Whatever of what?

In 1980, Amartya Sen’s essay ‘Equality of What?’ stimulated a still ongoing discussion on the question: ‘Insofar as one holds that social justice demands rendering people’s condition more nearly equal, what aspects of people’s condition should be equalized?’ (Sen, 1982). In what respects should people be rendered more nearly the same? Prominent responses include resources, fundamental liberties, capabilities, advantages, welfare, and opportunities for welfare.1 There is a more general question in this neighbourhood that should be of interest. We might conceive of social justice as requiring us to maximize some function of some aspect of people’s condition. The relevant aspect might be any of the candidates just listed or some hitherto unnoticed alternative. But it is not obvious in advance of argument that social justice requires equality of any sort. Perhaps the function we should be maximizing requires us to equalize, but it might be ‘maximize the average!’, ‘maximize the aggregate!’, ‘maximin!’, ‘equalize at the highest feasible level!’, ‘maximax!’, ‘prioritize!’, ‘maximize the number above sufficiency!’, or yet another alternative. The more general question about the nature of social justice requirements is ‘Whatever of what?’ There are two issues to resolve, not just one.
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