Equality and Envy
Critics of egalitarianism, meaning by that equality, or close to it, of income and wealth among the members of a society, often claim that it rests on envy. In response, defenders say that there are respectable reasons to favor equality. (I’m assuming that envy doesn’t count as a respectable reason.) For instance, it can be argued that inequality is unjust, that it leads to the rich having power over the lives of the poor, and that it makes it difficult for the poor to maintain their self-respect. The philosopher T.M. Scanlon canvassed these and other reasons in Why Does Equality Matter?, which I’ve reviewed here. Scanlon is thus saying that opposition to inequality does not have to rest on envy, and he’s right about this, even if you think, as I do, that the arguments he and others give for equality are wrong. It doesn’t follow from this, though, that some people’s opposition to inequality does not stem from envy, and what I want to do in this week’s column is to give examples of this.
To distinguish the attitude I’m going to highlight from respectable reasons to oppose inequality, let’s look at what Scanlon has the say about the superrich, who constitute the most extreme examples of inequality of income and wealth. “It does seem plausible, however, that my own lack of distress about the difference between my life and that of the super rich is due in part to the fact we belong to different non-comparing groups. The way they live does not make me subject to status poverty or agency poverty, because their life does not set any norm of expectation for me” (Scanlon, p. 37). In other words, Scanlon doesn’t feel envy for the superrich just because they have more
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