Why Does Inequality Matter? by T. M. Scanlon

Years ago, I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on T. M. Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other. I have thus been looking forward to reading his new book in political philosophy on equality.

It is fair to say that the topic deserves attention from moral philosophers. Or, at least available data and common sense morality suggest that it does.

For instance, in 2014 ”21.2 percent of total income (from wages, salaries, interest dividends and profits from sales) in the United States went to the top 1 percent of earners, and 4.9 percent went to the top 0.01 percent” (p. 133). And, the ”average compensation of executives in the 350 largest firms in the U.S. in 1965 was twenty times the average compensation of workers in those firms. […] In 2014 it was 303 to 1” (pp. 133–4).

Furthermore, in ”the 10 percent of [U.S.] counties with lowest life expectancy […] 61 percent of white men […] live to age 70 but only 45 percent of black men” (p. 12). In 2013 ”there were 1.2 cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 among whites in the U.S. but 10.2 cases per 100,000 among blacks. And the infant mortality rate was 5.8 percent among whites but 13.7 percent among blacks” (ibid).

These are just some examples of inequalities that significantly affect the lives of otherwise formally equal people. How should this topic be understood from a moral perspective?

In this context, Scanlon distinguishes between broad and narrow egalitarianism, i.e., reasons concerned with equality and inequality. Broad egalitarianism includes, among other things, the view that inequalities are morally objectionable because they tend to have negative effects on the well-being of the worst off. Narrow egalitarianism, on the contrary, is grounded in ”some idea of why equality itself is to be sought, or why inequality itself is objectionable,” independently from any possible effects of various inequalities (p. 2).

Scanlon’s focus is on egalitarianism in the narrow sense. His question is (p. 4): ”when and why is it morally objectionable that some people are worse off in some way than others are?”

In the book, Scanlon identifies and discusses six kinds of reasons for objecting to various forms of inequality. He argues that inequality can be objectionable because (1) it creates humiliating differences in status, (2) it gives the rich unacceptable forms of power over those who have less, (3) it undermines equality of economic opportunity, (4) it undermines the fairness of political institutions, (5) it results from violation of a requirement of equal concern for the interests of those to whom the government is obligated to provide some benefit, and, finally, (6) inequality of income and wealth can be objectionable because it arises from economic institutions that are unfair (pp. 8–9).

The book is built around these concerns, with each being treated at length in separate chapters. Two chapters on liberty, coercion, and desert place the reasons to object to inequality in a political context. Although Scanlon refrains from spelling out a complete political program, the result from his analysis can be described as a form of social liberalism (in the European sense).

Why Does Inequality Matter? is written with the literary experience and care of one of our most prominent contemporary moral philosophers. It is a must-read for anyone interested in egalitarianism, but those with only a general interest in political philosophy should probably be content with a summary of its main arguments.

Scanlon, T. M. (2018). Why Does Inequality Matter? Oxford University Press.