Ethical Inquiry: the moral boundaries of income inequality

ethical inquiry adYesterday, the Philosophy DUG held its latest Ethical Inquiry, an exploration into the moral boundaries of income inequality. As a first time attendee with a minimal background in political philosophy, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into Wilson 101 at noon. Luckily, the presenters outlined the main points of the discussion in layman’s terms, so, soon enough, I was knee-deep in a discussion I would’ve otherwise misunderstood.

The inquiry commenced with a short overview of three major theories regarding income distribution. The first, conceived by philosopher John Rawls, argued that under a veil of ignorance, or a perspective where all society members are stripped of their qualities, most rational people would argue to organize income distribution to benefit the worst-off. In other words, if people are detached from knowing their outcomes in life, they will opt for income inequalities to be skewed to benefit the poorest in fear that they might end up falling under that label. Furthermore, Rawls argued that everyone’s talents are randomly assigned and that people should not be rewarded more for traits that were given to them by chance; this interpretation of one’s moral desert coincided with and helped bolster his sentiments toward income distribution through a veil of ignorance.

On the other hand, Robert Nozick (another philosopher), disagreed with Rawls’s arguments. Nozick organized his arguments around the concept of just exchange. His main point was that income distribution should not be altered, so long as the distribution stems from individual, fair exchanges. He also disagreed with Rawls’s moral desert approach for failing to acknowledge peoples’ rights to make autonomous choices based on their talents, whether they are arbitrarily assigned or not.

The final philosopher, Thomas Paine, argued for a sort of middle ground. Paine felt that if all humans have the claim to obtain necessary resources in a state of nature, then when society grows, members should maintain that right. Therefore, in order to preserve those natural rights, Paine suggested a minimal level of welfare for all members of society.

After the three philosophers were introduced, the inquiry opened up into a discussion centered on the following questions:

  1. Can a society reach a level of inequality that violates moral principles, like justice or fairness?
  2. If so, what methods are morally permissible to address that inequality?
  3. Which of the three philosophers, if any, provides a morally sound theory?
  4. Which of the three philosophers, if any, provides a practical, feasible theory?

Most participants disagreed with Rawls’s theories, suggesting that the veil of ignorance could not easily translate to real life. Several students illustrated a potential flaw with Rawls’s proposed income distribution: even if the poorest members of a society are marginally better-off,  there can still be vast gaps between upper and lower classes. Under this scenario, the issue of power dynamics comes into play; if there’s a large wealth disparity between the rich and the poor, then there also accompanies an external disparity in purchasing power and political influence.

Furthermore, some students discussed the difference between income and opportunity. Several mentioned how a capitalist society like America is more concerned with preserving equality of opportunity. However, at a certain point, income begins to influence opportunity. One participant proposed analyzing the poorest members of society through the lens of their economic, political, and social capabilities. In this case, income distribution should be organized so that the opportunities of the poorest society members are raised to higher standards.

As the discussion of income inequality began to transition to real life, one student devised a thought experiment in which a group of students were given a random test by Christina Paxson. In the experiment, students would individually take the test. Before beginning, they would be given the option of averaging all the grades together or being graded individually. In the case of the former, if the average was above a certain grade, the whole group would pass; in the case of the latter, each individual would either pass or fail. The former option is analogous to Rawls’s theory, so the student posed the question of which option the group would be more likely to take. While this question remained unanswered, it translated Rawls’s argument to a more realistic situation, which allowed for it to be more easily understood and evaluated.

The inquiry concluded with a brief exploration of possible practical solutions to issues of income inequality. One student argued for policy to help prevent cyclical poverty–for laws to consider how financial reality influences opportunity, and for economic policies to prevent the worst-off from suffering in terms of their economic, social, and political abilities. However, time quickly ran out, so there was not much evaluation of the proposition and other alternatives.

All in all, this week’s Ethical Inquiry provided an interesting glimpse of the moral issues that accompany income inequality. While the group was unable to arrive at a unified solution (as expected), the presentation and accompanying dialogue provided many different perspectives of how to approach income distribution from a moral perspective.

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