Friday, November 21, 2014

Inequality and Justice

As I've written, I don't think inequality in and of itself is ever unjust. The bare fact that A has 5 billion dollars and B has 40 thousand dollars and C has 5 dollars is not unjust - though I recognize saying as much involves some ash on the tongue for a lot of people.

That doesn't mean I think people - particularly wealthy people - have no Christian duty to each other. I believe they do, and that this duty involves (among other things) giving up wealth to help those who need it. But here, simply having wealth at one's disposal - not inequality, but the command of wealth - is going to be one of a number of factors in play in determining who has what duty.

More importantly, I think it's a mistake to play the game of thinking in the broadest possible categories, where 'the top 1% has a duty to the 99%'. It's a little like saying that 'men have a duty to children', as if all men have a duty to all children - even if you argue that all children ultimately had a father, it's still an insane way to draw those lines. Now, saying fathers have a duty to their offspring? That's better - more on target. Now we're not describing the relationship of one broad class to another, but individuals to individuals. It's more tractable, and in that case, more natural.

13 comments:

Syllabus said...

That doesn't mean I think people - particularly wealthy people - have no Christian duty to each other. I believe they do, and that this duty involves (among other things) giving up wealth to help those who need it.

There's also another element at play here. To my mind, it seems perfectly legitimate to say that, to use the currently fashionable propaganda terms, the 1% has a moral duty to help those parts of the 99% which would be left out in the cold without their assistance. That much seems a perfectly reasonable (if not unanimously acceded) position.

It even seems like a more or less tenable position, given certain assumptions, that there is something unjust in the fact that, I dunno, Donald Trump could get a gold-plated toilet or something which there are homeless people starving on the streets of New York. It's not a position I'd hold, but I don't think it's obviously wrong.

What does seem to me obviously fishy is saying that the only way that such a situation can be remedied is through direct state action, usually by means of a progressive income tax. It assumes that the only viable moral actor in a society is the state, and therefore - essentially - the head(s) of state.

Beyond being totalizing, it's the most elitist position imaginable - "oh, you poor proles can't actually do anything to better your own situation, so cede any power you have over to us, your state benefactors, and we'll care for you." I wonder if the people who hold it see the contradiction.

Crude said...

To my mind, it seems perfectly legitimate to say that, to use the currently fashionable propaganda terms, the 1% has a moral duty to help those parts of the 99% which would be left out in the cold without their assistance. That much seems a perfectly reasonable (if not unanimously acceded) position.

I agree it seems reasonable to a lot of people. I think that's why I'm criticizing it - I disagree, and I like to go after what seem like popular views most people accept.

It even seems like a more or less tenable position, given certain assumptions, that there is something unjust in the fact that, I dunno, Donald Trump could get a gold-plated toilet or something which there are homeless people starving on the streets of New York. It's not a position I'd hold, but I don't think it's obviously wrong.

Maybe not obviously wrong, but I think it's wrong upon reflection. At the very least, I think it becomes remarkably hard to state what's wrong about the inequality itself.

Now, what you're saying - 'there are homeless, and here's Donald Trump, he can get a gold-plated toilet' - is going beyond that, and I think that's the most common way of framing the debate.

I think there's a lot of problems with that view.

One thing that people seem to forget is that billionaires don't just spend their money on frivolities - they fund and open businesses. They innovate. Lately, they try to put humanity into space, or they start businesses that employ tens of thousands, they provide even paid-for services that people use and, frankly, probably wouldn't want to do without.

Another is this: if the problem with the 1% is 'they spend money on frivolities while people are homeless', then the problem is apparently not the wealth inequality. It is the 'frivolities'. And you know what? Especially in America, I think you're quickly going to find that a substantial amount of the 99% is suddenly faced with a moral dilemma about their own wealth if that's an issue. The ability and the actuality of spending money on frivolities is rampant.

Note that turning around and saying 'Yeah, but the wealthy can buy MORE frivolities!' isn't much of a counter here, because potential isn't the problem. The *government* could blow money on frivolities, and it actually does so. Are we going to demand the government give up its money to a party better capable of spending it 'justly'? As much as I'd like to see that, I think it's a consideration many people aren't even aware of. Either way, the point here is that 'having a more than adequate amount of assets and the potential to blow it on less-important things' necessarily broadens our target way, way beyond the 1%.

There's a knee-jerk counter here: 'But THAT guy can buy MORE frivolities if he wants!' And I think that's weak. If Donald Trump's potential to meet all his basic needs AND buy a gold plated toilet is an indication that there's injustice afoot, then there's injustice afoot when Johnny 99% buys a PS4.

Syllabus said...

One thing that people seem to forget is that billionaires don't just spend their money on frivolities - they fund and open businesses. They innovate. Lately, they try to put humanity into space, or they start businesses that employ tens of thousands, they provide even paid-for services that people use and, frankly, probably wouldn't want to do without.

Yeah, I wouldn't disagree with that. Beyond the fact that their wealth typically isn't indolent, they're still entitled to do what they want with their money, even if they were to do something silly.

Either way, the point here is that 'having a more than adequate amount of assets and the potential to blow it on less-important things' necessarily broadens our target way, way beyond the 1%.

Sure, but I don't think that's necessarily a counter to the argument. If I held that position - I don't, but I have a sort of intuition that blowing money on frivolities instead of spending it wisely is immoral, though not necessarily penalizable - I think I'd just double down and say, yeah, let's extend it beyond the 1%. That seems to be the most ideologically consistent way of dealing with it. Now, I guess you could say that the person who said that and still spent money on things that other people would consider "frivolities" (and the problem is that one man's frivolity is another man's essential) is a hypocrite, but that doesn't vitiate against their position, just their ingenuousness.

Crude said...

Yeah, I wouldn't disagree with that. Beyond the fact that their wealth typically isn't indolent, they're still entitled to do what they want with their money, even if they were to do something silly.

That depends on what's meant by entitled to, but in a sense, sure.

If I held that position - I don't, but I have a sort of intuition that blowing money on frivolities instead of spending it wisely is immoral, though not necessarily penalizable - I think I'd just double down and say, yeah, let's extend it beyond the 1%. That seems to be the most ideologically consistent way of dealing with it.

I agree. But to do that means the whole argument about 'the 1%' dies - because it's no longer the 1%, but the 50%. Maybe even, inside of America alone, the 80%. The 90%.

In fact, if it goes that far, then the polarity of the argument flipped. Now instead of the extreme minority having a duty to the extreme majority, it's the sizable majority having a duty to the sizable minority.

Which, by the way, is precisely the point where I think many people may start to talk about the duties of the poor: once they're expected to quite directly subsidize them.

Syllabus said...

That depends on what's meant by entitled to, but in a sense, sure.

I mean just the right to spend money they've earned in a manner that they see fit, subject always to the relevant legal limitations. They can buy all the jets they want but not all the elections they want, for instance.

In fact, if it goes that far, then the polarity of the argument flipped. Now instead of the extreme minority having a duty to the extreme majority, it's the sizable majority having a duty to the sizable minority.

Right, but so long as we're not adopting any sort of very intrusive legislation (which I concede is the main concern I would have with making this sort of argument), I see little problem with saying this. With the proviso that we understand that one doesn't have a duty to "the poor" in the abstract - one has a duty to the poor person one knows, sees often, walks by on the way to work, and so on. People who natter on about duties to the poor rarely mean any individual in particular, but I think they would have to if they really intend to mean anything at all. It seems to me that duties are more plausibly between humans and humans, not between humans and classes.

Crude said...

I mean just the right to spend money they've earned in a manner that they see fit, subject always to the relevant legal limitations.

I understand. I'm not talking about law here - I hate legislative solutions, and prefer to avoid them. And I think there are some obvious problems with them, which this talk demonstrates a bit.

With the proviso that we understand that one doesn't have a duty to "the poor" in the abstract - one has a duty to the poor person one knows, sees often, walks by on the way to work, and so on.

Ah, we're on the same page before I even had to get to that part. Well, that's encouraging. I bet you know how few people tend to recognize that specific issue.

Mr. Green said...

Crude: Now, saying fathers have a duty to their offspring? That's better - more on target. Now we're not describing the relationship of one broad class to another, but individuals to individuals. It's more tractable, and in that case, more natural.

That’s a good point. We have different relationships, of different kinds and degrees, with different people. It’s another question of proportions that make calculating justice a tricky matter. And maybe in a very strict sense you are right to say that monetary inequality it itself cannot be a problem; if you were the only person around, then there could not be any problem with any amount of wealth you happened to posses, right? (Of course, if there were no other people, you couldn’t really have an inequality, because there’d be nothing to be equal to….)

So how about this: it’s not the mathematical (in)equality that matters. That’s a purely abstract matter that isn’t related to anything that could make it matter. However, in a realistic situation there are always going to be all sorts of actual relationships, so I would argue that there will be a limit, at least in principle, to how much wealth is reasonable. (Don’t ask me how to calculate it, though.) After all, money has to have something that gives it meaning (value, worth, ability to purchase something… or else it’s not really money, it’s just tiny wallet-sized mass-produced works of art)… and that’s going to tie it in some way to other people.


Syllabus: What does seem to me obviously fishy is saying that the only way that such a situation can be remedied is through direct state action, usually by means of a progressive income tax.

Sure; that’s why my main point has been to distinguish “there’s something wrong with having that much money” vs. “therefore the government needs to take it away”. Disproving the latter in no way disproves the former. In fact, I expect a likely response to my point is, “Yes, it is possible to have too much money, but there’s nothing we can do about it because any cure would be worse than the disease.” (I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s plausible.)

Beyond the fact that their wealth typically isn't indolent, they're still entitled to do what they want with their money, even if they were to do something silly.

I think that sort of begs the question. Legally they’re entitled, sure, but the question is whether they have any moral claim over money past a certain point. It sounds strange to our modern individualistic-libertarian-influenced ears, but we ought to be questioning that, seeing as individualism is a false philosophy.


Crude: One thing that people seem to forget is that billionaires don't just spend their money on frivolities - they fund and open businesses. They innovate. Lately, they try to put humanity into space, or they start businesses

And most people don’t object to that, right? If billionaires spent all their money constructively, and lived modest lives personally, I think most people would be satisfied. It’s the mansions full of gold-plated toilets that people mostly object to.

I think you're quickly going to find that a substantial amount of the 99% is suddenly faced with a moral dilemma about their own wealth if that's an issue.

Absolutely. And I’m happy to push that far… compared to someone starving on the other side of the world, most of us in the West are effectively billionaires. And I think it’s not an insignificant rationalisation why many people don’t complain about billionaires — because they do recognise that if they claim it’s a problem, it’s going to end up including them and what they want to do with their money.

Syllabus said...

I think that sort of begs the question. Legally they’re entitled, sure, but the question is whether they have any moral claim over money past a certain point.

I meant strictly legally, so no question has been begged, but let's pursue the other angle. Presuming acquisition through means which are not morally relevant, when is one not entitled to the fruits of one's labours? Moreover, which moral edifice are we presuming here?

It sounds strange to our modern individualistic-libertarian-influenced ears, but we ought to be questioning that, seeing as individualism is a false philosophy.

If by "individualism" you mean something like the Randian/Objectivist variety, sure. But there are more modest and entirely more respectable varieties such that one can hardly make that blanket claim without appropriate justification.

Mr. Green said...

Syllabus: I meant strictly legally, so no question has been begged

OK, legally that’s fine, although clearly people’s main complaint isn’t that billionaires are all breaking the law.

Presuming acquisition through means which are not morally relevant, when is one not entitled to the fruits of one's labours?

When the fruits of one’s labours bear no proportion to one’s actual labours. American CEOs supposedly make hundreds of times more than average workers, so consider a situation in which we both work full-time but you make 365 times more money than I do. Are you really performing a year’s worth of work in one day? Of course not. You’re not 365 faster than I am, or stronger, or, I humbly submit, smarter than I. It’s not humanly possible. So the fruits you are reaping represent your labours plus a significant amount of something else. (Or if you’re not overpaid, then I’m significantly underpaid or something.)

But there are more modest and entirely more respectable varieties such that one can hardly make that blanket claim without appropriate justification.

Well, Christianity is true, so any individualistic (or socialistic) competitor is false.


Incidentally, with regard to Crude’s point about inequalities per se, upon further reflection I would go a bit further than my last claim about the pure mathematics of the problem. I should also accept that even with a context that gives meaning to the relative amounts of money, the inequality itself is not enough to be a problem. It might be a problem, depending on what those circumstances actually are; but it also might not, at least in theory. So if that is all Crude is saying, then I’d agree; however, I’d also say that when people complain about unequal incomes, they are taking for granted a context based on reality (or what they think is reality), even if they don’t express it explicitly.

Syllabus said...

When the fruits of one’s labours bear no proportion to one’s actual labours.

OK. You realize, though, that not everyone buys the labour theory of value, right? I would tend to argue that the value of labour in all its particular instantiations is determined entirely by the market. Its worth is precisely that which people are willing to pay for it. Any argument as to entitlement to property/capital earned will therefore hinge on whether or not your assumption or mine is true, and so I'd be interested to hear your arguments for the proposition.

Well, Christianity is true, so any individualistic (or socialistic) competitor is false.

Right, but as I understand Christian doctrine, the reason why one is obliged to share one's possessions with those who have less is either because of Matthew 25, and therefore we ought to treat all those we meet as we ought to treat Christ, or else because of Psalm 24:1, and therefore everything we have is on loan from God. I don't see how this implies that one's gains are ill-gotten if they are out of proportion to the purportedly objective value a bit of labour has.

Now, this is assuming the broadest possible description of Christian - if you're a Catholic like Crude or an Anglo-Catholic like myself, you may legitimately make use of extra-Biblical arguments, but I thought it might be best to confine myself to a minimalist conception for the time being.

Further, though Christian ethics are indeed universal, they have no real prudential claim on those who are not Christian. I can tell a gay couple that they're sinning with their homosexual relationship, and that might be perfectly true, but if I want any sort of argument that'll persuade them, I need to make either a pragmatic or natural law (though even that last is a little iffy nowadays) argument towards them, not a solely Christian one. And natural law arguments may be secular, or at least religiously neutral.

Mr. Green said...

Syllabus: You realize, though, that not everyone buys the labour theory of value, right?

Well, not everyone uses it as the basis for economic theory, but it has a value qua labour anyway. And you did use the phrase “fruit of one’s labours”, as indeed did I since that’s precisely the kind of value I was talking about. And that’s because regarding the original issue, I maintain that people who are dissatisfied with the (very) rich are by and large motivated by a moral judgement based on the labour performed by those individuals.

[…] and therefore everything we have is on loan from God. I don't see how this implies that one's gains are ill-gotten if they are out of proportion to the purportedly objective value a bit of labour has.

I didn’t actually say “ill-gotten”. I just said that merely because a given income happens to be legal or supported by the market value does not make it morally deserved. If you find $1000 lying on the sidewalk it may be legal for you to keep it (depends on your local laws), but you can hardly claim that you were owed that $1000. It may even be perfectly moral for you to keep it, just not in the sense that you were morally obligated to get paid that amount.

but if I want any sort of argument that'll persuade them, I need to make either a pragmatic or natural law (though even that last is a little iffy nowadays) argument towards them, not a solely Christian one.

Depends who you need or want to convince. At this stage, I’m not proposing any laws, I’m just trying to get the theory down straight. We moderns often take it as an unquestioned premise that “I have the right to do what I want [with my money|body|life]” and I am absolutely questioning that.

Syllabus said...

that’s because regarding the original issue, I maintain that people who are dissatisfied with the (very) rich are by and large motivated by a moral judgement based on the labour performed by those individuals.

Sure, it might be. I think we still need to define the parameters of the moral system we're using. Is it a Christian one? If it is, then I think it's problematic to claim the majority of people who are making this claim are using a Christian system of ethics, since a large proportion of the people - at least, the prominent people - who are making this sort of argument are using no such system. Additionally, a claim that the price one person gets for their labour or some other commodity is somehow morally unjustifiable entails the claim that the system under which the price was obtained (in my example, the market system) is morally unjustifiable at the boundaries, which is an argument against it. So I don't think the two are neatly separable in the way you seem to wish them to be. Now, I could be misreading you on this point, but that's the reading I get.

I just said that merely because a given income happens to be legal or supported by the market value does not make it morally deserved.

Maybe not. But if that's true, then sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I see no way it would make it morally undeserved, either. Which is what seems to be entailed by your claim.

If you find $1000 lying on the sidewalk it may be legal for you to keep it (depends on your local laws), but you can hardly claim that you were owed that $1000. It may even be perfectly moral for you to keep it, just not in the sense that you were morally obligated to get paid that amount.

There's a very obvious disanalogy here, in that the fortuitous finding of $1000 is just that - luck, accidental. There's no exchange of services for goods here, so it's not an economic transaction. I fail to see why there's any sort of transitivity between the two scenarios. If I perform a certain service for someone for the price set by the relevant market forces, and the person has agreed to pay that price, I very much am morally and legally entitled to require them to pay that price, and they are morally obligated to pay it, unless they were under a sufficiently well-demonstrable quantity of duress. So I don't think your analogy is very successful.

We moderns often take it as an unquestioned premise that “I have the right to do what I want [with my money|body|life]” and I am absolutely questioning that.

Who ever said that there can't occasionally be a conflict between rights and obligations? (Well, besides Kant, but Kant was - to be blunt - wrong.) It's a question of moral predicates and their proper objects. Rights concern the proper and improper types of coercion which can be leveled against an individual by the state, his compatriots, and any individual or group thereof external to a given moral actor. Obligations concern the appropriate/inappropriate kinds of interaction the actor takes with his fellow man. To say that I have a moral right to autonomy (within, of course, the limits which govern all rights) because of my status as a human being is entirely consistent with saying that I have an obligation towards the people around me, because the two statements refer to different strata of society.

I'm assuming that the only moral rights we have are negative rights. Positive rights come from positive law, and positive law is either based on natural law, and therefore the rights therein are derived from more basic natural rights; or else completely fabricated and thus based on no basic attributes inherent in me by virtue of my being a human being.

Mr. Green said...

Syllabus: I think it's problematic to claim the majority of people who are making this claim are using a Christian system of ethics

I’d agree that they aren’t consciously or explicitly arguing from the perspective of Christian philosophy, but given the influence of Christianity on the West, most people will be working in a heavily Christian framework, whether they understand it or not. But I also think that the basic injustice of wealth that is not proportional to labour follows more broadly from natural law. (I think Christianity figures more importantly when we get to asking, “given that it’s unjust, what should we do about it?”).

Additionally, a claim that the price one person gets for their labour or some other commodity is somehow morally unjustifiable entails the claim that the system under which the price was obtained (in my example, the market system) is morally unjustifiable at the boundaries, which is an argument against it.

Maybe, but it’s not conclusive by itself. Finding money on the sidewalk is unjustified, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that finding money on the sidewalk is somehow immoral. Nor, obviously, does it follow that any and all market transactions are doomed to be unjust, apart from the morality of participating in such transactions. And wouldn’t you agree that there are indeed some market transactions that are immoral (for whatever reason)? There are a lot of different things going on here, and we have to be careful to tease them apart.

But if that's true, then sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I see no way it would make it morally undeserved, either. Which is what seems to be entailed by your claim.

Well, if it’s not deserved, then it’s undeserved, but I guess you mean that it doesn’t follow that it would be morally blameworthy… which it true, and I’m explicitly distinguishing between the two.

If I perform a certain service for someone for the price set by the relevant market forces, and the person has agreed to pay that price, I very much am morally and legally entitled to require them to pay that price, and they are morally obligated to pay it, unless they were under a sufficiently well-demonstrable quantity of duress.

Well, the legal requirement entails certain moral duties; and the fact that you both agreed carries certain weight too. But you note that this is not absolute — for example, given questions of duress. Or if you the goods you provide are of shoddy quality, then I may in fact not be bound to pay you the agreed-upon price. Since we already agree that market prices are not the whole story, someone would need to show that the injustices in question are not a problem. (And, to reinforce the point, even if they aren’t a problem, they’re still unjust.)

Who ever said that there can't occasionally be a conflict between rights and obligations?

All I meant is that some people would consider “It’s my money” to settle the whole thing conclusively, and of course it doesn’t. If it relevantly is your money, and you do have the right to do what you want with it, then both those claims will need to be defended, that’s all.