Imagine two worlds. In one world—let’s call it Expansia—a writer writes 260 thoughtful and engaging pages exploring his chosen topic. In the other world—Abbrevia—a writer has at most 1000 words of blog post to respond to the first writer.
Welcome to Abbrevia. Responding adequately to Joey Fishkin’s wide-ranging and incisive book Bottlenecks is no easy task. Doing so in a blog post is impossible. Undoubtedly the right answer to this quandary is to take Fishkin’s work as a jumping off point for a related set of ideas. This is an ideal approach for a blog post. Alas, dear Reader, this contribution to the symposium takes a different tack. What follows is my attempt to identify five of my favorite things about Bottlenecks, and then to list five of my lingering questions.
1. For starters, a stylistic note: Bottlenecks is beautifully written. It’s full of accessible prose, pithy articulations of complex philosophical ideas, and evocative imagined worlds that illustrate key concepts. Some of these imagined worlds Fishkin invents, and some he culls from the philosophical canon; in both cases, his alternative universes are far more effective than my Expansia and Abbrevia. The “big test” society is emblematic: This is a world, drawn by analogy to Bernard Williams’ warrior society, and not so very far from our own, in which everyone’s opportunities for many different kinds of lives are all determined by a single evaluation at a particular age. The big test makes vivid the idea of a bottleneck, which limits opportunities both for those who fail (because they can’t reach the opportunities on the other side) and for those who pass (because it shapes their preferences and ambitions).
2. Relatedly, Bottlenecks is a story about equal opportunity with far more emphasis on the opportunity than the equality. For everyone who ever wondered if equality theory or antidiscrimination law is leading us towards the dystopian world of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron—where everyone is literally weighed down in direct proportion to her talents, whether mental or physical—Fishkin’s account offers a lucid answer: We should care about equality to the extent that it serves the goal of expanding individual opportunities (and inclinations) to pursue diverse concepts of the good—to become, per Raz, “‘part author of his life.’” An illustrative passage is this:
“A pluralistic opportunity structure . . . provides the structural conditions for the kind of freedom that makes autonomy possible. It is the difference between seeing only one path that leads to anything of value—a path one must pursue at all costs—and seeing many paths, leading to different lives marked by different combinations of forms of human flourishing, so that one must decide for oneself what to value and pursue.”
Reducing inequalities is thus instrumental to freedom, rather than the primary end we are seeking—at least as I read Fishkin.