Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Can Someone Be Too Rich?

In this post, Dick Timmer discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on why we should limit people’s wealth.


How we think about wealth has a profound impact on the world in which we live. Some years ago, philosopher Ingrid Robeyns proposed a new perspective on wealth, which she dubbed limitarianism. Robeyns argues that once people can live a fully flourishing life, additional wealth lacks moral value for the holder because it does not contribute their flourishing. And because such wealth threatens political equality, leaves many people’s urgent needs unmet, and could be used to address the current climate crisis, such wealth should be redistributed.

In my paper, I defend a version of this view. I argue that there are good political and ethical reasons to prevent people from having more than a certain amount of wealth. Above some point, wealth has little if any value for the holder, yet it could have huge value if redistributed.

I distinguish three possible interpretations of limitarianism. It can be seen as a view about how wealth should be distributed in a perfectly just society. Alternatively, one might think of limitarianism as a view which proposes wealth limits to overcome fundamental disagreement about what we should do. Or it can be seen as a view about how wealth should be distributed in the absence of the relevant knowledge to apply specific distributive principles. I argue in favour of both the second and third interpretation of limitarianism.

In an ideal world, wealth limits are not necessary. If everyone is superrich, for example, there is no reason to redistribute wealth. So that rules out the interpretation of limitarianism as a principle for a perfectly just society. However, as our current world is not ideal, such ideal reasoning offers little guidance here.

In our world, people can agree on wealth limits even if they disagree about why such limits are required. For example, many people agree that poverty should be eradicated and support policies and institutions which aim to do so, including perhaps limitarian policies. However, for some the ground for such limitarianism is that the poor live below the poverty threshold. Yet others might support limitarianism because the poor have priority over the rich, or because of some religious commitment towards the needy.

One way to interpret limitarianism, then, is to say that it is a principle which offers guidance by surpassing fundamental agreements about what we should do. I call this view limitarianism as a midlevel principle.

The thrust of the paper, however, argues in favour of a different type of limitarian view, which I call presumptive limitarianism. Presumptions are risk-averse principles that aim to minimize the possible harm of a decision given the prior beliefs and evidence available to someone. In distributive justice, such presumptions say how goods should be distributed if we do not know precisely who should get what.

Most of us are familiar with presumptions. For example, the presumption of innocence tells us to treat someone as if they are innocent until they are proven guilty. And the precautionary principle tells us how to weigh different options in the absence of decisive evidence about what they will bring about. Similarly, presumptive limitarianism tell us to prevent people from having more than a certain amount of wealth unless we have good reasons to believe they are entitled to more than that amount of wealth.

I offer three reasons in favour of presumptive limitarianism. First, it can be derived from the presumption of equality. In the absence of good reasons to give some more than others, the egalitarian presumption says that you should give them roughly equal shares. When it comes to the distribution of wealth, such an egalitarian presumption supports the limitarian presumption by implication. If people should have roughly equal amounts of wealth, they certainly should not have more than some high threshold.

The second argument is that if above some threshold wealth has little if any value for the holder, this too supports presumptive limitarianism. To minimize the possible harm in a distribution it is better not to give wealth to those who have reached that threshold if alternative allocations of wealth are likely to have more moral value, for example because they benefit those in poverty or because they leave more room for investments in green technology.

The final argument is that even if there are reasons that may justify extreme wealth, decision-makers must often decide on distributive issues without the relevant knowledge to apply those principles. As Richard Arneson says: “individuals do not display responsibility scores on their foreheads”. However, we do know that distributions in which people do not exceed some high wealth limit are more likely to be compatible with political equality, meeting urgent needs, and other moral concerns compared to distributions in which some people do exceed that threshold. This too gives us a reason to endorse presumptive limitarianism.

Hence, I defend two interpretations of limitarianism, namely as a midlevel principle and as a presumption. Given the current disparities in income and wealth between the rich and the poor, and in light of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small global elite, limitarianism can play an important role in how we think about the wealth of the world’s richest people.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.

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2 Comments

  1. David Owen

    Supposing one accepts this type of argument, there are two further issues:
    a) should social arrangements be made (1) to prevent anyone acquiring the relevant level of wealth (predistribution) or merely to redistribute wealth one acquired (redistribution)?
    b) if (2), should the preferences of the person concerned play any constrained role in how wealth is redistributed? So, for example, should they have the option of disposing of their surplus wealth through charitable donation as an alternative to its removal via state taxation? (Note that many tax systems effectively allow this.)

    • Dick Timmer

      Many thanks for those comments. I think the issue of predistribution versus redistribution should depend on how the wealth limit is determined. For instance, if it signals the point above which people can live a fully flourishing life, then it seems obvious that people should be allowed to acquire that level of wealth. But if it signals the point above which certain values are undermined, then one might doubt whether people should be allowed to reach that threshold in the first place. All this depends on how limitarianism is specified.

      All I say in relation to (b) is that if value(s) X justifies the limitarian threshold, then whatever you do with wealth above that threshold should be compatible with X. In principle, such charitable donations are compatible with limitarianism. I myself am a bit skeptical about such proposals because they allow for all kinds of loopholes and invite issues associates with billionaire philanthropy, but there are certainly ways in which this might work (e.g. if the list of possible charitable organizations are chosen by by the public).

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