Why Care about Inequality?
Why Does Inequality Matter?
by T.M. Scanlon
Oxford University Press, 2018, 170 pp.
T.M. Scanlon, who taught philosophy for many years at Princeton and Harvard, is one of the leading moral and political philosophers of the past fifty years or so. Though far from a libertarian, he takes libertarian views with great seriousness and has endeavored to respond to them. He thinks that libertarianism gives inadequate consideration to the importance of certain kinds of equality, especially equality of income and wealth and also substantive equality of opportunity in chances to attain socially esteemed positions.
I’m going to address only these kinds of equality in what follows, though there are other senses of “equality” as well. As Scanlon recognizes, libertarians think that everyone has the same rights, and in this way accept equality; in Kantian terms, all persons have moral worth or dignity. This sense of “equality” certainly matters, and for most people isn’t controversial.
Scanlon distinguishes two sorts of concern with the kinds of equality I’m discussing here. Sometimes people favor equality because a sufficient degree of inequality can have bad effects on people, e.g., by causing them to lose self-respect; this is “equality in the broader sense.” There is also “equality in the narrower sense,” and this is what I shall mainly be talking about in this review. This concerns equality just taken as such: in this view, the fact that some people have much more than others is objectionable, even if those with less aren’t adversely affected by the difference.
If Scanlon’s criticisms of libertarianism are correct, he needs to show that equality of the sort he favors is morally mandated. Libertarians don’t think that it is, and simply to assume egalitarianism at the start would beg the question against them. Scanlon fully recognizes this requirement, and indeed goes further by saying that there appears to be a case that concern with equality is irrational. He says,
Insofar as a reason for reducing inequality is even broadly egalitarian—insofar as it is a reason for objecting to the difference between what some have and what others have—it might seem to count in favor of reducing that difference even if this made no one better off, and left some people (the rich) worse off. The apparent irrationality of such a move is the basis of what has been called the “leveling down objection.” (p. 3; see my discussion of the leveling down argument here)
To understand Scanlon’s response to this, we must first look at his standpoint in normative theory. He is a contractarian. Very roughly, he thinks that people in a society try to arrive at moral rules that no one could reasonably reject, assuming that everyone sh
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