Friday, September 22, 2017

Scanlon on inequality

[Warning: this could become part of a series.]

T. M. Scanlon has some interesting thoughts about why inequality might be bad. In looking for reasons, though, I wonder whether he doesn't overlook an important idea: that significant inequality is intrinsically evil. "The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling," he says. But he seems somewhat suspicious of this intuition, as if there is no way it could be a direct perception of injustice. That is, his response to the feeling that there is something wrong with great inequality appears to be that either we must be able to explain what is wrong with such inequality or else reject the feeling as irrational. But nobody would say this about, for instance, the feeling that murder is wrong. And it is very hard to explain why murder is wrong. ("It violates the right to life" is a restatement of its injustice, not an explanation of what makes it unjust.) 

I'm not suggesting that all inequality is evil. I accept Hume's point that ensuring strict equality would require totalitarianism. And overall utility is probably increased by an incentive system that requires inequality. But beyond a certain level (which is inevitably hard to specify) inequality certainly seems evil to a great many people. Why rule out the possibility that this appearance is not deceptive?

Scanlon does not explicitly do this, but it seems implicit in his essay. I say this partly simply because he does not explicitly consider the possibility that serious inequality might be intrinsically evil, but partly also because just when I expect him to consider it he goes off in another direction, as if refusing to confront what is right before him. Here are three examples:
Many people in the United States seem to believe that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it is worth inquiring into why this might be so. 
The inquiry that follows focuses on such things as the ability of the rich to dominate news media rather than anything about inequality in itself.
[Some] reasons for eliminating inequality are also based on an idea of equality, namely that, as Singer puts it, “every life is equally important.” This can be seen as a combination of two ideas: the general principle of universal moral equality, that everyone matters morally in the same way, and the idea that, because all people “matter morally,”  there’s a good reason to bring about increases in their well-being if we can. 
If everyone matters morally in the same way why is this not a reason for eliminating inequality rather than simply increasing the well-being of the poor? Yet Scanlon sees it as the latter only, and this is part of the motivation he offers for a new inquiry into why inequality matters. What I'm thinking is roughly this: since we are all morally equal, we should all be equal in our standard of living. This argument, such as it is, could be criticized on various grounds, but it would not be plausible to object that, while it is a decent argument for improving the well-being of the worst off, it is not, as such, an argument for increasing equality. So far as it is an argument at all that's exactly what it's an argument for.

Finally, this:
It is easy to understand why people want to be better off than they are, especially if their current condition is very bad. But why, apart from this, should anyone be concerned with the difference between what they have and what others have? Why isn’t such a concern mere envy?
But why think that it is envy in the first place? Especially when we are thinking of comfortably-off people like me saying that the less-well-off should have more? A poor person who wants to trade places with a rich person might seem envious, but appeals for greater equality don't have this appearance. Unless, perhaps, one rules out a priori the possibility that equality itself might have value.

I wonder whether Scanlon and I have different ways of thinking about what it means for something to be objectionable in itself. When you accuse someone else of blindness it's always a good idea to consider the possibility that the mote and/or beam is in one's own eye. But it looks like he's missing something.

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