Egalitarianism and Ideal/Non-Ideal Theory
Suppose one considers oneself an "egalitarian". And by that I mean one who believes in distributive equality (rather than moral or political equality). And this egalitarian also has philosophical inclinations, and thus they wish to undertake the project of developing an egalitarian theory of distributive justice.
And, for the purpose of the exercise today, let us also suppose further that our egalitarian philosopher is primarily interested in developing an egalitarian theory of domestic justice for an affluent, liberal democracy like the US, Canada or England (rather than a global egalitarian theory of justice that encompasses all people in the world).
How does one go about developing such a theory? Where should one start?
One might start at the level of “ideal theory”. That is, one could begin by pondering what they think the ideal society would look like (i.e. one where everyone is equal!), and then derive some egalitarian prescriptions from that exercise (i.e. inequalities shouldn’t be tolerated).
Alternatively, one could start at the level of “non-ideal theory”. In other words, one could begin by pondering what actually causes different kinds of inequality in the real world and what has, and what might prove to be, effective ways of fairly and efficiently mitigating such inequalities.
A significant bulk of the ink spilled in political philosophy over the past few decades has taken up the first project. And a central impetus for this has been John Rawls’s theory of distributive justice, in particular Rawls’s famous difference principle- which permits socio-economic inequalities provided they are arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.
Two of the most prominent debates egalitarian philosophers have had of late concern the questions (1) Equality of What? (resources, welfare, opportunities for welfare, capabilities, etc.?), and (2) what is the scope of egalitarian principles (e.g. do they only apply to institutions, or do they also apply to the individual decisions we make in daily life?).
The latter issue receives extensive treatment in Cohen’s latest book and has now come to dominate the attention of egalitarian political philosophers. In particular, a great deal of attention has, and continues to, be paid to the concern of whether it is unjust for self-seeking highfliers to threaten to withhold their productive talents unless they receive very high incomes, incomes that promote socio-economic inequality.
An outsider who first happens upon this literature could easily form the impression that egalitarians are so concerned about the employment decisions of highfliers *because* these decisions are the major cause of inequality in real societies. That might be a natural assumption to make, but it would be mistaken.
The main reason why egalitarian philosophers spend so much time concerned about these issues stems from the fact that John Rawls wrote this book back in 1971. And in this book, Rawls developed what is called the “Pareto argument” for inequality. Rawls argued that a deviation from equality is justified so long as everyone benefits from it.
And how could a movement away from equality benefit everyone? Enter the issue of incentives. By offering the promise of a higher post-tax income to the most talented members of society we can entice them to be more productive than they would otherwise be. If their higher level of productivity brings benefits to everyone then there is no reason to insist on the initial equal division. The underlying intuition behind egalitarianism is, for Rawls, a concern for the least advantaged in society. Why object to a movement away from equality if everyone, including the least advantaged, benefit? Rawls believes that there is no reasonable reply to this question. The difference principle combines considerations of equality with those of efficiency.
The question that has always come to my mind as I read over the egalitarian literature on these debates in the past decade is this—is it true that incentives are the real cause of the inequalities that exist today? For if they aren’t (which seems to me to be the case) it is rather odd to fixate so much on the incentives issue.
But the ideal theorist can respond to my point in the following way— "but we are not (at least primarily) concerned with the real world. We are concerned with what kind of behaviour would be permissible in the ideal world. And in the ideal world, we egalitarians disagree with Rawls that the talented members of society could justly withhold their talents unless offered inequality-generating incentives".
There are many things to say in response to this reply. Firstly, why think that the kind of talented highfliers Rawls posits in the Pareto Argument would even exist in the “ideal world”? Assuming, as I think is clearly the case, that in the egalitarian society all would have access to a decent education, etc., why think that super-talented individuals who could single-handedly create a more optimal cooperative surplus if offered the right kind of financial incentive, would even exist? (in fact, I am sceptical such people exist in the real world!) That is just one of many things that has troubled me about having the debate at the level of ideal theory. It mixes real-world concerns (like Cohen’s concern that Thatcher’s tax cut could be justified by reference to these incentives) with abstract, idealized scenarios where supposedly real-world facts have no relevance or place.
If real-world facts have no relevance or place in ideal theory, then why fixate on incentives rather than some other behaviour that could possibly perpetuate inequality in the ideal society? I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, perhaps because I am sufficiently deficient in my capacity for idealization, but I'm sure the ideal theorist could come up with some. Maybe the most talented highfliers will also demand to couple and reproduce with the most talented partners, thus perpetuating genetic and social inequalities by commanding the highest family incomes and passing on the "superior" and "selfish" genetic endowments that constitute these self-seeking highfliers. Maybe if Rawls invoked that example it would have been debated for 20 years. But I'd like to think not. Deep down I think egalitarians are drawn to the incentive case because it tracks what they see as a relevant and true empirical reality-- that people often respond to incentives.
Rather than starting one’s quest for an egalitarian theory of justice with the remnants of an academic debate about a book published over 40 years ago, I would encourage the next generation of egalitarians to start at the level of non-ideal theory. This would involve, as I outlined here, developing 3 different skills.
1. Ascertaining how we got to where we are and understanding why things are this way.
2. Deliberating about the kind of world we want to have.
3. Judging how far, and through what actions, and at what risk, we can realistically hope to move this world as it now stands towards the way we might excusably wish it to be. (Dunn, 1990, p. 193)
Rather than invest the bulk of one’s energies sifting through 30 some odd years of Rawlsian scholarship, the next generation of egalitarian philosophers should begin by asking “Why is there inequality?”. So this recent paper, for example, should serve as the starting place for serious egalitarians. This study concludes that “differences in the technology by which a people derive their livelihood and in the institutions and norms making up the economic system jointly contribute to this pattern [of inequality]”. This is good news for Rawlsians, in that the basic structure is indeed important. So Rawls was on the right track when he claimed that the basic structure is the primary subject of justice.
But, as I noted before, egalitarians (and Rawlsians) also need to appreciate how complex the factors that lead to inequality are. This study found that health inequality among infants in the US actually declined. However, the reasons for this include the fact that highly educated parents are more likely to utilise fertility treatments, which increase the chances of multiple births. So the narrowing of the gap was achieved, in part, by a leveling down. Rather than have the children of affluent parent’s suffer higher risks of infant mortality (which makes things more “equal”), the goal ought to be bring all up, to minimize the risk of infant mortality. Or recall my earlier post here, which addressed the concern that the behaviour of some educational elites (when it comes to choice of partners) perpetuates inequality.
Anyways, taking (1) seriously shows us that institutions *and* individual behaviour matter in terms of the complex factors that influence different kinds of inequality.
What about (2)—what is the ideal? Unfortunately most egalitarians jump straight to this. And the ideal is-- we should be *equal* in something (e.g. welfare, wealth, capabilities, etc.).
But once one takes the empirical constraints of (1) and (2) seriously, I believe one’s account of (2) would become more attractive, defensible, feasible and (most importantly) *provisional*. One can get a better sense of “what” should be equalized. Indeed, one might even temper their egalitarian ambitious and opt instead for a principle of sufficiency or priority. Indeed, this is what has happened to me.
And skill (3) is where the real action is. “What Needs to be Done?” should be the overarching concern of the egalitarian. How do we move from our unequal situation to a more just one? Unfortunately, egalitarians tend not to think much further than “take money from X (the rich) and give it to Y (the poor), thus creating more equality!”.
But appreciating the complex factors highlighted by (1) will, I believe, expand the imaginative capacities of egalitarians, providing them with a better sense of what would constitute a feasible timescale for achieving their egalitarian aspirations (given our history and circumstances) as well as a better understanding of the things that can help them realise a better world (like public health measures, such as sanitation, vaccinations, etc.). And so science would come to the fore, and egalitarians would engage in new questions concerning the role of innovation in a just society, and how to ensure the benefits of technology and medicine are efficiently and fairly dispersed.
One last point. In exercising skill (1) the egalitarian should also ask why it is that they themselves are egalitarians (or rather why they have egalitarian intuitions; I have yet to meet a self-described "egalitarian" who actually lives like an egalitarian!).
Now Cohen himself provides some autobiographical details, like his upbringing here. But I don't mean we should just ask what the proximate cause of our moral sensibilities are. I mean we should ask why we, as a species, have the moral sensibilities we have (so what are the ultimate or evolutionary causes? And this in fact links up with Cohen's point about the influence of religion in his life, so there is an important link there). And one of these sensibilities, which seems to be more prevalent in some more than others, are the egalitarian sensibilities that our egalitarian philosopher starts off with. I won't go into this topic here today, but I believe that, once the theorist critically reflects on their own starting intuitions, then it will profoundly influence the way they go about developing and assessing a theory of distributive justice. But that is an expansive topic for another day.