The subject of this post–the first in a series on philosophical discussions of equality and inequality–is a fascinating essay (“Inequality”) by the philosopher Larry Temkin. Here’s Temkin in all his brainy glory:
I had heard of Temkin before–I knew him by reputation as a very good ethical and political philosopher–but I had never read any of his stuff. In this essay, published nearly thirty years ago but obviously still timely, Temkin claims that
the notion of inequality turns out to involve a hodge-podge of different and often conflicting positions. Moreover, and more importantly, many of these positions are fundamentally incompatible, resting as they do on contrary views….The notion of inequality may thus be largely inconsistent and severely limited.
In this post, I’ll try to convey Temkin’s argument for this claim.
Egalitarians believe that “it is a bad thing–unjust and unfair–for some to be worse off than others through no fault of their own.” Temkin doesn’t want to raise doubts about this belief per se–in fact, my sense is that Temkin is himself an Egalitarian under some description–but rather show that it is very difficult to “unpack what [the belief] involves.” Temkin’s argument may be summarized as follows (this is my presentation of his argument, not his):
1. If we know what we mean when we say that it is a bad thing for some to be worse off than others through no fault of their own, then we should be able to determine, given any two situations wherein some are worse off than others through no fault of their own, which of these situations is worse than the other with respect to inequality.
2. But we can’t do that.
3. Thus, we don’t really know what we mean when we say that it is a bad thing for some to be worse off than others through no fault of their own.
Naturally, the bulk of Temkin’s essay is devoted to defending premise (2). The problem, Temkin suggests, is not that we can’t find a principle on which to base judgments of relative inequality (as I shall call them), but rather that there’s more than one principle on which we might base such judgments, that these principles are incompatible, and that they seem equally intuitively compelling. Temkin’s argument proceeds in two stages. The first stage is concerned with finding a principle on which we could base our judgments about which individuals have a complaint concerning inequality–a principle, for example, that would make explicit the conditions under which I could plausibly claim that inequality is bad for me. The second stage is concerned with finding a more general principle on which we could base our judgments about whether and, if so, why, an unequal distribution in one ‘world’ is worse than another ‘world.’
Stage One: Temkin’s Two Principles
Temkin claims that there are two plausible but competing principles concerning the conditions under which I have something to complain about with respect to inequality (we’re assuming throughout that everyone is equally deserving):
Average Principle: I’m worse off than the average person.
Best-Off Principle: I’m anyone other than the best-off person.
In motivating the Average Principle, Temkin says that if I am “already…better off than the average member of my world, most people would tend to think that I have nothing to complain about with respect to my level of welfare.”
In motivating the Best-Off Principle, Temkin says that even if I am doing very well relative to the average, if there is even one person who is undeservingly better off than I, that seems like grounds for complaint. That complaint may seem relatively trivial when compared with the complaints of the least well-off, but still, it seems I have a legitimate complaint.
Now Temkin shows that these intuitions about the conditions under which I have a justifiable complaint with respect to inequality are inconsistent, insofar as we can imagine circumstances in which they yield different verdicts concerning which of two unequal distributions are worse for me. That is, we can imagine distributions which seem worse for me (I have a more serious complaint) according to the Average Principle, but not according to the Best-Off Principle, and vice-versa (Temkin includes a helpful diagram that illustrates this possibility, but I’m not tech-savvy enough to reproduce it here). It seems, then, that we have to side with A1 or A2 over the other, but which should we choose? They both seem compelling.
Stage Two: General Principles for Judging Relative Inequality
Temkin asks us to consider a “group of artificially simple worlds….each of which consists of two groups of people, the better-off and the worse-off.” We’re asked to imagine the worlds in a sequence such that “in the first world there are 999 people better off and 1 person worse off, in the second 998 better off and two worse off, and so on….[leading to the last world in the sequence where] one person is better off and 999 are worse off.” Temkin asks: Do these worlds get better or worse with respect to inequality?
Again, how we answer this question depends on the principle underlying our judgments about relative inequality, and once again, Temkin says, there are several plausible but competing principles from which we might choose. These are:
Maximin Principle: “How bad a world is with respect to inequality will depend upon how bad the worst off group in that world fares with respect to inequality…” (this principle implies that things get better as we follow the sequence).
Additive Principle: The more people who have complaints with respect to inequality, the worse the world is with respect to inequality (this principle implies that things get worse as we follow the sequences).
Weighted Additive Principle: Complaints are weighted, such that more serious complaints count for more when adding up all the complaints (Temkin says this principle implies that things get worse).
Deviation Principle: The greater the deviation from absolute equality, the worse the world is with respect to inequality (this principle implies that things first get worse, and then better).
As with the principles concerning the determination of individual complaints, the Egalitarian cannot simply embrace each of these principles. Since they yield different verdicts in different cases, they are inconsistent. But which should the Egalitarian choose, and why?
This essay was very thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to reading more Temkin in the future.