11th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Leung

Kin-Wai Leung

Is the Doctrine of “First Come, First Served” Unfair?-An Examination of G. A. Cohen’s Argument

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick argues that, whatever consequences or constraints may be for other people, each person ought to have nearly unrestricted liberties to control, transfer and dispose any property. He justifies these kinds of liberties with the self-ownership argument and then proposes the Lockean Proviso as the sole restriction of initial acquisition. G. A. Cohen acknowledges that the self-ownership argument cannot be rejected easily; but, he brilliantly argues that the proviso “arbitrarily narrow[s] the class of alternatives with which we are to compare what happens when an appropriation occurs with a view to determining whether anyone is harmed by it” (1995, 78). The proviso, Cohen says, “amounts to” the doctrine of ‘first come, first served’ (ibid. 80). In this paper, however, I try to undermine the following statement: the doctrine of “first come, first served” leads to unfairness in distribution of resources because it allows luck to play a role there. In fact, Cohen does not comment on the doctrine after he has made the foregoing criticism. Instead of complaining about the doctrine, I will illustrate how starting lines of competitions can cause unfairness if they are arbitrarily set up. Then I try to show that the doctrine can be fitted in the playing field of competitions which eliminates brute luck the notion of which is introduced by Ronald Dworkin without causing unfairness. It is plain that luck always accompanies the doctrine; but, I will argue that any plausible conception of fairness, which should accommodate our intuition about responsibility, leaves room for an extent of uncertainty. Hence, one should not accuse the doctrine of being unfair simply because it allows luck to impact on resources distribution.