Does Inequality Matter?

Barrio Juan XXIII

Moral philosophy is about providing arguments for what we regard as good in life and what principles can be used to realise these things. A good life can be thought of as one in which certain needs are met. So the kind of things that we are concerned with are those that the having of brings well being, and the lack of brings distress. These could be things like subsistence, further material goods once subsistence has been met, freedom and autonomy, meaningful social and personal relations, and avenues for cultural and artistic expression. Moral theories differ as to what these goods are and how we should prioritize them and for what reasons. What kinds of justice we care about is determined by what kinds of things we regard as valuable and morally relevant. Distributive justice is concerned with fairness in the distribution of economic goods and in the methods or structures that are used in reaching these distributions.

The most simple argument for wanting equality in the distribution of resources is that inequality of wealth clashes with the principle that we should treat all persons as being of equal moral worth. An unequal distribution of wealth is a failure to treat everyone as an equal. Economic equality is the most simple way to ensure that everyone is treated equally and so we should always pursue it simply for this reason alone, equality is something that has intrinsic value and is good in itself. This view can be called teleological egalitarianism.

A common objection to this is the ‘levelling down’ objection; if moving to equality were to mean reducing the wealth of those at the top but not increasing the wealth of those at the bottom, if it makes no-one better off but some worse off, why should we do it? If we think that levelling down achieves nothing good then we are obliged to drop any commitment to simple teleological egalitarianism, since if equality is all we care about any equality creating situation should be regarded as good. If we view levelling down as bad then our concern must be with something else other than economic equality, and usually this thing is increasing the wellbeing of the less well off.

However, a commitment to egalitarianism does not mean that this is the only thing we can care about. We can adopt a pluralist position, we can be concerned with both equality and welfare. We can decide on priorities by weighing both principles against each other. An absolute preference for equal distribution of resources would mean being a pure egalitarian, whilst a pure commitment to welfare or utility would make us utilitarians, various other positions sit at various points in between these two poles. By adopting a pluralist teleological position we could want equality but only when people gain from it.

Another approach in the face of the levelling down objection would be for us to reject economic egalitarianism and we could instead adopt a ‘prioritarian’ position. Our concern and reason for acting is not the comparative difference between the well off and worse off but the actual distress of those who are in need. The concern is not the position of people relative to each other, but the absolute position of those in need. The worse off a person is the more urgent are their needs, so therefore goods should be distributed by prioritising those in the most need. A small increase in the wealth of the less well off will make for a significantly greater change in welfare than a small decrease in the wealth of the well off, wealth is seen as providing diminishing marginal returns – the more of it you have the less extra welfare you get from gaining more. A situation of equality may be the result of such a distribution but we avoid the levelling down objection because what matters is helping those who are worse off, not inequality in itself. There would be no motivation to act if a move towards equality helped no-one.

Sufficiency theories also reject egalitarianism but hold that what is morally important is that people have enough. When everyone has enough it is of no moral importance if some have more than others. What matters is that levels of welfare are enough so that a good life can be reached, our concern should be that everyone leads a good life, and the living of a good life is more than a life at the level of mere subsistence. Wealth redistributions that result in people still having less than enough will not contribute to a raising of welfare. For example, famine relief that provides nutrients below the level needed to prevent starvation will only have the effect of dragging out death and prolonging suffering. Sufficiency and priority are not incompatible principles. Priority means that we turn our attentions to the most needy first. Sufficiency means that we only stop attending to those needs when people have enough.

Problems with sufficiency theories include the problem of actually determining what ‘enough’ is. Different people have different levels of satisfaction and can freely modify their expectations and desires, or have them modified by external influence, according to the situation they find themselves in. It is unclear how we would go about choosing which set of preferences were really ‘enough’. But at it’s most basic ‘enough’ can be seen as enough to avoid starvation and a lack of shelter. I shall return to the question of inequality when everyone has enough later.

The priority and sufficiency arguments do not provide definitive knock down arguments against pluralist teleological egalitarianism but they do provide good grounds for re-examining our reasons for wanting economic equality in the first place. What is morally more significant, that people have the same amount of stuff or that everyone has a good life? If it is the later then it could turn out that equality is actually a byproduct of pursuing a goal rather than a goal in itself. This seems a reasonable conclusion. Not many people would accept that a society where everyone equally had less than enough was better than one where everyone has a good life but people have differing amounts of stuff.

If we have decided that our concern is that we want to improve welfare, then the issue of how we relate this welfare to quantities of goods needs some consideration. What we are interested in is not quantities of goods but rather the welfare or utility that they bring. A distribution of goods that is utility maximising, that brings the most welfare to the largest amount of people, will not necessarily be the most economically equal distribution as people have different needs and preferences with some, such as the bodily disabled, requiring more resources to reach the same level of welfare as others. How to measure the relative utility of different bundles of different goods, so that distributions can be said to be equitable, is a problem in economics and one that is dealt with only imperfectly dealt by using money as an index. The amount of welfare that people get from goods does not map neatly onto quantities of goods or money.

Another reason for wanting economic equality concerns the notion of moral luck. Equal distributions of goods are said to be more justifiable than unequal ones because the reasons that give rise to inequality are to be regarded as morally arbitrary. Nobody is responsible for the talents provided to them by nature, for the social conditions they are born into, or for the wider pre-existing environmental situation that they find themselves in. Those who achieve economic advantages are able to do so because they have been lucky enough to be placed in a position that predisposes them to success. As mere luck is not a morally significant reason for deserving something it seems fair to compensation those who have not been so lucky, so we do this by moving to economic equality.

However, concentrating purely on outcomes seems to lead to unacceptable conclusions. If we want to compensate people for bad luck economically then why not compensate them for bad luck in other spheres of life? Why not surgically redistribute body parts so that no one is at a bodily disadvantage to anyone else? The luck egalitarian can easily overcome this objection by adopting a pluralist position; we don’t just care about people being compensated for bad luck, we also care about people having bodily autonomy. We compensate the bodily disabled through economic equality, not physical operations. We want to move towards economic equality precisely because people are born with varying physical and mental capacities the level of which they have no control. A desire for economic equality is not a desire for everybody to be physically the same.

A final argument for economic equality is that unequal distributions tend to concentrate political and economic power into the hands of minorities. If we regard freedom and autonomy as things that contribute towards a good life then unequal political and economic relationships should be of concern to us. A good life would not be one where economic survival comes at the cost of having to submit to economic and political power. Economic resources are not only items for immediate or delayed consumption but they are also the means for the production of further wealth, and their use as such can be used to command the labour of others. The ownership of capital goods yield social power in a way that the ownership of consumption goods or deferred income does not. However, this concern would only apply in cases where the wealth distribution is greatly skewed, where large pools of wealth take the form of capital, and not in cases where wealth is unevenly distributed but only to a minor degree. Due to different needs and utility satisfaction requirements it would be possible to have political equality without everyone having the same amount of stuff, so long as these differences remained trivial. It is only in cases of wide economic inequality that we should be concerned as these are an indicator of unequal economic and political power. The concern here is not for economic equality for its own sake, but an argument for economic and political equality which wide inequality would be an indicator for the absence of.

We have seen that there are various reasons why we may be concerned with economic equality. We could be teleological egalitarians and view egalitarianism as something that is good in and of itself. We could be pluralistic teleological egalitarians – egalitarianism matters to us in itself but so do other values. Or we could want economic equality to compensate people for bad life situations or to ensure political and economic equality; we could think equality only matters in as far as it brings some other goods.

The extent to which are concerned with economic equality depends on the extent to which we hold it above other values, or if we hold it as a value at all. Simple teleological egalitarianism does not seem tenable due to the levelling down objection. Pluralist egalitarianism is at least plausible but intuitions from considering equality in situations of scarcity and inequality in situations where everyone has enough suggest that what we really care about is that people having good lives and not equality as a good in and of itself. If we consider economic and political equality as important then we will be concerned with wide patterns of inequality, as these could be indicative of unequal power relations. A society where everyone has enough and no-one has undue political and economic power would be a more or less economically equal society but this equality would be the result of us pursuing other values and not equality as a good in itself.



Frankfurt, Harry, “Equality as a Moral Ideal” in Matravers, Derek and Pike, Jon eds. (2003) Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy, Open University
Parfit, Derek “Equality and Priority” in Matravers, Derek and Pike, Jon eds. (2003) Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy, Open University
Lamont, Julian and Favor, Christi, "Distributive Justice", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Nelkin, Dana K., "Moral Luck", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Gosepath, Stefan, "Equality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Image credit: "Barrio Juan XXIII" by young shanahan is licensed under CC BY 2.0