What’s Wrong With Inequality?

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from The New York Times,

This interview, the third in a series on political topics, discusses philosophical ideas that underlie recent debates about inequality. My interviewee is Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of “The Imperative of Integration.” — Gary Gutting

GARY GUTTING: Public policy debates, particularly about economic issues, are often about how to treat people fairly. You argue for “democratic equality,” which says that treating people fairly requires treating them as equals. What do you mean by equality?

ELIZABETH ANDERSON: Talk about equality gets off on the wrong foot if we start from the assumption that it expresses an immediate moral demand to treat everyone the same. Of course, there are thousands of legitimate reasons why people may treat different individuals differently. What egalitarianism objects to are social hierarchies that unjustly put different people into superior and inferior positions.

G.G.: Let’s get specific. What do you see as unequal treatments that are unjust?

E.A.: Of course, there are standard cases of discrimination on the basis of antipathy against, or favoritism towards, arbitrary identity groups — such as race, gender and sexual orientation. But I want to stress the many ways in which unjust social hierarchy is manifested in other ways besides direct discrimination or formally differential treatment. The discrimination/differential treatment idea captures only a small part of what counts as unjust inequality.

On this broader view of unjust inequality, we can see three different types of social hierarchy at work. One is inequalities of standing, which weigh the interests of members of some groups more heavily than others. For example, perhaps out of negligence, a courthouse or hotel may lack elevators and ramps for people in wheelchairs.

Another type of social hierarchy is inequalities of power: when some groups exercise arbitrary, unaccountable power over subordinates, and can order them around or harass and abuse them, without subordinates’ having a voice in how they are treated. Traditional hierarchies, as of masters over slaves, landlords over serfs, and dictators over subjects, are of this sort. In many cases, the contemporary boss/employee relation also fits this mold, for particularly tyrannical bosses and for workers in menial occupations, such as crop-picking, slaughterhouse work and domestic service.

Third is inequalities of esteem: when some groups stigmatize, insult or demean others and monopolize honorable status to themselves. A lot of the unjust inequality suffered by L.B.G.T people, people with disabilities, immigrants, the poor and the mentally ill works through demeaning and even demonizing representations of who they are.

G.G.: You’ve mentioned inequalities of standing, power and esteem. What about inequalities in material goods?

E.A.: Here one important source of injustice is failing to insure people against misfortunes such as poverty, disability, illness and involuntary unemployment.

G.G.: Just when do people deserve protection from overwhelming misfortune? One popular idea is what you’ve called “luck egalitarianism.” On this view, people should suffer the consequences of choices they’ve freely made, but should be protected against losses that they couldn’t have avoided. We eliminate inequalities that are due to sheer bad luck, but we allow those that result from bad decisions. Many people find this an appealing position, but you reject it. Why is that?

E.A.: There are many examples that go counter to luck egalitarianism. How tall people are is largely determined by genetic luck. But this does not make it unjust for professional basketball teams to offer better opportunities to taller players. When we chose people on merit, we’re very often choosing them because they are lucky enough to have certain talents. There is nothing wrong with this — indeed, we all benefit from it — so long as society offers fair prospects to everyone to develop their talents.

At the same time, even the uninsured motorcyclist who is injured because he chose to drive recklessly without a helmet should have his injuries treated. There are some situations in which it’s unjust not to help people, no matter how they landed in the situation.

G.G.: O.K., so bad luck shouldn’t guarantee compensatory measures, and bad choices shouldn’t exclude assistance. Still, it seems obvious that sometimes it’s right to help those who have bad luck and sometimes it’s right to refuse help to those who’ve made bad choices. How do you suggest deciding which to do when?

E.A.: I think the critical issues for equality concern the range of opportunities available to people, far more than whether choice or luck lands them in one spot or another in that range. Even if being gay were wholly a matter of choice, that would still not justify treating gay people as a stigmatized outcaste group. So the fact that people come to occupy different positions in a social hierarchy as a result of choices they make doesn’t suffice to justify that hierarchy. Many types of hierarchy are unjust no matter how people land in the unequal positions that hierarchy creates.

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