Natural and Social Inequality

Disability and Fair Equality of Opportunity

in Journal of Moral Philosophy
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This paper examines the moral import of a distinction between natural and social inequalities. Following Thomas Nagel, it argues for a “denatured” distinction that relies less on the biological vs. social causation of inequalities than on the idea that society is morally responsible for some inequalities but not others. It maintains that securing fair equality of opportunity by eliminating such social inequalities has particularly high priority in distributive justice. Departing from Nagel, it argues that society can be responsible for inequalities not only when they are the unintended result of justifiable projects, but even when their alleviation would be very costly. Sharing Nagel’s general concept of ‘social inequality’, then, this paper proposes a far more expansive conception. We argue that many disadvantages due to disability fall under this conception. Eliminating or alleviating those disadvantages should be regarded as securing fair equality of opportunity, not improving the condition of the worst-off.

Natural and Social Inequality

Disability and Fair Equality of Opportunity

in Journal of Moral Philosophy




109 Minn. 456 124 N.W. 221 1910.


William A. Galston“Two Concepts of Liberalism,” Ethics 105 no. 3 (April 1 1995): 533f discussing the Amish. The exclusively Satmar community of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York came to the attention of the u.s. Supreme Court after the New York legislature created a public school district within its boundaries which was used only for special education attended only by Satmar children and overseen by an almost-entirely Satmar school board. Although the Court ruled that the school district arrangements were unconstitutional commentators have noted that no one even challenged the constitutionality of the state-recognized municipality itself in which the children not receiving special education at the “public school” all attended Satmar private schools in sex-segregated classrooms with separate curricula receiving a strict religious education and a highly insular upbringing with little access to modern technology or exposure to the outside world. Ironically the case arose from the Satmar’s attempt to provide culturally appropriate special education for their children with learning and other disabilities itself a matter of fair equality of opportunity. Nomi M. Stolzenberg “Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet: a Religious Group’s Quest for its Own Public School” in Griffin ed. Law and religion: cases in context. Aspen Publishers 2010.


Alexander Rosenberg“The Political Philosophy of Biological Endowments: Some Considerations,” Social Philosophy and Policy 5 no. 01 (September 1987): 1–31; Steven R. Smith “The Social Construction of Talent: A Defence of Justice as Reciprocity” Journal of Political Philosophy 9 no. 1 (March 1 2001): 19–37.


Americans with Disabilities Act (2008) Subtitle I Sec. 12111 (8).


Christopher Boorse“A Rebuttal on Health,” in What Is Disease?ed. James M. Humber and Robert F. Almeder (Humana Press 1997) 7–8.


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