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Why Does Inequality Matter? by T.M. Scanlon

Peter Stone gives good reasons why inequality is bad.

Equality matters – but only sometimes. Failure to recognize this qualification can generate some bizarre conclusions. Consider, for example, the fact that men in the United States currently enjoy double the life-expectancy of men in Malawi. Surely an inequality of this magnitude cries out to be remedied? But is the inequality itself the problem? If that were the case, then the situation could be at least partially improved by decreasing male life expectancy in the US. This illustrates the so-called leveling down objection to egalitarian ideals, which dogs the efforts of many political philosophers to construct a theory of equality.

In Why Does Inequality Matter? (2018), retired Harvard philosopher Thomas Scanlon examines cases like the unequal life expectancies and seeks to show that the leveling down objection can often be overcome. According to Scanlon, sometimes equality does matter, at least in the sense that some inequalities are objectionable. Indeed, Scanlon describes his task in the book “as investigating the objections to inequality rather than the case for equality” (pp.3-4).

He believes there are multiple objections to inequality. Sometimes, they stem from the inequality itself (Scanlon calls these narrow reasons), and sometimes they stem from considerations relating to the inequality – for example, its consequences (what Scanlon calls broad reasons). The same inequality may be objectionable for multiple reasons. Scanlon’s approach to inequality is thus pluralistic, but there is a unity underlying this plurality. He argues that reasonable objections to inequality “all presuppose some form of relationship or interaction between the unequal parties” (p.9). Is it wrong for one person to have twice as much of something – money, political power, life expectancy – than another? It depends upon what relationship those people have with each other. If both live in the United States, doing similar jobs, then the inequality may pose problems. If one lives on Earth and the other on Vulcan, then probably not. Scanlon could therefore be described as a relational egalitarian.

Scanlon’s position has close affinities with that of John Rawls – perhaps not surprisingly given that Rawls was Scanlon’s colleague at Harvard for many years. In his classic work A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls argued that justice is the most important property of the political, social, and economic institutions and practices governing society – and that a society is just only to the extent to which it treats all of its members in a way that acknowledges them as free and equal participants in a common scheme of social cooperation.

In Why Does Inequality Matter? Scanlon focuses on equality, not justice, but he evokes Rawls frequently. Like Rawls, he wishes to see society constituted in a way that treats its participants as of equal value and freedom. And like Rawls, Scanlon uses the idea of a social contract to establish what this requires: a society must not be governed according to terms that any of its members could reasonably reject. Scanlon developed his contractualist position most fully in What We Owe to Each Other (1998) a book so influential that it was even mentioned in episodes of the comedy The Good Place. Why Does Inequality Matter? applies the earlier analysis to the specific problem of identifying objectionable inequalities.

This book raises six potential objections to inequality (he does not claim that his list is exhaustive). In chapter two he considers the objection from equal concern. A society must ensure that each of its members enjoys certain necessary benefits, such as housing. Other benefits, such as swimming pools, can be provided at the society’s discretion. But a just society cannot provide benefits in a way that does not recognize the equal interests its members have in those benefits. If black people, for example, disproportionately suffer from homelessness, then the system has failed them twice: it has failed to respond to a basic interest in having a home, and it has responded to their interests differently because of their race. The latter is a failure of equality, but not the former. If a community provided public swimming pools, but for whites only, it would fail in equality of concern.

Chapter three takes up status inequality. As noted, a society should respond to the comparable interests of its members comparably. It fails to do so when it treats one group of people (women, ethnic minorities, etc) as inferior in status. This denies a group benefits “on the basis of the widely held view that certain facts about them, such as their race, gender, or religion, make them less entitled to those goods than others are” (p.26). Status inequality both directly attacks the self-respect of the ‘inferior’ group, and falsely inflates the self-regard of the ‘superior’ group.

Chapters four and five take up the problem of equality of opportunity. Most people object to inequality of opportunity, but they often differ as to what remedying this inequality requires. For Scanlon, equality of opportunity requires two conditions, which he calls procedural fairness and substantive opportunity. When violated, each generates a distinctive form of objectionable inequality. Procedural fairness is violated when some people cheat to obtain goods, such as jobs or university places. A billionaire making a well-timed donation to get his daughter into a top university violates procedural fairness in just such a way. Substantive opportunity is violated when people don’t have a realistic chance for equality of opportunity – for example, whenever “children from poor families do not have access to schools that would enable them to compete with children of the rich for good jobs, or for admission to universities” (p.93).

Chapter six takes up the fourth of Scanlon’s objections to inequality, one grounded in considerations of political fairness. Political fairness works similarly to equality of opportunity. It imposes a substantive condition; people ought not be denied a chance to have their voice heard simply because they cannot access the means of doing so (due to poverty, for example). It also imposes a procedural condition; people cannot use illegitimate means (such as large campaign donations) to ensure their political interests are favored. The substantive position does not depend upon the specific demands people make on the political system. If rich people monopolized political power for themselves, but did so in ways that were invariably benevolent and never self-serving, they would be violating the substantive condition but not the procedural (p.93).

Kibera slum
Kibera slum, Nairobi, by Michael E. Arth 1998 Creative Commons

Scanlon devotes less attention to his fifth objection than the others, so it’s a bit harder to make out the contours of the argument, but it seems to involve power. “Inequalities,” he writes, “can also be objectionable because they give some people an unacceptable degree of control over the lives of others” (p.5). For Scanlon, coercion – one person being subject to the will of another – is not always objectionable: tax systems are a necessary part of any society (let alone an egalitarian one) and any such system requires enforcement. Coercion can be more or less objectionable depending upon three factors: 1) “one’s relation with that person;” 2) “the amount of discretion that this person has in deciding what to tell you to do;” and 3) “the aspect of one’s life that is subject to control” (pp.98-99). Enormous inequalities of wealth can lead to some people controlling others in ways that are objectionable according to all three criteria. This is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had in mind when he wrote that in a free society, “no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself” (Social Contract II.11, 1762).

Scanlon’s sixth and final objection to inequality, taken up in chapter nine, is the most general. He frames it in terms of unequal incomes, but it could be applied to any form of inequality. Following Rawls, Scanlon holds that “an institution is unfair if it produces significant differences in income and wealth for which no sufficient reason can be given” (p.139). To justify an inequality, the reason for the difference must be such that no member of society could reasonably object to it. Scanlon believes there are two reasons that could pass muster here. It could be that “these inequalities could not be eliminated without infringing important personal liberties” – such as the freedom to choose your own occupation. Alternatively, it could be that those inequalities “are required in order for the economic system to function in a way that benefits all” – for example, by providing incentives that raise productivity (p.141). Here, as elsewhere, the problem with inequality of income is not with the size of the inequalities, but “with the lack of justification for the factors that give rise to these disparate income levels” (p.150).

In Why Does Inequality Matter? Scanlon provides both an interesting philosophical analysis of inequality, and a compelling brief for relational egalitarianism. It is well worth a read by anyone interested in grappling with the massive inequalities in the world today.

© Dr Peter Stone 2022

Peter Stone is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin.

Why Does Inequality Matter?, T.M. Scanlon, 2018, OUP, 170 pages, ISBN: 978-0198812692

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