“When Equality Matters” by T.M. Scanlon

Today we’re going to take a break from Waldron to revisit something I read at the very beginning of the summer. “When Equality Matters” is the first in a series of three Uehiro Lectures Scanlon presented in 2013 at Harvard, and I also take it that it will be the first chapter in a forthcoming book about equality. The draft is accessible from the NYU Law Colloquium in Legal, Political, and Social Philosophy page here. I very much look forwards to the book’s publication, but for now, all I can do is scavenge different chapters from the web.

Here we move away from a focus on basic equality – that all persons have equal worth – and focus instead on what Waldron refers to as surface-level inequalities; that is, inequalities in possession, distribution, power, wealth, etc. We are interested most in the differences between what some have and what others have. This is the difference that Scanlon refers to when he writes that our country today is marked by “extraordinary high levels of inequality” (1). Scanlon doesn’t mean that today in our country people differ in their human worth – he means that people live in grossly different material conditions.

Scanlon’s primary aim in this chapter is to consider the many reasons inequality of this sort is bad and should be rectified. Today, it is common for politicians to call out high levels of inequality by shining a light on the abysmal living conditions of those with little to nothing to live on; they make the claim that inequality is bad because it leaves some to live in abject poverty. This is the objection that Scanlon wants to avoid, and which has caused many to dismiss inequality as a genuine concern. It is important always to keep in mind what inequality is, and what a genuinely egalitarian reason would entail. Inequality refers to a comparison between the position of some and the position of others. That means that any argument for reducing inequality would also have to be comparative; it would have to argue that the gap between some and others must be reduced. In light of this clarification, the common argument that inequality should be reduced because those who are the worst off in society live in abject poverty is not actually an argument for egalitarianism. It is merely an argument to combat poverty, not inequality.

To get our arguments against inequality right is very important to avoid the kind of reputation egalitarian reasons are often associated – most commonly, that an objection to inequality is merely an expression of envy that those with little feel toward those with plenty. And so, Scanlon’s aim in this chapter is to list possible objections to inequality which are comparative in nature. He articulates the central question: “when and why is it morally objectionable that some people are worse off than others in some way?” (5).

Scanlon begins with three objections to inequality that are based on the consequences of social inequality:

  1. We sometimes have reason to object to inequalities because they create humiliating differences in status.
  2. We sometimes have reason to object to inequalities because they give those who have more unacceptable forms of power over those who have less.
  3. We sometimes have reason to eliminate inequalities in order to preserve the equality of starting places that is required if our institutions are to be fair. Great inequality of wealth and income can, for example, undermine equality of opportunity and fairness of political institutions (18).

Scanlon points out that these consequences address the leveling down objection. He explains the leveling down objection as follows: “the difference between the situation of some and than of others would be at least a pro tanto reason to make the better off worse off even if this did not make any one better off. The charge is that this seems irrational” (8). These objections to inequality demonstrate that it is not irrational even if it doesn’t make the poor any richer because there are other instrumental goods involved.

Scanlon considers two more objections. The first is that “inequalities can be objectionable because they arise from failures of some agent to give equal treatment to those to whom it is obligated to provide some benefit” (18). [Let’s call this Objection 4] Scanlon compares two facts to illustrate his point. The first fact is that while in the U.S. the life expectancy of men is 74.2 years, in Malawi, it is only 37.1 years. Some refer to this kind of fact as the ‘international life expectancy gap.’ Why do we find this difference appalling? Scanlon thinks it’s because the difference points to the fact that life in Malawi does not have to be the way it is – that is, low life expectancy is avoidable. But why, he asks, is the difference in male life expectancy morally significant? Scanlon concludes that it is not the difference that is morally significant, but only the fact that people in Malawi have low life expectancy.

Now consider a second fact: while in the U.S., white men have a life expectancy of 76.4 years in the 10 healthiest counties, black men have a life expectancy of only 61 years in the 10 least healthy counties. In this case, the life expectancy gap does seem morally significant – in fact, it seems morally objectionable. Scanlon argues the reason this difference is objectionable is because it indicates that a requirement of equal treatment has been violated. Put another way, government agencies in the U.S. have an obligation to provide certain public health measures and medical care; but what these statistics indicate is that these agencies have not fulfilled its obligation with equal concern for its citizens. Notice that in this case, what we find objectionable is not the fact that there is a difference (indeed, giving white men a life threatening disease to equalize life expectancy would do nothing to alleviate our concerns), but rather the fact that this difference was a result of unequal treatment.

Scanlon’s last objection is that “unequal outcomes can be objectionable because they are incompatible with the claim of participants in a cooperative enterprise to share in its benefits” (18). [Let’s call this objection 5] By cooperative enterprise, Scanlon is thinking of arrangements like families, businesses, and societies where participating members can be said to cooperate for mutual benefit. The claim is that in cooperative schemes for mutual benefits, participating members have prima facie a claim to equal shares of the benefits it produces. In this case, the egalitarian reason is an equal claim to resources. This is a claim Scanlon attributes to Rawls in his formulation of the demands of the Original Position which he calls the “benchmark of equality” (15). According to Rawls, cooperating members of a society in the original position forced to choose distributive principles would have no reason to accept anything less than equal shares.

These five objections to inequality give a good idea of the kinds of problems we may have with the difference between what some have and what others have. Scanlon only means to give an overview in this introductory chapter, as each objection deserves (and requires) further extensive analysis. At this point I will spend a little time discussing objection 5 – the problem of equal treatment.

I think the recent Waldron readings give us a nice articulation of the problem Scanlon describes in objection 5. Scanlon’s argument is that in some cases of inequality, an obligation of equal treatment has been violated. The example he gives is when government agencies fail to provide equal health care to some areas as much as others, resulting in inequalities in quality of life or life expectancy. Waldron would call this a violation of the principle of basic equality – the notion that each person should be treated with equal worth and dignity. This normative principle requires that in carrying out one’s obligations – in the case of this government agency, to maximize well-being – one must consider the interests of the people involved equally. Each person is to count for one. This is of course a different kind of equality than the material equality Scanlon is concerned about. Scanlon even prefaces the chapter by writing that he presupposes “basic moral equality – the idea that everyone counts morally, regardless of differences such as their race, their gender, and where they live” (4).

Waldron helps us understand that the reason we can object to the inequalities in life expectancy amongst black and white American men is because they are indicative of a failure to respect basic moral equality – that is, in crafting policy, government agencies failed to weigh or count the interests of poorer black communities equally with the interests of wealthier white communities.

Of course, here, we trace the problem back to a basic moral inequality, not the inequality in life expectancy. As Scanlon notes, there may be inequalities in life expectancy that we do not find morally significant (e.g. the Malawi example). The Malawi case demonstrates that basic moral equality does not require material equality everywhere, at every time, in every instance. Strictly speaking, this moral requirement only requires material equality when: a) there is an obligation to treat others in a certain way at play; and b) that obligation requires everyone being treated the same way. The Malawi case does not meet this first condition because there is no relevant actor who has an obligation to treat the populations of the U.S. and Malawi in some way.

Let me explain further what I mean by the b condition. The kind of inequality we are dealing with involves the difference between what some have and what others have. But,  counting everyone’s interests equally and respecting the principle of basic equality cannot possibly mean that everyone must always have the same as everyone else. In many situations, there are compelling reasons why some should have more or less than others. This is a point Waldron makes in Lecture 1 when he explains why we can give preference to strong people when hiring firefighters. Scanlon gives an analogous example of an agency responsible for providing electricity to certain districts. One district currently receives fewer hours of electricity than another, and so Scanlon argues, the agency has stronger reason to increase the service to that district with fewer hours than to offer the same increase of service to the other district. It is only instances of obligation in which the obligation demands equal treatment that we may find these material inequalities objectionable.

I will end with one final point about the relationship between basic moral inequality and material inequality: that they are mutually reinforcing. In the life expectancy gap case, Scanlon demonstrates that basic moral inequality can lead to material inequality – it can lead to blacks living in certain neighborhoods to have significantly lower qualities to life than whites living in certain other neighborhoods. But recall Scanlon’s status objection to inequality – that “we sometimes have reason to object to inequalities because they create humiliating differences in status” (18). Indeed, the inequalities in the lives lived by poor black and affluent whites in parts of the U.S. can cause a humiliating difference in status. Recall finally how Waldron defined the principle of basic equality – that all humans possess the same sortal status. Violations of basic equality occur when some view others as belonging to a different status – a different sort of person. We can see, then, how moral inequalities and social inequalities are viciously self-reinforcing.



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