The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (13): More Income Equality Makes Us More Free

Another reason not to worry too much about the supposed incompatibility of equality and freedom is the fact that an equal level of monetary resources promotes freedom. Money in the form of a relatively decent income allows us to choose from and engage in a wide variety of activities. It makes it possible for us to buy the commodities and services we want to buy, and consequently do with them what we want to do. (Of course, within the legal limits that determine what can be commercially traded and how traded goods can be used; e.g. we can’t buy people, and we can’t use the guns we buy to kill people). As a result, we have a wider choice of life plans and more means to pursue our chosen plan.

This is freedom in one sense of the word: more choice. Freedom in another sense, namely the ability to do what we want without interference, looks absolutely anemic compared to this. After all, what good is the absence of interferes when the world we live in offers us only very few options or none of the monetary resources to choose and pursue options. This freedom from interference is hardly valuable, if it is freedom at all.

So, if we agree that monetary means promote freedom in a certain sense of the word because these means broaden our sets of choices, then I guess we’ll also agree that a more equal distribution of money, wealth and income promotes freedom: it gives people who receive more money in the new, more egalitarian distribution more freedom, without necessarily diminishing the freedom of those whose resources are diminished in the new distribution. The monetary freedom of the rich isn’t necessarily reduced after income redistribution and after reductions of income inequality, because of diminishing marginal utility. The ability to buy a fifth yacht doesn’t increase anyone’s freedom in any sense of the word. And taking away this ability doesn’t reduce anyone’s freedom. On the contrary, if the monetary means that could have been used for this fifth yacht are instead given to a number of other people who don’t have a lot of money, then these means will benefit the freedom of those other people, and aggregate freedom will have increased.

So that’s a good reason to reduce income inequality. However, it’s probably not a good reason to eliminate income inequality completely, for four reasons. First, even if, ideally, people have a right to the same extent of monetary freedom as it is defined here, that doesn’t mean they should have the same amount of money. In order to be able to do the same things and have the same choices, different people need different amounts of money. The handicapped, for instance, may need more than average.

The second problem with equal money is that it would mean deep and frequent violations of property rights, and property rights are important, perhaps just as important as freedom (and no, property rights and freedom are not the same thing: the former are a means to interfere with the freedom of others, namely the freedom of others to use goods that belong to you).

A third problem created by equal income is related to incentives. And finally, equal income doesn’t combine well with considerations of desert (one definition of desert is that people deserve different levels of monetary wealth for their contributions to society, culture etc.).

We could react to these different considerations by framing the issue as one of value pluralism: income equality and freedom are important values, and so are desert and property. The difficulty would then be to balance these different values which, it turns out, are sometimes contradictory. That would mean limiting the equalization of income at some point before total income equality, at a level that is compatible with respect for property rights (also limited), with due consideration of incentive problems (also limited), and with recognition of the moral value of desert (also limited).

There’s possibly some Gini value that would hit this balance. This Gini value of x gives a level of income inequality at which monetary freedom is maximized for a maximum number of people. A value lower than x (the lower the Gini value, the more equal the income distribution) resulting from higher levels of income redistribution would not increase the monetary freedom of the poor because the amount of money taken from the rich has become so high that it doesn’t just eat away at marginal utility but also produces disincentives high enough to reduce the size of total social wealth.

We could try this kind of delicate balancing between redistribution on the one hand and incentives produced by rewards for deserving actions on the other hand. (Alternatively, we could also drop income equality as a value and instead focus on a so-called sufficientarian approach in which we would try to give people enough monetary means to achieve a certain level of freedom – freedom as it is understood here – regardless of the means and freedom of the people at the top of the income or wealth distribution. However, I’ll leave that option aside for the moment).

However, there are some problems: we’re dealing here with a somewhat strange notion of freedom. Freedom is obviously much more than the use of monetary means to choose and pursue goals. Also, we don’t want to promote consumerism. The problem with consumerism is that the truly important parts of life can’t be bought, and that focusing on consumption tends to sideline those important parts. It also has ecological disadvantages.

And another problem I already mentioned: some people will be worse off if money is equalized because they need comparatively more money just to have the same capabilities. Hence, rather than equalizing money we should perhaps equalize capabilities.

More posts in this series are here. More on income inequality here. And here‘s a related post about the link between poverty and freedom.

What is Freedom? (2): A Right to Self-Ownership?

Libertarians stress the importance of the right to self-ownership. I would argue that it’s an interesting and useful right in the context of human rights more generally, but also one that is a bit of a problem. When we say that people have a right to self-ownership we mean that they own themselves in just the same way that they can own objects. It follows that people have the same rights over themselves and their bodies as they have over objects:

  • they are free to use their bodies as they please
  • they can claim that others, including the government, refrain from using it
  • they can use the government to protect themselves against others trying to use it
  • and they can transfer property rights to others.

Self-ownership rights understood in this sense are the core of libertarian philosophy and are believed to justify standard libertarian policy recommendations such as the elimination or reduction of taxation, the freedom to sell organs, use drugs, engage in all forms of consensual sex etc. And indeed, self-ownership can be an attractive right to non-libertarians as well: it can be used to justify the prohibition of slavery and rape, to protect people’s rights to euthanasia and assisted suicide, to solve the forced transplant dilemma, to support the rejection of capital punishment on the basis of a theory of non-instrumentalization etc.

However, useful as the right to self-ownership can be, it’s not without drawbacks. The right can, and in the minds of most libertarians does imply a denial of the obligation to help others in need (apart from an obligation based on prior wrongdoing and assistance based on voluntary agreement). Such an obligation would be a form of slavery. It would mean the forced use of our bodies and labor power for the benefit of others. Libertarians often reject taxation for the same reason. All this seems needlessly selfish and contrary to moral intuition.

It also seems incoherent. Most if not all libertarians accept taxation for the funding of some collective goods such as highways and the police force. It’s not clear how they can accept a limitation of the right to self-ownership for the sake of some types of taxation but not others. Taxation is always the non-consensual use of persons for the benefit of others, whatever its purpose.

If you view the right to self-ownership as an absolute right – or axiomatic – you may wind up accepting some absurd conclusions: you’ll have to claim that it’s impermissible to gently push the arm of a driver holding his steering wheel and heading towards of group of school children, because that would mean using the body of the driver without his consent to aid others in need. Self-ownership therefore can’t be an absolute right, at least not in a non-solipsistic world. Minimally, it should be limited for the sake of the self-ownership rights of others: imprisoning murderers or slave holders means limiting their self-ownership rights for the sake of the same rights of their potential victims. And, on top of that, it’s probably also necessary to limit self-ownership rights for the sake of certain other values. The problem is that it’s difficult to think about a limited right to self-ownership: every limit to that right seems to destroy it completely. Either you own yourself or you don’t.

There are, I think, three ways to react to these problems with the right to self-ownership.

  • You can bite the bullet and maintain that the right to self-ownership is the fundamental right and should be absolute whatever the consequences.
  • Or you can hold on to the right but only as one value amidst others, and to be balanced against others.
  • Or you can abandon it, claiming that it only has a rhetorical value, and that it’s better to focus on the “derivative” rights – such a the right not to suffer slavery – and try to justify those derivative rights independently (e.g. an anti-slavery movement doesn’t need the concept of self-ownership in order to be effective).

As a good value pluralist, I prefer the second option. The rhetorical and unifying force of the right to self-ownership should not be underestimated. If we manage to prune its extreme libertarian outgrowths (such as selfishness and extreme marketization in the form of organ sales or the “right” to sell yourself into slavery), we’re left with a powerful concept that can be of great value in the struggle for individual liberty (which isn’t a libertarian monopoly by the way). But it can’t guarantee liberty by itself. It depends on and is only meaningful together with a theory of ownership of the rest of the world. Imagine that one other person owns the entirety of the world, minus yourself (i.e. you only have self-ownership). That means that when you want to eat you’re a thief, and when you want to move about you’re trespassing. That’s hardly freedom. Self-ownership without a theory about how the rest of the world is owned can be utterly meaningless.

So the question then turns to the way in which nonhuman things and beings should be owned and distributed. Who can own what? Libertarians would claim that self-ownership provides a basis for ownership in general, and they use Locke’s theory of property to argue for that claim (I own myself, therefore also my labor, therefore also the fruits of my labor – since hardly anything in the world today hasn’t been touched by human labor, almost everything can be said to be owned by someone).

However, I argued elsewhere that this is a difficult if not impossible move. Hence, ownership should be justified independently from self-ownership, and should probably include the notion of a “fair share”, whatever that means. Perhaps this notion can be based on another element in Locke’s theory, namely the “Lockean proviso” that we should leave enough and as good for others, or on some form of sufficientarianism (meaning that all should have enough resources for basic subsistence, for a decent life, for a life worth living etc.). Or it could be based on the persuasive claim that the earth is the common ownership of all, regardless of the labor some have put into it. But I’ve already discussed those issues here and here respectively.

What is Equality? (2): Or, Equality of What?

As I mentioned before, when people talk about equality they mean equality of something very specific. The problem is, they hardly ever agree on the specifics. So it’s not uncommon to see two people talking about equality and actually talking about something completely different. And even when they’re talking about the same specific type of equality, they often disagree about its importance, its definition and its (lack of) merits.

Here’s a list of some of the types of equality that are frequently discussed:

  1. equality of respect and/or dignity
  2. equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)
  3. equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life
  4. equality of capabilities
  5. equality of power (political and other power)
  6. equality of rights
  7. equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments.

I’ll skip the first one for now (I may come back to it in a later post) because it’s vague in its policy implications, and it’s those implications I want to focus on here. In fact, what do we want to do when we say that we want to promote one of the remaining 6 types of equality? And what are the likely problems we’ll face? Let’s go over them one by one.

2. Equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)

Few people actually want to strive towards complete equality of income, wealth or consumption, for several good reasons.

  • First, people have different consumption needs and hence different income or wealth requirements. And I’m talking about needs, not preferences. People who prefer expensive stuff will have a hard time justifying the inequality of income or wealth that they require to satisfy their tastes. On the other hand, a blind person will have no difficulties making the case for a higher income. Preferences may also be problematic when they aim too low rather than too high. People who are born into deprivation and only see deprivation around them may adjust their preferences and expectations so that they are satisfied with their lives. However, it would be wrong to follow their preferences rather than their real needs.
  • And secondly, equality of income or wealth creates an incentive problem. See here. If people are not rewarded for their efforts, they may decide that their efforts aren’t worth their while, and society as a whole may be worse off as a result.

So equality of income is in fact shorthand for reduced income inequality. As we don’t want this type of equality to collapse into the next one (see number 3 below), let’s assume that we’re not talking about a society in which income inequality means that the people at the wrong side of the inequality are poor – poor in the sense that they lack the basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life. So, instead picture a society in which all prosper but some prosper a lot more than others.

Is that kind of inequality a problem? Many say it isn’t. Why should a university professor care about how much a business tycoon earns? However, income inequality in this sense can be problematic. It can, for instance, shock people’s notions of fairness and justice. If the professor successfully teaches her students about morality, and the business tycoon earns his wealth by polluting the earth, it may seem unjust that the professor should be rewarded less. Merit and desert are powerful ideals, and a society that systematically violates these ideals through its system of rewards may not be the ideal place to live.

Even if the tycoon earns his wealth by way of morally sound activities, there can be a problem of justice: perhaps he started life in an advantaged position compared to the professor, and therefore doesn’t (entirely) earn his rewards. Maybe the professor also wanted to become a tycoon, but her blindness forced her into a different career. (See point 7 below). And even if the starting positions are equal, the result of the tycoon’s wealth may be that he, compared to the professor, has a larger influence on democratic politics. (See point 5 below). This may destroy democracy, or at least result in a highly fragmented and therefore also unstable society.

So we have some good reasons to do something about this type of inequality. However, when we try to reduce – not eliminate – income inequality, we’ll probably reach a point at which redistribution starts to discourage people from being productive (the incentive problem mentioned above). Or not. Perhaps the loss of income they suffer because of redistribution makes them want to be more productive. Higher productivity can be the means to compensate for the loss of income. It’s not clear how strong these two possible effects are.

In any case, many of the problems caused by income inequality don’t need to be solved by way of reductions in income inequality. Unequal political influence generated by unequal wealth can be solved by limiting the influence of wealth on politics, rather than by limiting wealth.

More on income inequality here.

3. Equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life

Let’s now drop the assumption that we’re talking about a society in which all prosper, albeit unequally. That’s unrealistic anyway. Even in the richest countries on earth, there are many people who are unable to secure the bundle of basic resources necessary for a decent human life. There’s a theory called sufficientarianism that wants to focus, not on income inequality or relative poverty, but on absolute destitution. It claims, correctly I think, that all have a right to an equal bundle of basic resources and that this is what equality means.

The easiest way to make sure that people possess these basic resources is to give them enough money to buy them. For example, there’s a political movement advocating a guaranteed basic income (an income people receive whether they work or not; Philippe van Parijs is a notable supporter of this policy). But also employment benefits, healthcare benefits etc. aim to provide people with access to the basic resources necessary for a decent life.

The advantage of giving people money is of course that money is fungible: people can use it the way they want. That means it takes into account the fact that different people need different and different amounts of basic goods (take again the case of a blind person). If you give people basic goods directly, rather than the money necessary to buy them, then it becomes difficult to tailor the given goods to the specific and variable needs of individuals. An all-purpose means such as money is clearly better.

However, you’ll still have the problem that some people may need more money than others because they have basic needs that are more expensive, again not because of differences in taste or preferences, but because of different abilities. A blind person does not only need different resources but also more resources in order to lead a minimally decent human life. So we’ll have to factor in capabilities (see point 4 below). Hence, equality of basic resources, outside of the capabilities approach, isn’t enough. If that’s your goal, you won’t do justice to everyone.

An additional difficulty is that the composition of the bundles has to be different from one country to another, and not just from one individual to another. A minimally decent life in one society is more costly than in another one. In a highly industrialized and technological society, it’s more expensive to earn a living than in a society where, in a manner of speaking, you can just pick the fruit from the threes. If you add up all these differences in the content and quantity of the bundles you risk ending up with something very arbitrary. The whole concept of a basic bundle may lose its meaning.

Even if we assume that this type of equality does retain some meaning as a separate type of equality, we’re faced with the same incentive problem as in income equality, depending on how costly the bundle of resources is and how heavily we have to tax to produce it.

A final problem with this type of equality is one of fairness. The guaranteed basic income approach, as well as all other forms of unconditional provision of basic resources, seems to reward the lazy and punish the hard working. It’s reasonable to provide basic resources to people who are poor because of bad luck, lack of talents, bad health etc., but not to those who voluntarily choose not to be productive.

4. Equality of capabilities

So let’s turn to this next type of equality, which can be seen as a fine-tuning of the previous type. Why do we say that people need a bundle of basic goods for a minimally decent life? Because a minimally decent life means something. It means having the capabilities to engage in certain functionings that are part of a minimally decent life. These functionings include “beings and doings” (in the words of Amartya Sen), such as being nourished and in good health, taking part in community life, culture and thinking etc. People’s capabilities to achieve these functionings should be equalized. That doesn’t necessarily require a fixed and equal basic income. On the contrary, because a fixed basic income does not take into account the different levels of incapability across individuals. Some people need no help whatsoever. Others may need a lot. The blind person mentioned a few times already may need more than the average poor person, but perhaps less than a particular person who’s very deep in poverty.

The problem with this type of equality is the precise determination of the list of functionings and capabilities that really matter and that should be equalized. There’s a risk of paternalism, a lack of neutrality and a sectarian bias. Maybe a democratic approach to this determination can solve that problem. And that’s the link to the next type of equality.

5. Equality of power (political and other power).

In a democracy, people have – formally at least – equal political freedom. They all have the right to vote, to voice criticism or support, to campaign and demonstrate, to assemble and associate, and to stand for office. However, a lack in some of the other types of equality mentioned above may reduce the fair value and effectiveness of this democratic equality for a certain number of citizens, e.g. the poor, the blind, etc. As already argued, even prosperous citizens can have unequal power in a society with large income discrepancies (remember the professor and the tycoon).

So, if we want to promote this kind of equality of power, we first need to promote other types of equality. People may need access to basic resources in order to have the time and energy to devote to politics. And some of these resources are directly necessary for political participation (people have to drive to the polling station, read the newspapers etc.). However, equality of power can also be promoted without first promoting other types of equality. We can regulate campaign financing and access to the media and thereby limit the influence of wealth on politics. We don’t necessarily need to reduce wealth inequality to do that (although there may be other reasons to limit wealth inequality, see above). Equality of power, therefore, doesn’t necessarily collapse into other types of equality. It’s a concept that merits a separate existence.

Equality of power isn’t just equality of political power. Slaveholders have power over their slaves, husbands may have (had) power over their wives etc. Again, equality of power in these contexts can be promoted by first promoting other types of equality. If slaves and women are given basic resources then we reduce the cost of exiting the oppressive relationship as well as the power of the counter-party to keep them in that relationship. We may also want to given them equal rights.

However, I see that this post is dragging along and is now way past the saturation level, I guess. So I’ll stop here and just link to some previous posts dealing with the two remaining types of equality:

6. Equality of rights: here
7. Equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments: here

The Ethics of Human Rights (42): What’s the Best Approach to Distributive Justice?

What is distributive justice?

Distributive justice is a set of normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity. These benefits and burdens can be material goods and services, income, welfare or something else. Whatever they are, a theory of distributive justice will claim that they should be distributed or allocated to people according to some morally justified and morally just set of rules.

The assumption is that all government activity in some way affects the distribution of those benefits and burdens, whatever we do or believe, and that it’s important to guarantee that this distribution is done in a just way. So a theory of justice will propose rules for taking some benefits and burdens from people and giving them to others in a way that corresponds to ideals of justice.

Different types of distributive justice

Unfortunately, there isn’t one commonly accepted theory of justice. Different people have proposed different theories that describe different ideal methods of distributing different types of benefits and burdens. Some theories propose a more or less equal distribution of income; other theories focus on a more general understanding of benefits and talk about “welfare”. And some theories do not accept equal distributions and focus on desert. Etc. There are even some schools of thought that deny the justice of any sort of redistribution and argue that justice is about respecting property rights (libertarianism for instance). However, I’ll focus in this post on those who think that some kind of distributive justice is an important concern (which doesn’t imply that I believe that libertarianism is completely wrong about everything).

Let’s look at some of the more common theories and try to assess – superficially, I admit – what their respective merits are.

Strict egalitarianism

This theory of justice claims that all people should have the same level of material goods.

  • Advantages. This does seem to correspond to the basic moral rule that all people are owed equal respect.
  • Disadvantages. Different people have different needs, and so they need different and different amounts of goods. There’s also the problem of economic efficiency: strict equality removes incentives for economic productivity. Hence, it may result in overall wellbeing at a rather low level, making things worse for everyone. Conversely, everyone, even the worst off, can be made better off if goods/income/whatever are not distributed equally.

The Difference Principle

That last point was probably the origin of the so-called Difference Principle. This principle is part of John Rawls’ theory of justice. It does not demand strict equality as long as unequal distributions make the least advantaged in society better off than they would have been under strict equality. More precisely formulated: inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This principle is also called the maximin rule: an unequal distribution can be just when it maximizes the benefit to those who have the most minuscule allocation.

The justification of this principle is that higher incomes for more productive members of society provide those people with an incentive to be productive. And if they are productive, they produce more wealth, which can be used to benefit the least advantaged.

(Similar ideas can be found in sufficientarianism and prioritarianism).

  • Advantages. Contrary to egalitarianism, the focus is on the absolute wellbeing of the least advantaged, rather than their relative wellbeing, i.e. their (un)equal position. Hence, we avoid the egalitarian destruction of incentives and the resulting risk of leveling down.
  • Disadvantages. People’s relative positions are to some extent morally important. See this older post for a list of reasons why this is the case. Rawls does have a partial response to that concern because he argues that the inequalities permitted by the difference principle should be consistent with another rule of justice, namely the equality of rights and liberties. For example, high income inequality may make it impossible for people at the wrong end of this inequality to participate in democracy, to have their views represented and to get elected. Hence, Rawls argues for some corrections of inequality when inequality of resources negatively affects equal liberty. However, other disadvantages of inequality receive less attention. Another disadvantage of the Difference Principle is that it ignores desert.

Desert-based principles

It’s plausible to claim that a just distribution of goods should give people what they deserve, at least partially. We intuitively believe that at least some of the inequalities in life are deserved. People who work hard or contribute a lot to society deserve a higher level of wealth/income/welfare etc., even if such inequalities do not improve the position of the least advantaged. The hard working should not be forced to subsidize the lazy. They don’t deserve to be forced in this way, and the lazy don’t deserve to benefit in this way. (Many desert-based theories of justice are based on Locke’s theory of property).

Desert-based theories of justice claim that distributive systems are just insofar as they distribute benefits and burdens according to desert, at least partially. (This goes back to Aristotle).

  • Advantages. Desert is a strong moral intuition and it is therefore important to incorporate it in a theory of distributive justice. Theories that fail to do so will always seem unjust.
  • Disadvantages. We can make mistakes when deciding that some or other activity is deserving or meritorious. Distributions based on such mistakes will only be just by chance. But even when we don’t make these mistakes, it’s hard to measure and compare desert (is art more meritorious than science?). In addition, we can fail to identify real desert. Apparent desert may in fact be based on undeserved endowments. And that’s where luck egalitarianism comes in. (More problems with desert are described here).

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism can be viewed as a desert-based type of justice. It proposes to redistribute the benefits and burdens that people don’t deserve and that result from bad luck, for example the bad luck of being born poor, in a poor country, without talents etc. Bad luck in the initial distribution of natural or social endowments should not affect one’s life prospects or distributions of income/wealth/etc. People don’t deserve those endowments and hence don’t deserve the distributions that result from it. These distributions therefore need to be corrected and equalized. After having equalized people’s starting positions in life, we have to let people free to decide what to do with their lives. Those decisions are their responsibility and hence they deserve the outcomes of their decisions. After corrections for endowments, people who work deserve the benefits of their work, and people who are lazy or careless deserve the results of their laziness or carelessness.

  • Advantages. Luck egalitarianism avoids the pitfalls of both crude desert-based justice and strict egalitarianism.
  • Disadvantages. There may be cases in which people who bring bad luck or suffering on themselves still have a claim to assistance. Also, luck egalitarianism produces some bad incentives and can be seen as demeaning (go here for more detail).

International distributive justice, or cosmopolitan justice

A small detail in the theory of luck egalitarianism has far-reaching consequences. Among other things, people don’t deserve the places in which they are born. And yet, those places can determine whether you are rich or poor, free or persecuted etc. To some extent, poverty and persecution are just bad luck, the bad luck of being born in the wrong country. Residency and citizenship are as morally arbitrary as race, gender, natural endowments etc. No theory of justice that takes the equality of human beings serious can ignore the unequal distributions caused by the place of birth, and has to correct these distributions. Arbitrary facts about places of birth, border, residency or citizenship – just like genetic defects, race, gender etc. – cannot be allowed to determine people’s lives. Limiting the principles of justice to citizens or residents is unacceptable.

That means that redistribution should be international and not just between citizens of a particular country. Of course, it’s plausible that people have more responsibilities to those closer to them: parents have more responsibilities towards their children than towards the rest of humanity; friends should help each other etc. Closeness is morally relevant because it means more power: the closer you are to someone, the easier it is to help. But equal dignity and equal respect for all human beings is also morally relevant, and closeness therefore doesn’t mean that people who are far away and who are unknown to you and unrelated to you can’t legitimately demand assistance.

Preference to people close to you – and those people can perhaps include fellow nationals rather than just family and friends – shouldn’t be the only or overriding concern. We want to avoid chauvinism, parochialism and egoism. The metaphor of the family can turn nationalism into something very nasty. And anyway, the salience of closeness has been substantially reduced by technology: nowadays, it’s easy to send money abroad for example.

Still, in some plausible conception of international justice there can be room for some form of differentiation of duties towards fellow citizens and foreigners. International or cosmopolitan justice is therefore possibly coherent with the Difference Principle: international inequalities are acceptable if they improve the position of those who are globally worst off (although Rawls himself did not believe this because he correctly pointed to the absence of global institutions, and institutions are crucial to his theory).

  • Advantages. International (or cosmopolitan) justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities and people burdened with bad luck should be treated equally, why not foreigners? Borders are indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as gender, race or talent and they can’t, therefore, determine distributions. International justice assumes all the consequences of the theory of human equality and makes the theory of justice more coherent compared to theories that focus on domestic distribution only.
  • Disadvantages. International justice can burden the citizens of wealthy countries with extreme and unbearable responsibilities. After all, we want a coherent system of justice that treats people equally regardless of their place of birth. So it’s not just that rich countries have to prevent starvation and genocide abroad. That seems to be difficult enough already, but international justice makes things even more difficult because it gives people abroad the same benefits and burdens as citizens. That can imply, for example, completely open borders or far-reaching redistribution leading to substantially reduced welfare levels in rich countries. Another problem is more practical: it’s not clear how international redistribution should take place. In the case of national distribution there is a state taking care of it. Not so on the global level.

Distributive justice across generations

The same reasons that argue against the moral salience of closeness in space argue against the moral salience of closeness in time. The fact that some people will be born after our death isn’t a good reason to impose burdens on them. Hence, our distributive principles should take into account the interests of future generations. It wouldn’t be just to design a system of distributive justice that takes care of the least advantaged among us, that removes the influence of bad luck suffered by the living, that preserves a place for desert, that is insensitive to borders, and that at the same harms the interests of future generations (for example because it fails to provide a good system for the management of natural resources). More here on transgenerational justice.

  • Advantages. Like international justice, transgenerational justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities, people burdened with bad luck and foreigners should be treated equally, why not future generations? Time is indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as borders, gender, race or talent and can’t, therefore, determine distributions.
  • Disadvantages. Again, like in the case of international justice, we run the risk of imposing enormous burdens on the present generations. Moreover, there’s the so-called repugnant conclusion: if we multiply the number of future people – which is potentially a very large number of people – then we run the risk of drowning the interests of present generations. A small benefit for a very large number of future people will then justify a very heavy burden on the limited number of people currently alive. However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the interests of future people.

Welfare-based principles

Theories of justice can also focus on welfare. According to welfare-based theories of distributive justice, the only value of goods, resources, desert-claims, equal freedom and even equality is their positive effect on welfare. Distributive principles should then be designed so that they enhance welfare. Welfare maximization is the only criterion to decide distributive rules.

Utilitarianism is the main welfare-based theory of justice. “Utility” can be understood as more or less identical to “welfare”. It can be defined as pleasure, preference satisfaction, happiness etc. According to utilitarianism, distributing benefits and burdens means distributing them in such a way that we maximize overall utility (i.e. overall preference satisfaction, happiness etc.). We have to choose the pattern of distribution that maximizes the sum of all satisfied preferences, of all instances of happiness etc. (unsatisfied preferences or unhappiness count as negatives, and some “higher” or more intense preferences may be weighted higher, depending on the type of utilitarianism we are talking about).

  • Advantages. Utilitarianism’s main advantage is its compatibility with freedom: it doesn’t prefer particular types of preferences, pleasure, happiness etc., and it therefore allows people to realize their own visions of the good life.
  • Disadvantages. What about evil preferences, such as hate and racism? If those kinds of preferences are widespread and the individual targets of those preferences are a minority, then the latter will suffer because overall wellbeing will be increased by allowing the realization of evil preferences. Also, it’s not because it’s rational for an individual to sacrifice some present preferences for a larger future gain, that it’s moral for a society to sacrifice individuals for the gain of the whole, as utilitarianism often requires. That is why some utilitarians have added rights or rules to their equations: preferences can only be satisfied when they don’t violate the rights of others.

Feminist approaches

Feminism has convincingly argued that the traditional theories of justice described above tend to ignore how distributive principles affect the fate of women, especially given the fact that women still have primary responsibility for child-rearing. Distributions within the family are usually not discussed in theories of justice. Therefore, these theories can be criticized as paternalistic or at least unwittingly supportive of paternalism. Many theories of justice include specific rules about the protection of the private sphere as an area that is off-limits for the government and hence for distributive efforts. So theories of justice have made themselves powerless to address gender inequality.

Conclusion: What’s the best approach to distributive justice?

So, after all this and if you’re still with me, what do we take away? Strict equality and simple utilitarianism seem the least appealing. And any coherent approach has to include rules that apply both nationally and globally, has to be gender sensitive and has to reserve some attention to desert. Intergenerational concerns are also hard to avoid if we want to maintain coherence, although perhaps we could limit the impact of the demands of future generations by claiming that actual suffering is more urgent than possible suffering.

This brings back the concern of the burden justice imposes on people. If we want to take the best of all the previously described approaches to distributive justice, we necessarily end up with a “thick” conception of justice, imposing a heavy burden. We have to take into account all people currently living, not just our fellow citizens, as well as people not yet born. And we have to give special attention to gender. But at the same time we don’t want to have a theory of justice that’s so burdensome that people will say: thank you but no thanks. It’s fine to have a coherent theory of justice but if this coherence leads to impossible demands on people or demands they are not (yet) willing to accept, then the practical use of that theory is nil.

One possible reaction to this concern about the burden of justice is the adoption of a prioritarian approach, and more specifically a global gender sensitive prioritarianism with a time preference: the worst off should get the most attention. For example, poor women currently living in a patriarchal society should be the first beneficiaries of redistribution. The disadvantage of this is that it will force us to abandon, temporarily, a lot of people we don’t want to abandon, for example welfare beneficiaries in rich countries. Or we could bite the bullet and say with Peter Singer that the burden is what it is and we should carry it. Morality may be more demanding than we had initially thought. Rather than adapting morality in order to diminish its burden, we just accept the burden.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (38): Should People Be Equal or Should They Have Enough?

There are people who believe income inequality is a major problem – and I’m one of them – and there are others who say that the real problem isn’t a relational one but rather one of absolute means. Harry Frankfurt for example argues that it’s not important whether a person has less than another regardless of how much either of them has. What is important is whether people have enough of what they need for a decent human life.

Sufficientarianism

This so-called sufficientarian approach – as opposed to the egalitarian one – is supposedly not comparative or relational but humanitarian. It focuses on the alleviation of absolute suffering and deprivation instead of relative inequalities. Rather than diminishing the distance between the worst off and the best off, it wants to improve the situation of the worst off. The latter goal can be the result of the former, but doesn’t have to be. Or it can promote the former but doesn’t have to. For example, imagine a society where incomes are highly unequal but where none of the people at the wrong side of this inequality are below a threshold value of wellbeing (the threshold determines the difference between suffering and non-suffering). So, according to the sufficientarian approach, there’s no need to diminish inequality in such a society. There’s no need to do anything, in fact. Conversely, you can have a society – not so imaginary perhaps – with low levels of inequality but almost all of the people live below the threshold. Tinkering with inequality will not do much good in that society. What you have to do is raise the living standard of almost all the population.

Income inequality for sufficientarians is relevant only to the extent that the wealth of those who are better off is a useful means to alleviate the suffering of the worst off. Diminishing inequality isn’t a goal in itself, and inequality doesn’t do any harm in itself.

It’s an appealing view, and I have been tempted by it myself. Even if you believe, as I do, that inequality can be harmful no matter what the income levels of the worst off are (harmful to democracy for instance) and that more equal societies almost always do better, you may still agree that the most urgent priority is the suffering of those who are worst off. Income inequality should then only be tackled afterwards. Anyway, tackling that first priority is a good step on the way to more equality; helping the worst off will reduce inequality almost automatically I would believe.

However, appealing though it may be, is sufficientarianism really all that much different from egalitarianism? As soon as you talk about the “worst off”, you have already engaged in comparative and relational analysis, by necessity. Another problem with sufficientarianism is the setting of the threshold: that is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Of two people in very similar situations only one will receive help. You may say that cut offs are always inevitable, and perhaps that’s true, but sufficientarianism makes them painfully obvious to those concerned. People just above the threshold are told that they don’t matter, even if their neighbors who are just below matter a great deal. And finally, basic needs change over time, hence also the meaning of “suffering”. Will sufficientarians keep the threshold fixed, or allow it to rise over time? In the latter case, the difference between their approach and that of egalitarians is again rather small.

Prioritarianism

Some of these problems are sidestepped by a similar view called prioritarianism, made famous by Temkin and Parfit: benefiting people is more important the worse off they are. No need for a threshold here. When having to choose between two policies, you always take the one that is best for the worst off, whatever their level of well-being.

Benefits to the worse off matter more than benefits to the relatively better off. A benefit has greater moral value the worse the situation of the individual to whom it accrues. If we have some benefit to distribute, and this benefit has a value of x (no matter how we define “value”), it’s better to give this to the worst off than to anyone else. Strict utilitarianism, as opposed to prioritarianism, doesn’t care about who gets the benefit of x, because who gets it doesn’t change overall well-being. However, utilitarianism does take into account the possibility of the diminishing marginal utility of something: lots of money for a rich person isn’t as useful as the same amount of money for a poor person. But when comparing two people who would benefit just as much from such an amount of money, utilitarianism – as opposed to prioritarianism – doesn’t care who gets it; either person, the better off or the worse off, can get it. Prioritarianism doesn’t merely say that the worse off person should get it, but also says – contrary again to utilitarianism – that we should benefit the worse off even if that means diminishing total well-being; e.g. we can harm the interests of the better off if that means improving the well-being of the worse off:

Imagine choosing between two outcomes: In outcome 1, Jim’s well-being level is 110 (blissful); Pam’s is -73 (hellish); overall well-being is 37. In outcome 2, Jim’s well-being level is 23; Pam’s well-being level is 13; overall well-being is 36. Prioritarians would say that outcome 2 is better or more desirable than outcome 1 despite being lower than outcome 1 in terms of overall well-being. Bringing Pam up by 86 is weightier than bringing Jim down by 87. If we could move from a society described by outcome 1 to one described by outcome 2, we ought to. (source)

So prioritarianism avoids some of the counterintuitive implications of strict utilitarianism. And it also avoids the equally counterintuitive implications of strict egalitarianism. The latter may demand bringing everyone down to the level of the worst off while benefiting no one. Prioritarianism on the contrary does not propose a move toward more equality if that doesn’t benefit the worse off. And finally, it avoids some of the practical problems of sufficientarianism, while maintaining the appeal of the sufficientarian focus on the absolute deprivation of the worst off.