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.

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Ethical Inquiry: The Ethics of Job Choice


At around noon every Thursday, the smell of curry and steaming plates of rice wafts out of Wilson 101. While Kabob and Curry may be the incentive for some, in reality, most come for the discussion–vibrant, student-led, philosophical, discursive and oh-so-very Brown. The room was tightly packed with newcomers and regulars alike. I arrived at 12:05 and much to my chagrin, there was a dearth of Kabob and Curry. A regular told me, “You gotta get here at 11:50 for that.”

“Ethical Inquiries” are hosted weekly by the Philosophy DUG on a wide variety of topics, including the ethics of hip-hop discussion last month. This week’s topic hit particularly close to home, especially for juniors and seniors who are all attempting to escape the inevitable question, “what are you going to do post-grad?”

The discussion aimed to ask slightly more (but only slightly) unanswerable questions:

1. What ethical considerations should there be when choosing a career?

2. Do we have a duty to leave the world better than (or as good as) it was when we entered it?

3. What does our choice of career say about our idea of the ‘good life’?

After a short introduction by members of the Philosophy DUG, we were off. The discussion began in a typical liberal arts fashion, with a member of the group answering question #2 with a decisive, “Locke would say, yes, we do,” citing his belief that while you can take some things and claim them as private property, you cannot take so much that would prohibit access to those same things for others.

The commenter also invoked notions of intergenerational justice, the idea that if you are to act rationally, you need to leave the world a better place than it was when you found it because you would want the same done to you. In other words, it’s the golden rule–on a macroscopic level.

But Locke’s credentials for making moral rules–and their application to employment ethics–were quickly contested when someone pointed out that “Locke was also a slave trader.” It was the first acknowledgement of what was to become the ultimate dilemma identified throughout the conversation: lofty ideals vs. practicality and one’s actions.

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