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The philosophical case against inequality

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-10-2017 S. Subramanian

This is the first of a small series of reflections on the idea of economic inequality which will draw considerably on disciplines other than solely economics, not least moral philosophy. I would like to begin with the somewhat elementary question of why one might object to the fact of inequality. The reasons for resistance to inequality could be intrinsic ones, or they could be instrumental ones. Here, I shall deal with the intrinsic aspect of the problem.

At some fundamental level, it appears reasonable to suggest that most people with an ethical sense of life would find it hard to perceive any moral attractiveness in inequality. This is because they see the virtue of some notion of justice and fairness in the conduct of life.

Indeed, a good place to begin might be with the notion of “justice as fairness”. This is a notion that was made famous by the late Harvard moral philosopher John Rawls in several of his writings, which culminated in his celebrated book A Theory Of Justice. Published in 1971, it is widely regarded as one of the most important works of 20th century moral philosophy in the Western tradition of liberal ethics. A foundational question raised by Rawls related to the sort of public principles of justice that might be expected to command wide intuitive and deliberative acceptance. His answer postulates two principles.

The first principle advances the virtue of the greatest possible liberty to all, which is compatible with a similar liberty to others. The second is what is known as the difference principle. It is a guideline to a just distribution of resources, reckoned as “primary goods” (a portmanteau notion that encompasses a wide variety of “resources”, from liberties to incomes to the social bases of self-respect) by Rawls. The principle states that in comparing the goodness of two alternative states of the world, society should favour that state in which the worst-off person is better off, with advantage reckoned in terms of the possession of primary goods.

This is very much in the spirit of M.K. Gandhi’s “Antyodaya” talisman: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.” The difference principle is clearly a matter of making the worst-off person as well off as possible, a matter of “maximizing the minimum”—whence also the label of “maximin principle” for it.

How does the maximin principle correspond to a notion of “justice as fairness”? Rawls invites us to perform a thought experiment involving what he called “The Original Position”. This is a place of the imagination, in which all agents are assumed to be in a state of “primordial ignorance” on the position they will occupy in the real world. If the agents were now invited to enter into a voluntary social contract for a just distribution of resources, it is not unlikely, given aversion to risk, that they will legislate in favour of securing the best of all possible worlds for the worst-off person—which each of them might well end up being in the real world. The contract will have been arrived at voluntarily and in a state of equal and impartial ignorance. The resulting outcome might thus deservedly be seen to be an aspect of justice as fairness.

Behind all great ideas lies a tradition of continuity—a notion made famous by Newton when he spoke about standing on the shoulders of giants. At least one giant upon whose shoulders Rawls stood was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of the essay Discourse On The Origin Of Inequality, published in 1759. It was written as an entry for a competition organized by the Academy of Dijon, followed by the book, Of The Social Contract, in 1762. Rousseau’s essay did not win the competition—but his work left a lasting influence upon the development, in the Western world, of the philosophical underpinnings of the notion of justice.

Rawls’ analytical deployment of the device of a “primordial original” position is surely not an accidental echo of Rousseau’s identification of “the state of nature” as a site of equality and the home of the “Noble Savage”, before its corruption by the evolution of society whose redemption would ultimately depend upon the workings of a social compact. This is a notion reflected in the pronounced “contractarianism” underlying Rawls’ own conception of justice.

And the link with equality? Consider a pure loaf-of-bread-division exercise involving two claimants to the loaf. If we were to follow the difference principle we should prefer the distribution (1/4, 3/4) to the distribution (1/8, 7/8) where the first number in each pair of brackets refers to person 1’s share of the loaf of bread and the second number to the share of person 2. Note that the worse-off person is better off in the first distribution than in the second one. For the same reason, we should prefer 1/3, 2/3 to 1/4, 3/4, and 1/2, 1/2 to 1/4, 3/4. From symmetric considerations, parallel judgements must hold when we switch the income shares between the two individuals. Wherefore 1/2, 1/2—the outcome of perfect equality—is clearly the best of all possible worlds from the perspective of the difference principle!

S. Subramanian is an economist and a former Indian Council of Social Science Research national fellow.

This is the first in a two-part series.

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