Where should the boundaries of the state’s duty be drawn?

New PhD thesis examines the boundaries of the state’s duty to compensate disadvantaged citizens such as people with physical disabilities. The thesis fills a void in political theory.

A new PhD thesis from the Department of Political Science and Government places focus on the framework within which the state has a duty to provide compensation for disabilities and human needs.

- For example, the state makes wheelchairs available to disabled people, while no compensation is offered for other needs – such as the need for Halal meat. Where do we draw the boundaries of the state’s responsibilities? Asks Rasmus Sommer Hansen, author of the thesis and now also part-time lecturer at the department.

A theoretical void
In his thesis, Rasmus Sommer Hansen defends and expands the theory of justice developed by the American philosopher Ronald Dworkin. The theory requires that the state compensate people for circumstances which lead to some citizens being more disadvantaged than others. And yet, the theory leaves some questions unanswered.

In practice, however, the state does not compensate citizens very consistently. Citizens missing both legs have access to disability aids and financial support, while citizens with preferences arising from their belonging to a cultural minority do not receive compensation.

- Dworkin is not entirely clear on this distinction, and it is therefore difficult to see where the boundaries of the state’s responsibilities are drawn according to the theory. This is the void I’m trying to fill with my thesis. I establish a theoretical distinction between the types of needs and preferences for which the state has a duty to provide compensation and the types which do not impose a duty on the state, says Rasmus Sommer Hansen.

Put briefly, Rasmus Sommer Hansen reaches the following distinction:

In principle, the state must intervene and help a person with expensive preferences if:

1) The preferences are expensive as a consequence of (morally problematic) discrimination placing the person in a more disadvantageous position than she would have been in the absence of discrimination.

2) The preferences are a consequence of institutions which do not permit everyone maximum freedom to satisfy their own individual preferences compatible with the physical safety and freedom of others

3) The preferences are inauthentic.

4) The preferences are the result of unequal financial resources which are not a reflection of the person’s own choices, and/or:

5) The preferences are considered a handicap by the person having them (against which she would have taken out insurance in a fair initial situation).

Rasmus Sommer Hansen’s PhD thesis ‘Lige ressourcer under ideelle og ikke-ideelle omstændigheder’ (Equality of resources in ideal and non-ideal circumstances) was published in September 2011 by the publishing house Forlaget Politica at the Department of Political Science and Government.

Further information:

Rasmus Sommer Hansen
Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences

Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University
Email: rsh@ps.au.dk
Tel.:  +45 8942 8075

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