Theory of Justice

Course Description: 

The growing inequality of income, wealth, and opportunities is a central political problem of our times. This course will be dedicated to the question, what are the moral reasons for the objection to it.

It is plausible to argue that if economic inequality is morally objectionable, this is because it conflicts with the requirements of equal moral status. However, not everyone agrees that equal moral status is a ground for objecting economic inequality. Nozick, for example, claims that individuals are morally equal in the sense of having equal rights and, that, no inequality is objectionable as long as it is produced in a process in which nobody’s negative rights have been violated. According to him, the pursuit of economic equality is based on a false ideal, and it leads to systematic violations of basic rights. So the first question is, What is the correct interpretation of the principle of equal moral status, and what follows from it for the problem of economic inequality.

A number of further questions follow. Equal moral status is a non-distributive principle. Economic (in)equality is a distributive property. How can a non-distributive principle sustain principles for distribution? One answer is given by the relational conception. Equal moral status demands egalitarian social relations, and social equality is incompatible with certain kinds of economic inequality. Another answer is institutional. Equal moral status imposes principles of fairness on social institutions, including the principle that institutions distribute the burdens of their operation and the benefits from it in a fair manner. Relational or institutional theories argue for economic equality indirectly, by objecting to consequences of inequality for social relations or to institutional arrangements that are unfair. Distributive conceptions, on the other hand, suggest that equal moral status entails, under conditions of scarcity, an equal claim to resources.

This controversy is closely related to the question of the scope of the principles of distributive justice. Distributive justice makes comparisons between the endowments available to different individuals, but what is the proper scope of those comparisons? Is it a society? Is it a political community? Is it the cosmopolitan community of humankind?

Next, what kind of resources matter for the aims of distributive justice? Only external resources such as money, energy, and raw materials are relevant, or so are the “internal resources” as well, such as personal talents? Does the principle of equal importance imply a norm of equal distribution of external resources only, or it is the total set of external and internal resources of that is to be equalized across individuals?

A further question refers to what is called the metric of equality. It is extremely unlikely that a distribution is equal in all possible respects simultaneously. Which respects are relevant? Equality of what is required by the principle of equal moral status? Is it equality of welfare? Is it equality of opportunity for welfare? Equality of opportunity for meaningful freedom? Equality of capabilities? Or equality of resources? The answer seems to depend on the following observation. The distribution of resources reflects partly personal choices and efforts, but it also depends on luck. On a plausible interpretation of the principle of equal moral status, people are properly held responsible for their choices and efforts, but not for their contingent circumstances. If so, insofar as the distribution of the costs and benefits respond to personal choices, each individual should bear the cost themselves. But we should share the costs that are due to luck (e.g., the costs of genetic disabilities). Is this a plausible prima facie principle? Is it in need of amendments?

These are the main questions this course will address.

The 4 credits will be awarded at the end of the Winter Term.


Zero Week

General Introduction (Lecture)

T.M. Sclanlon: ”Introduction.” Why Does Inequality Matter? Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018, 1-10.

L. Murphy: ”Why Does Inequality Matter? Reflections on the Political Morality of Piketty’s Capital in the 21th Century.” Tax Law Review 68 (2015) 613-629.

D. Miller: ”Equality and Justice.” Ratio NS 10 (997) 222-237.

Allan Wood: ”Marx on Equality.” Wood: The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, Ethics, and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014.


Week One

Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory (Lecture)

J. Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, 1999. Ch. 1 and Excerpts.

A. Sen: ”What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice?” Journal of Pilosophy 103 (2006) 215-238.

C. Farrelly: “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation.” In Political Studies 55 (2007) 844-864.

Z. Stemplowska: “What is Ideal About Ideal Theory?” Social Theory and Practice 34 (2008) 319-340.

D. Estlund: ”What Good Is It? Unrealistic Political Theory and the Value of Intellectual Work.” Analyse & Kritik 2 (2011) 395-426.

L. Valentini: “Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map.” Philosophy Compass 7 (2012) 654-664.


Week Two (Lecture)

Basic Equality

 R. Arneson: “What, if Anything, Renders All Humans Morally Equal?” D. Jamieson, ed.: Singer and His Critics. Oxford: Blackwell 1999.

J. Waldron: “Looking for a Range Property.” Waldron: One Another’s Equals, Chapter 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017, 84-127.

O’Neill: ”What Should Egalitarians Believe?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 36 (2008) 119-156.

U. Steinhoff: „Against Equal Respect and Concern, Equal Rights, and Egalitarian Impartiality.” Steinhoff, ed.: Do All Persons Have Equal Moral Worth?” Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015.


Weeks 3-4.

Distributive implications: (Right) Libertarianism

R. Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974, Ch 7/I.

W. Kymlicka: “Libertarianism.” Ch. 4. Kymlicka: Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford: OUP 2002, 102-127.

J. Rawls: Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press 1993, 257-288. (esp. 262-269.)

M. Otsuka: “Self-Ownership and Equality.” Otsuka: Libertarianism Without Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003, 11-40.

S. Olsaretti: “Liberty and Entitlements in the Libertarian Justification of the Market” and “The Moralized Defense of the Free Market: A Critique.” Olsaretti: Liberty, Desert and the Market, Chs. 4 and 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004, 86-136.


Weeks 5-6.

Distributive Implications: Prioritarianism

D. Parfit: Equality or Priority? In M. Clayton–A. Williams, eds: The Ideal of Equality. Houndmills–New York: Palgrave, 2000.

M. Otsuka and Alex Voorhove: “Why It Matters that Some Are Worse-off than Others: Against the Priority View.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 37 (2009) 272-199.

D. Parfit: “Another Defense of the Priority View.” Utilitas 24 (2012) 399-440.


Weeks 7-8.

Distributive Implications: Sufficientarianism

J. Raz: „Equality.” Raz: The Morality of Freedom, Ch. 9. Oxford: Clarendon 1986, 219-247.

H. Frankfurt: „Equality as a Moral Ideal.” Ethics 98 (1987).

P. Casal: “Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough.” Ethics 117 (2007) 296-326. (R)

P. Vallentyne: “Sen on Sufficiency, Priority and Equality.” C. Morris. ed.: Contemporary Philosophy in Focus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010, 138-169.


Weeks 9-10.

Egalitarianism: The Relational View

J. Wolff: “Justice, Fairness, and the Egalitarian Ethos.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27 (1998) 97-122.

E. Anderson: “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (1999) 287-337.

S. Scheffler: “The Practice of Equality.” Carina Fourie, Fabian Schuppert and Ivo Wallimann-Helmer, eds.: Social Equality: On What It Means to be Equals. Oxford: OUP 2015.

S. Scheffler: “What is Egalitarianism?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003) 5-39.


Weeks 11-12.

Egalitarianism: The Political Theory

J. Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, 1999. Ch 1.

T. Nagel: “The Problem of Global Justice.” In Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (2005) 113-147.

L. Murphy: “Institutions and the Demands of Justice.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27 (1999) 251-291.

G.A. Cohen, “Where the Action is: On the Site of Distributive Justice.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26 (1997) 3-30.

S. Scheffler: “Is the Basic Structure Basic?” In C. Sypnowich, ed.: The Egalitarian

Conscience: Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006.

T. Pogge: “On the Site of Distributive Justice: Reflections on Cohen and Murphy.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 29 (2000) 137-169.

J. Kis: “On the Core of Distributive Justice: Towards a Two-Level Account.” T. Brooks, ed.: Oxford Handbook of Global Justice. (forthcoming)


Weeks 13-14.

The Metric of Equality: Complex Equality.

M. Walzer: “Complex Equality.” Walzer: Spheres of Justice, Ch. 1. New York: Basic Books 1983, 1-30.

R. Dworkin: “To Each His Own.” New York Review of Books, April 14, 1983.

M. Walzer and R. Dworkin: “An Exchange.” New York Review of Books, July 21, 1983.

D. Miller: “Complex Equality”. D. Miller and M. Walzer, eds.: Pluralism, Justice, and Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.

R. Arneson: “Against Complex Equality.” D. Miller and M. Walzer, eds.: Pluralism, Justice, and Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.

M. Walzer: “Response.” D. Miller and M. Walzer, eds.: Pluralism, Justice, and Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.


Week 15-16.

The Metric of Equality: Equality of What?

G.A. Cohen: “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice.” Ethics 99 (1989) 906-944.

R. Dworkin: “Equality.” Dworkin: Justice for Hedgehogs, Ch. 16. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap 2010, 351-363.

R. Arneson: “Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare.” Philosophical Studies 56 (1989) 77-93.

A. Sen: “Freedom, Achievement, and Resources” and “Functionings and Capability.” Sen: Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992, 31-55.


Weeks 17-18.

Egalitarian Justice: The Difference Principle

J. Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, 1999. Ch 2.

G.A. Cohen: “The Incentive Argument.” In Cohen: Rescuing Justice & Equality, Ch. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2008.


Weeks 19-20.

Egalitarian Justice: Luck Egalitarianism

K. Lippert-Rasmussen: “Luck Egalitarianism and Some Close and Distant Relatives.” Lippert-Rasmussen: Luck Egalitarianism. London: Bloomsbury 2016, Ch. 1., 1-34.

R. Dworkin: “Equality of Resources.” Dworkin: Sovereign Virtue. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2000, Ch. 2.

P. Vallentyne: “Brute Luck, Option Luck, and Equality.” Ethics 112 (2002) 529-557.


Weeks 21-22.

Egalitarian Justice: Critiques of Luck Egalitarianism I          

S. Hurley: “Why the Aim to Neutralize Luck Cannot Provide a Basis For Egalitarianism.” In Hurley: Justice, Luck, and Knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

S.V. Schiffrin: “Egalitarianism, Choice-Sensitivity, and Accommodation.” In R.J. Wallace et al., eds: Reason and Value. The,es from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz. Oxford: Clarendon 2004, 270-302.

M. Seligman: “Luck, Leverage and Equality: A Bargaining Problem for Luck Egalitarians.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (2007) 266-292.


Weeks 23-24.

Egalitarian Justice: Critiques of Luck Egalitarianism II

J. Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, 1999. Ch 1.

A. Kronman: “Talent Pooling.” In Roland Pennock és John W. Chapman: Human Rights. Nomos XXIII. New York–London: NYU Press 1981.

T. Nagel: “Justice and Nature.” In Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 17 (1997).

R. Dworkin: Sovereign Virtue. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2000, Ch. 2. (parts III-IV), 73-99.


Week 25 (Lecture, optional)

Conclusions and Applications


Learning Outcomes: 

Deepening the grasp of the problem of justice.
Understanding the nature of arguments in political philosophy and of the way they differ from arguments made in institutional political theory.
Fostering the ability to make such arguments.
Enabling critically to present a philosophical text.


This is a four-credit course for doctoral students in philosophy or political science, mandatory for those enlisted in the Political Theory track. MA students may be admitted upon request. The course continues over both terms. In the Fall term, students do not earn credits. The four credits and the grade will be assigned at the end of the Winter term.

The format of the course will be a combination of alternating seminars and lectures. Each topic will be introduced by seminar discussion of a key reading and concluded by a lecture (except for the first three introductory lectures which will not be accompanied by seminars).

The grade will reflect class participation (50%) and a 4500-5000 words long final essay to be submitted at the end of the Winter term (50%). Class participation includes at least one seminar presentation based on a hand-out.

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