Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities

1296-1Reasonable agreement between equals with distinct properly valued ends

In my previous post in this series
, I argued that all persons possess an equal intrinsic non-monetary value. While this conclusion rules out the kind of argument against extreme economic inequality propounded by Danny Dorling, it provides the basis for a distinct, fundamentally egalitarian critique of particular economic, social and political inequalities.

Before proceeding, here’s a recap of the story so far. Reasons are real; there are considerations that count in favour of being, doing or believing some things rather than other things. Our beliefs about what reasons we have can be justified in the pursuit of reflective equilibrium between general principles and our considered judgments about particular cases. In this pursuit we frequently rely on social processes — including political struggle and society-wide “experiments in living” — to counteract biases that distort our thinking, to gather new information, and to test the reasonableness of our judgments.

Last time, I left open the precise nature of our equal intrinsic value. However, this summary hints at an historically popular answer: the intrinsic value of a person is closely related to the capacity for autonomy, or self-governance on the basis of reasons. For some philosophers, such as Kant, this is an identity relation — the value of a person is their capacity for autonomy. But many people, especially today, find this hard to swallow because it implies that young children and persons with severe cognitive disabilities have no value and are owed nothing as a matter of justice. The intuitive connection between our ability to recognize and act on the basis of reasons and our distinctive value can be vindicated by loosening the relation so that the equal intrinsic value of a person consists in their being the kind of creature that has the capacity for autonomy. Very young children and persons with severe cognitive disabilities meet this criterion. Their lack of autonomy is merely a contingent fact about what they happen to be like; it does not change what kind of being they are.

If this is the basis for the intrinsic value of persons, what is the proper response to that value? What does it mean to treat a person according to their worth? Monetary values are easy to deal with — if something is valued at $4.99, the proper response to that value (if you’re going to respond to that value at all) is just to throw down $4.99 (plus applicable taxes). But in a way, the principle is the same. Just as you honour monetary values with money, you honour the capacity to recognize and act on the basis of reasons with reasons — by treating others in ways that can be justified to them, insofar as they are reasonable. This basic idea can be fleshed out in a variety of ways and has taken a number of well known forms including the Golden Rule, the Confucian concept of shu, Kant’s categorical imperative, and — particularly relevant to the present discussion — the contractualist ideal of reasonable agreement on principles of conduct or institutional design.

This clarifies why, if the equal value of persons has nothing to do with money, vast economic inequalities would still be objectionable. The distribution of income and wealth in society is not a purely natural artifact; it is the outcome of a massive system of social cooperation that includes a wide range of institutions across both the public and private sectors. Property law, tax policy, industrial relations frameworks, public services, the legally approved governance structures of private firms, and the essential features of national constitutions — all of these interrelated elements collectively comprise what Rawls calls the basic structure. The basic structure has a pervasive effect on our life prospects; this gives each of us a compelling interest in the design of that structure, and generates the requirement that the principles underlying the structure’s design be justifiable to each person. The degree of economic inequality Dorling observes in his society fails to meet this standard; such vast inequalities would be permitted by principles that could reasonably be rejected or would be forbidden by principles that would be accepted by all. This explains at least one reason why egalitarians should object to extreme economic inequality.

But let’s not stop there. Although it seems plausible that principles permitting extreme inequality could be rejected and principles forbidding extreme inequality would be accepted, a good theory of justice should spell out the bases of rejection and acceptance. In doing so, we gain a better idea of what the guiding principles of a just society’s basic structure would actually require, a more vivid picture of what that society would look like, and more practical guidance concerning the kinds of policies that might get us there.

Given the realist stance towards normative reasons that I have adopted in this series so far, a natural starting point is to ask what we have reason to want out of life. One influential approach to this subject follows the work of Martha Nussbaum, who has proposed the following list of capabilities that are central to social justice, where capabilities are defined as effective freedoms or real opportunities to achieve functionings (“beings and doings”) that one has reason to value:

From “Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice” by Martha Nussbaum

Unlike the other theorists discussed in this series so far, Nussbaum is not a contractualist. But she has acknowledged that there are strong affinities between contractualism and her own approach; where the two do not actually converge with each other, they are at least compatible with each other.

Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is not a full theory of justice. One reason for this is that it does not specify rules to govern the distribution of capabilities (or the goods that are necessary to secure the central capabilities). But it does impose a constraint that any distributive rule must be able to meet. The capabilities spelled out in Nussbaum’s list are of fundamental importance for all of us. In contractualist terms, this means each of us can reasonably reject principles for the design of the basic structure that would deprive us of any of these capabilities. It also gives each of us reason to accept principles that would secure the central capabilities, even if this means giving up chances for the unlimited accumulation of riches. In order for a society to be considered minimally just, then, the central capabilities must be guaranteed to all, at least up to some threshold of sufficiency. It is impossible to determine a priori exactly where this threshold is located. We can only grope towards it through a combination of social experimentation and the ongoing quest for reflective equilibrium. In practice, this kind of uncertainty does not pose much of a practical problem, because it is safe to say that we are far short of reaching this threshold wherever it is, and there is no shortage of excellent ideas for how to get there.

The egalitarian approach to theorizing about justice that I’ve been discussing here flows smoothly from the realist view of normative reasons with which this series began. Our capacity to act on the basis of reasons generates the requirement that the principles underlying major social institutions must be justifiable to all. It also helps establish a universal, objective standard by which the justifiability of these principles can be assessed: the ability of a basic structure designed in conformity with those principles to secure the central capabilities. And unlike Dorling’s meritocratic principle, this standard explains why both monetary and non-monetary inequalities — in access to health care, personal safety, recreational opportunities, and so forth — are objectionable. Given its explanatory success and its strong meta-ethical foundation, the egalitarian approach is clearly worth pursuing further.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

Why the minimum wage is like free trade

Much like the debate on the minimum wage, the Darvaza gas crater fire has been raging for decades and shows no sign of abatement

Over the last week or so, Ontario’s scheduled minimum wage hike has sparked a new round of debate on the wisdom of this policy, and in a column at the National Post, Andrew Coyne has reiterated his preference for a guaranteed minimum income rather than a minimum wage. The column is worth reading, but his conclusion should be rejected.

Coyne’s reasoning is that raising the minimum wage can end up hurting some of the people it is meant to help. If it becomes more expensive to employ people, then some people who would otherwise have low-paying employment will end up having no employment at all. Raising the minimum wage may well increase overall labour income, he admits, but gains for those who are lucky enough to keep their jobs do not justify the burdens imposed on those who lose out. If minimum wage hikes were the only means available to increase the incomes of poorly paid workers, then we might face a real dilemma. Fortunately, he points out, this is not the only means available. Supplementing workers’ low pay with a basic income scheme would achieve the same goal without unfairly burdening the worst off. Given our collective refusal to pursue this alternative, minimum wage supporters’ indignant rhetoric about greedy employers seems hypocritical.

I agree with some of the points Coyne raises, especially where he invokes sound Rawlsian principles holding that the well-being of the worst off should be our paramount concern, the aggregate benefits of a policy do not cancel out the burdens imposed on actual individuals, and the task of ensuring a decent standard of living for all is a job for the basic structure of society as a whole rather than employers in particular. However, Coyne’s conclusion should be resisted, because these principles are not incompatible with the minimum wage as such; they can easily be reconciled by implementing a minimum income scheme alongside a minimum wage.

Coyne’s reluctance to address this third option is puzzling, especially because the kind of dilemma he points out is extremely common. He even points out a comparable situation himself: free trade. Increased competition in open markets promotes innovation and leads to lower prices for consumers; while the overall gains can be substantial, however, so too may be the costs to the worst off. Even if we assign absolute priority to the interests of the worst off, however, we are not obligated to erect trade barriers to shield them from these costs. Instead, we can redistribute some of the gains from free trade in the form of cash transfers and active labour market policies, thereby maintaining or improving the situation of the worst off without having to forgo the benefits of a more open domestic market.

The analogy between free trade and the minimum wage is appropriate because Coyne grants the validity of a Bank of Canada finding that minimum wage hikes will increase labour income overall. Coyne does not contest that this is a legitimate policy goal; his objection is just that this goal must not be pursued at the expense of the worst off. But he does not consistently apply the principles his argument invokes.

A Rawlsian focus on the basic structure works both ways; the obligation to ensure a decent standard of living for all doesn’t fall on employers or the government in particular, and specific responsibilities arising from this more general obligation may be assigned to either of them depending on what division of responsibilities would result in the best overall basic structure consistent with the requirements of justice. A basic structure that secures a decent standard of living for all and increases overall labour income by assigning employers the responsibility to pay a minimum wage and assigning government the responsibility to provide a basic income is preferable to one that achieves only one of these objectives. Coyne — and the rest of us — ought to support both of these policies, not try to pick one or the other.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

primeThe ultimate basis of Optimus Prime’s authority is egalitarian rather than meritocratic, and if it’s good enough for giant alien robots it’s good enough for me

In a post at the LSE blog (adapted from one of his books), Danny Dorling criticizes gaping inequality as a threat to the moral sentiments (feelings of sympathy and kindness towards one’s fellows, for example, which reflect the obligations we owe to them) and the welfare state. Although Dorling makes several sharp observations about some of the negative consequences of extreme inequality, his complaint that extreme inequality fails to respect the value of persons misses the mark:

The 1 per cent, by definition, will always be those taking the largest slice, but not always such a great fat slice, leaving slithers [sic] for the rest. Question those who say that it can only be this way. Try to question them kindly rather than with incredulity. A society based on merit would be remarkably equitable compared with what we face today. No one is worth 3,000 times another person. The three-thousand fold inequalities within the 1 per cent are just as indefensible as those between them and the other 99 per cent.

As this passage makes clear, the basis of Dorling’s complaint is meritocratic, not egalitarian. On this view, it seems, each person has a cash value that varies according to individual merit, and people ought to be paid according to their cash value. Some people are more meritorious than others, and so should receive higher pay; a person who is twice as valuable as another should have their salary doubled, for example. But in our society, the richest people can earn thousands of times more money than the poorest. This cannot be justified by Dorling’s meritocratic criterion, because (plausibly) no one is worth thousands of times more than anyone else.

This is not a very satisfying line of reasoning, for three reasons. First, the inequalities that Dorling is prepared to accept seem likely to have the same deleterious effects on the moral sentiments and the welfare state as the inequalities he objects to. If I believe I am, at the fundamental level, worth twice as much as another individual, I am unlikely to regard them as sympathetically as someone just as valuable as or more valuable than me. The fact that they are fundamentally worth less than others means that they are less deserving of my sympathy than others. Likewise, if I believe that the economic system has been arranged on a meritocratic basis so that each person gets at least roughly what they are worth (again, in a fundamental sense), it is difficult to see why I should support the welfare state; it would seem as though each person already receives what they deserve, so social spending would involve taking from the deserving and giving to the undeserving. If concerns about the moral sentiments and the welfare state are part of the reason why Dorling objects to extreme inequality, then, they are also reasons to object to the milder meritocratic inequalities Dorling’s view supports.

The second problem with the meritocratic view is that it requires the state to make intrusive, degrading and presumptuous assessments of each individual’s worth. There is even more at stake here than the ability to sympathize with one’s fellows. Democratic, liberal states are defined by a commitment to essentially egalitarian norms within the political sphere, including the equal weighting of votes and a system of equal basic rights and liberties. But to maintain meritocratic inequalities in the economic sphere, the state would also have to commit to a set of essentially inegalitarian norms operating alongside the egalitarian norms of liberal democracy. This arrangement seems unstable to me; I think it is extremely unlikely that the state can sustain a full commitment to both of these fundamentally incompatible sets of basic norms at the same time. After all, if some people are viewed as being worth less than others in a fundamental sense, it is not clear why there should be a commitment to egalitarian norms in any sphere. I also find it hard to believe that state’s determination of each person’s fundamental value could be effectively insulated from political influence. Even if it were possible for the state to accurately determine each person’s merit, there would be a powerful incentive for political factions to skew these determinations in favour of their own interests.

Finally, it is implausible that the fundamental value of a person is a cash value. Money itself is only instrumentally valuable. For something to be instrumentally valuable, it must be useful for some intrinsically or non-instrumentally valuable purpose. So what is the intrinsically valuable purpose for which money is useful? It is natural to think the answer is that having money is necessary for us to thrive. But if the fundamental value of ourselves is itself a monetary value, then the value of persons cannot provide the necessary grounding for the instrumental value of money. In the absence of any other plausible candidate for the source of money’s instrumental value, we must conclude that persons possess intrinsic value from which the instrumental value of money can be derived.

If the value of persons is intrinsic, does it follow that it must also be equal? Perhaps not. But what could account for inequality in the intrinsic value of persons? Instrumental considerations (such as a person’s usefulness for some purpose) and judgments of character are extrinsic factors — by definition, they cannot enhance or diminish one’s intrinsic value. Because we have already ruled out the dependence of morality on God’s commands, divine decrees cannot explain inequality in intrinsic value either. This leaves the possibility that variation in the value of persons could be a brute fact — a fact with no further basis, reason or explanation.

Allowing that there could be brute moral facts, however, would be inconsistent with much of the account of morality and moral knowledge provided in this series. Moral facts cannot be directly observed, and brute facts cannot be directly inferred. Brute moral facts, then, would be inaccessible to both reason and observation. Without confidence in any of our moral beliefs, we would have no grounds to believe in morality at all, and if there are brute moral facts, we could not have confidence in any of our moral beliefs. And if we have no grounds to believe in morality at all, then we certainly have no reason to believe that there are brute moral facts. It follows that belief in brute moral facts cannot be justified, and therefore inequality in the intrinsic value of persons cannot be a brute fact.

Having established the intrinsic value of persons and ruled out all possible bases of inequality in this value, we must conclude that all persons possess equal intrinsic value. So what does this imply about economic inequality, the issue that kicked off this discussion? If income and wealth have no bearing on the value of a person, does that mean extreme inequality of income and wealth is consistent with each person possessing equal value? Not at all. In fact, compared to meritocracy, this egalitarian perspective provides a much stronger, more rationally coherent foundation for generalized sentiments of sympathy and kindness and their institutionalization in the welfare state. It also gives us reason to close the social distance created by material inequalities, and to ensure that those inequalities are restricted to levels that benefit everyone. Overall, egalitarianism gives a much more satisfying explanation of why extreme economic inequality is objectionable — it brings us closer to reflective equilibrium than the meritocratic view. The next part of this series will explore the egalitarian perspective in more detail, clarifying its connections with both the meta-ethical foundations established so far and the realm of progressive social and economic policy.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality
6. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities