John Rawls said "inequalities of wealth and authority are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone"

The philosophical meaning of equality

What should we do when different conceptions of fairness conflict?
January 25, 2023

It doesn’t take children long to notice that the world is unfair. Very smart adults, however, can spend a lifetime trying to work out what “fair” means without reaching a conclusion.

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen got to the nub of the problem: there are different ways of being fair and unfair, and our views on justice—and what to prioritise—vary according to culture, history, circumstances and the other moral values we hold. Rather than trying to decide which form of fairness is correct, we need to strive to give each its due.

The question of the fair distribution of wealth provides one of the clearest case studies. You don’t have to be a communist to find Marx’s principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” admirable. Yet we also tend to give weight to the contradictory principle “to each according to his ability”, believing that people ought to be rewarded for their talents and efforts. And when it comes to family, it is neither need nor ability that motivates supporting them.

There are tensions between these three versions of fairness—which is why France is one of the most obstreperous democracies in the west. Any state founded on the principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité has conflict built into its DNA. The modern pursuit of individual liberty weakens societal fraternity, policies to equalise incomes impinge on liberty and familial fraternity pulls against civic equality.

The return of economic inequality as a political issue has to be understood against this complicated background. It seems obvious that the wealth of the world is distributed unfairly. In the US, people are waking up from the American Dream, which sees inequality as acceptable because everyone has the opportunity to improve their lot. Polls show that socialism and capitalism are more or less equally attractive to young Americans.

But although there is a growing feeling that the ratio between earnings at the top and bottom should be lower, it is less obvious what kind of distribution would be fairest. The easy answer is to make one notion of fairness trump all others. Marxists say it just requires distribution according to need; the libertarian retort is that individuals have the right to acquire whatever resources they can.

Rather than deciding which form of fairness is correct, we need to strive to give each its due

Most of us, however, see the pull of different claims to fairness. We know accidents of birth, upbringing and serendipity can impact which abilities people have and how they can monetise them. But we also think people are entitled to rewards from their honest endeavours. And while we know equality would be better served if parents didn’t pass on their wealth to their children, for many, the right to give preference to one’s family is so fundamental that it justifies the inequalities it creates.

Until the 1990s, a neat division between left and right was based on their attitudes towards how these values should be balanced. The left thought we needed more redistribution and the right sought to champion enterprise and the right to inherit property. This neat ideological division was disrupted by the rise of New Labour in the UK and the New Democrats in the US, who came to see the focus on inequality as a distraction and became “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, as Peter Mandelson notoriously put it. Their thinking echoed John Rawls’s Difference Principle, which states that “inequalities of wealth and authority are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.” If the filthy rich are the product of a system that makes everyone better off than they would otherwise be, it’s filth worth having. (Indeed, the second half of Mandelson’s statement is often forgotten. He added the words: “as long as they pay their taxes”.)

If inequality has achieved a new salience it is surely in part due to a sense that the Rawlsian deal is not being honoured. The railways do not run better because the bosses are getting million-pound bonuses; hospitals are not getting more funding because tax rates on the rich are lower than they used to be; and increasing homeownership for the baby boomers did not open up similar opportunities for the next generations, but reduced them.

A new settlement is needed in which the values of freedom, equality and social solidarity are in better balance. Despite the tensions between them, they are not necessarily trapped in a zero-sum game. Many of the most equal societies are rich Nordic nations. High taxation in the vaunted Scandinavian model is a kind of limit on individual freedom, but overall the system is based on a free market, with high levels of personal autonomy and relatively low levels of material inequality.

It’s easy to come up with a political programme that promotes greater economic equality or that rewards profitable work. It is harder to give due weight to both. But it can be done.

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Each month Julian Bagginioffers a philosophical view on current events. This column’s theme was suggested by Angus Bearn with your suggested topics,including “Philosopher-at-large” in the subject line