosophy and are, at least to those with a taste for such fine-grained investigations, fascinating and worthwhile.

However, here it is not my aim to contribute to such debates. And, moreover, I don’t think political philosophy makes its most insightful contribution to real world political debate when the disputations of the seminar room are too unsubtly transplanted into contexts with such different presuppositions. Instead, what political philosophy can more profitably do is occasionally to draw our minds back to what we already knew, but somehow forgot, and to be a stimulus for reminding ourselves of the obvious connections between ideas, where those connections have become occluded through the accretions of unreflective thinking.

So, I’m proposing that, in this case, we start from the opposite direction. Instead of poring over the minutiae of thoughts about precisely which behaviours individuals might fairly be held responsible for, let’s instead start from the remarkable level of agreement about what we are all, absolutely and undeniably, not responsible for. My suggestion, and I think it’s an uncontroversial one, is that every reasonable person agrees with this claim:

People’s prospects in life should depend on what they do, not on who their parents were, or where they were born. Life chances should not depend on facts about people’s social background.

One hears thoughts like this right across the political spectrum. Here’s Michael Gove, from a speech to independent school heads from May 2012:

 ”More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”

And here’s Nick Clegg from a speech on social mobility given in the same month:

“Our society is still too closed, too static. A society that still says where you are born, and who you are born to, matters for the rest of your life. Where working hard and doing the right thing does not guarantee you a better future. Where children of poor people are more likely to be illiterate. More likely to be unhappy. More likely to die young.”

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Gove and Clegg really believe what they say, and aren’t just cynically paying lip service to ideals which they secretly hold in contempt. (Although, even if they were just paying lip service to the imperative of divorcing life-chances from social background, it would still be revealing that this particular idea is one to which they would think it worthwhile to be seen to defer.)

To those who hold this commonplace belief about social mobility, political philosophy might be a useful source for a reminder that yesterday’s outcomes are tomorrow’s opportunities. It might further aid our day-to-day political thinking by being clear on the thought that, insofar as differential life chances are determined by unequal social backgrounds, the only possible ways of addressing the inequities of social segregation are either by reducing those background socio-economic inequalities themselves, or by reducing the effects that social background has on individuals’ prospects, through direct intervention in people’s lives.

Perhaps most importantly, political philosophy can remind us that opportunity is a good with a positional nature. Even if opportunity is not strictly zero-sum, there are often trade-offs between improving the opportunities of one group, and those of others. We might hope to ‘level up’ when it comes to income, but this idea is incoherent when it comes to chances to ascend to different positions within a hierarchy of social or economic positions. And one immediate consequence of this is that, if our aim is to reduce the influence of social background as a driver of positional advantage, it is just as important to reduce the benefits enjoyed at the top as to lessen the disadvantages ensued by those at the bottom.

Another role for philosophy is to cast light on connections between claims about values and claims about facts. Nick Clegg, in the speech mentioned above, said that, if it were true that greater background equality led to greater social mobility, then we would have decisive reasons to aim for a more equal society. But, he claimed, the facts just ain’t so, although: “In many ways, I wish it was. Life would be much simpler. Our goal would be clear: redistribution of income would do the job.”

So, on pain of self-contradiction, Clegg should be an enthusiastic redistributor of income and wealth, if our world were a world in which reduced socio-economic inequality made it easier to break the link between social background and life prospects. Philosophical theorising cannot deliver empirical facts, but it can tell us which facts make a moral and political difference.

Thus, if Alan Krueger, the Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, is right about the empirical relationship between inequality and future opportunities, then anyone espousing Clegg’s avowed normative beliefs should endorse decisive political action to reduce economic inequality. So too if the findings of a range of other empirical work are borne out as correct. (See, for example, Andrews and Leigh, ‘More Inequality, Less Social Mobility’, Applied Economics Letters, 2009)

Gove and Clegg condemn suppressed opportunities for those born to less privileged backgrounds, and express moral outrage at a society riven with calcified social hierarchies. This suggests that they endorse a normative principle that is, after all, one of the deepest shared aspects of our common political morality: that everyone is entitled to a chance of fair treatment, and a tolerably level playing field. These beliefs reflect values, and do not depend on particular facts. But the implication of these beliefs is that, if certain facts about the transmission of advantage and disadvantage hold true, then a commitment to a substantively egalitarian political programme is rationally inescapable.

Reasonable people believe that it is unfair to allow a world where accidents of social origin determine the distribution of the good things in life. In consequence, reasonable people are, in effect, hostage to fortune with respect to an empirical hypothesis about inequality and social mobility, as far as their view the justifiability of egalitarian politics should go. If Alan Kreuger (and Paul Krugman) are right about the facts, then the staunch advocacy of a more egalitarian society is the unavoidable implication of these uncontroversial and widely-shared value commitments. We’re most of us — perhaps even Gove and Clegg — radical egalitarians already if only we pay attention to the facts, keep our thinking straight, and have the courage of our convictions.

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This is a part of our fairness and responsibility series comprising of blogs following on from talks given at the AHRC Fairness and Responsibility in an Unequal Society Conference.

The conference marked the end of a four-year project on inequality, responsibility and fairness, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council at the University of Exeter. Four panels composed of prominent policy-leaders and academics debated the issues in a forum for the exchange of ideas between policy and academy.