Reasonable 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