Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Sufficiency on Political Inequality

If you consider yourself a political philosopher, it seems that you must be doing political philosophy. What does this political constraint imply? To me, it does certainly not imply that you are not allowed to used farfetched hypothetical thought-experiments, or that you take a specific stand on ideal contra non-ideal theory. Nor does it imply that it is morally impermissible for us to raise certain philosophical questions, if we foresee a reasonable chance that answering these questions could make the world worse or more unjust, as some activists claim. What it implies is that you should acknowledge the political relevance of your philosophical work, and that you have a commitment to make this relevance explicit.

For an excellent example, see Lisa Herzog’s recent post on the blog. But I wish here to briefly present an analysis of my own on the reasons for concern with political inequality (“What is Our Real Concern with Real Inequality?”, Policy Studies Journal).

The diagnosis  

Why be concerned about inequality? Much recent theorizing and empirical investigation of the politics and social dynamics of inequality has either failed to successfully address or answer this question. Why is it that we consider more inequality bad and less inequality good? On this question, contemporary inequality scholars find themselves in somewhat of a dilemma. On the one hand, it seems that our concern with inequalities does not stem from comparative differences per se, but is derived rather from our moral disturbance with underlying poverty. But on the other hand, we often find ourselves troubled by significant inequalities even in the absence of any absolute poverty. If our concern with inequality was a mere result of the well documented negative effects of large economic inequality, then we should be less concerned with inequality in equal societies than in more unequal societies. But in fact, inequality politics often seems even more salient in very equal societies than in less equal ones.

The theory

The analysis finds its grounding theory in an ecumenical version of the sufficiency view—the view that justice is concerned with eliminating non-comparative deficiency rather than with securing perfect equality. From this, we arrive at the following sufficiency view on inequality: we should find unjust any inequality that involves a non-comparative deficiency either (a) in the form of crossing an absolute threshold; (b) by signaling different urgency of deficiency below the threshold; or (c) by involving a social harm that leads people to face insufficiently good life prospects on a social dimension.

This theory allows for different reasons to be concerned with inequality depending on the type of deficiency entailed. For instance, the difference in HDI between people in Sierra Leone and in Denmark expresses an inequality that entails the crossing of an absolute material threshold. This contrasts with the difference in HDI between Denmark and the slightly better-off Norway which expresses an inequality without any type of non-comparative deficiency. But other forms of inequality entail distinctive forms of non-comparative deficiencies. Gender inequality for instance expresses a social-norm bound deficiency revolving around systemic discrimination that is similarly non-comparative in the sense that anyone would lead insufficiently good lives if systematically discriminated against.

 The analysis

The paper then conducts an explorative analysis of the literature on political inequality identifying specific reasons for opposing inequality. The analysis finds: poverty-catering reasons; social status-catering reasons; and equal opportunity-catering reasons. These reasons are discussed, considering the sufficiency view on inequality and its egaliatarian counterpart, and they are found to sit nicely with the ecumenical sufficiency view. Upon the analyses, I conclude:

  1. There is no normatively grounded reason to be concerned with inequality in and of itself.
  2. Inequality is normatively problematic only if,
    1. it involves some sort of non-comparative threshold-bound deficiency—e.g. in terms of poverty. Or if,
    2. it coincides with some sort of social norm-bound deficiency—e.g. discrimination, social exclusion, oppression, or other forms of severe imbalance in societal status.

This conclusion is no attack on our commitment to reduce inequality. The aim of the argument is not to dismiss but rather to emphasize and elaborate our strong normative political reasons for concern about inequality.

I consider myself a political philosopher. I write about sufficientarianism, health and health care ethics, and virtue ethics. I forgot why. I am also considered among the three best flaghelmet players in Scandinavia.


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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you, Lasse. I fully agree with what you say about political relevance.

    Now, regarding your claim that “there is no normatively grounded reason to be concerned with inequality in and of itself”, I’m becoming quite pessimistic about the possibility to reach an agreement between people with an egalitarian intuition and people with a sufficientarian or prioritarian one. You’re probably right that it’s difficult to identify a normatively grounded reason for the claim that equality is intrinsically valuable. And yet, for some people, it’s a strong intuition. I don’t know where it comes from, but I don’t think it’s true that all those who think they’re committed to equality in itself actually care about the undesirable consequences of inequality.

  2. Lasse Nielsen

    Thanks, Pierre-Etienne, for this comment. Certainly, you have a point. The dissatisfaction with inequality is a very strong intuition for most people, and for me as well. But we owe each other to theorize about what might ground and justify this intution. This is what I do in this paper. My argument, in fact, is quite humble. Here, I am not even claiming that sufficientarianism is true and telic egalitarianism false (although I argue something like that elsewhere). My humble statement is that sufficientarian reasoning seems able to nicely fill the explanatory gap in the political science literature in inequality, where this egalitarian intution pops up without much deliberation.

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