Yesterday, 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.