Problems for Egalitarianism

Today, I read an article in an ethics journal (called Ethics, simply enough) that defended egalitarianism. This is the view that it is, in general, a good thing to make a society more equal. It’s quite a popular view; it gets defended a lot. I, however, find it very unpleasant; its defenses almost always feel malicious. Specifically, they seem to be based on a dislike for the rich.

So, here are some problems for egalitarianism.

Throwing Acid At Supermodels

Supermodels are more attractive than the average person, by a substantial margin, and beauty is generally regarded as a good thing, even if only skin deep. Therefore, throwing acid at supermodels, which would reduce their beauty due to the scarring, is, in certain respects, good, if you are an egalitarian. I find this conclusion utterly implausible.

Of course, the pain caused by the acid is an extraneous factor. However, I do not find the idea that supermodels should be subjected to compulsory cosmetic surgery to reduce their beauty any more attractive, no matter how much this reduces inequality. This situation seems to be an almost exact parallel to subjecting the rich to compulsory taxes, in order to reduce their wealth.

Wrecking Marriages

One might object that disfiguring the supermodels should be ruled out because it doesn’t make anyone more beautiful. Indeed, most sophisticated egalitarians do adopt rules on which a change that benefits no-one is not good. (This is not universal; there do seem to be some egalitarians who are committed to compulsory cosmetic surgery for supermodels.)

So, consider another case. Ann and Andrew are a very happily married couple. Brenda is miserable because she is in love with Ann, and Bill is miserable because he is in love with Andrew. If Ann and Andrew were separated, and forced to pair up with Brenda and Bill, respectively, then Brenda and Bill would be less miserable, and Ann and Andrew would also be miserable, so there would be much less inequality in the world.

As you might imagine, I do not find the egalitarian intuition to be even remotely plausible in this case. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

Protecting Children from Good Parents

A common egalitarian claim is that it is unjust for children to have benefits just because their parents are rich. So, it should also be unjust for them to have benefits just because their parents are good parents, engaging with their children, being loving and supporting, and assisting them through their education. Indeed, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this has a significantly larger effect on both the happiness and prospects for prosperity of the children than wealth does.

Therefore, a just state should not only take children away from excessively bad parents, it should also take them away from excessively good ones. A kind state would monitor parents and warn them when they were getting close to the line, and should neglect their children a bit or lose them, just as it would warn failing parents.

Now, I find this suggestion positively morally repellent, and I suspect most egalitarians would agree. So they owe us an account of which benefits it is unjust for parents to confer on their children, and which are allowable, and why the large inequalities that result are not something that should be remedied by an egalitarian.

Money is not Everything

I am not aware of any egalitarians who actually claim that the important thing is to equalise money. Instead, they talk about happiness, or opportunity. However, the intuitions and recommended policies all seem to be based on money.

For example, work on the causes of happiness suggest that it is largely independent of income, once income exceeds a certain threshold. The threshold varies by society, but being in a society with a higher threshold doesn’t make you happier, even if you meet the threshold. This means that there are almost certainly some poor people who are happier than some rich people. If you take money away from the poor people, enough to drop them beneath the threshold, you will make them less happy. Giving that money to the rich people will not make them any happier. Thus, taxing the poor (provided you get the right poor) and giving the money to the rich will reduce the inequality in society.

This is not what egalitarians generally seem to have in mind. It arguably should be, however.

So, We Let Them Starve?

Obviously, I don’t think that we should let people starve. Actually, I think that imposing fairly high taxes on the rich and distributing the money to the poor is almost certainly morally justifiable. This is because it is important to deal with the serious poverty in the world, and the resources to do so have to come from somewhere. The poverty is too urgent a problem to wait for economic growth to remove it, so redistribution is the only option. While the total wealth of the world is not fixed in the long term, it is over the timescale of this problem.

But this has nothing to do with equality. Actually, I strongly suspect that inequality is good, because it allows some people the leisure to develop goods that will substantially improve the lot of very many people. Medicine exists because small numbers of people were maintained in a much more comfortable situation than most of the population at that time. However, this is a different issue, and one I’m not yet completely confident about.

A final note for people who know the literature on this topic. I have a suspicion that a reasonable interpretation of Rawls’s theory of justice might well have all the consequences I think are right. It is a consequence of this that I suspect that it doesn’t have any of the consequences it is customarily taken to have.







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