Is Inequality a Moral Ill, or Simply a Fact of Life? (Written 2012)

There are many forms of equality that must be considered, for example there is equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. These two do not usually result in the other’s occurrence, so one cannot want both to occur; they must be considered as two separate ideals. . Inequality must also be divided into inherent and constructed inequality. They should be assessed separately (although it is impossible to assess constructed inequalities without considering inherent ones) to decide whether they each are moral ills or facts of life. However it is also possible, if not right, to conclude that inequalities can be positive and should be embraced: they create a measure of success; encourage those weaker to strive to do better; and can also be used to tackle moral ills in society.

There are certain qualities of our nature that make us unequal, for example our genetic make up and our innate self-interest. These differences are not inequalities themselves as the process by which we obtain our genes is random and we have an equal chance of having ones that will prove useful to our environment; however inequalities happen as a result of their presence. With this being true while one may try to make the rewards given to people equal (equality of outcome) or their attributes uniform (equality of opportunity) it is impossible to ensure total equality simply because of our nature as human beings; we as individuals will always find a way to break this attempt at uniform. This is further propelled by our natural desire to act in our own interest. The family a child is born into determines the type of upbringing they will receive; another inequality that is out of that person’s (child’s) control. A positive upbringing in a wealthy family that provides them with endless opportunities (for example a premium education and suitable work experience) is a set up that is likely to allow the child to achieve a higher level of success in adult life than a child who is abused and whose parents cannot afford the top education. All these inequalities have the potential to translate to be morally wrong if nothing is done to ensure the people in the worst position aren’t helped. However essentially these are not moral ills as they are based on arbitrary factors that have not been caused by anyone; they are either in our nature or simply out of our control. Thus self-interest, individuality and varied quality of upbringing mean that our very nature and situation cause inherent inequalities. These are a fact of life in the sense that we are not able to remove them, however they have to potential to become morally wrong. Moreover they also have the potential to stop other forms of inequalities that are moral ills, therefore should be acknowledged and used positively to create a more morally just society.

John Rawls put forward a theory of distributive justice called the “veil of ignorance”. This stated what is just should be based on what a person would chose if they were signing a social contract while totally unaware of their situation (race, class, gender, talents, health etc). In addition he put forward the “Difference Principle”. This suggests that financial inequality is only just if those who are in higher salary work use their job to benefit those who are worse off. For example a person becoming a highly paid doctor is only justified if they help those who cannot afford health insurance. This theory takes into account people’s inherent inequalities: using them in an attempt to create a more morally just society. The use the ‘Difference Principle’ would create a more morally just society as not only would the talented be exploiting their talents, but also those who would potentially suffer from this situation are now benefitting from it. Thus this principle links inherent and constructed inequalities. While inherent inequalities are entrenched in human nature, constructed inequalities are often negative results our nature. This theory would also create social capital; a network of relations and support within society. This contributes to the creation of a civil society, which in turn would reduce the number of other immoral acts performed (for example murder). Thus in theory Rawls’ idea of the difference principle recognises that inherent inequalities (our talents) could be used to reduce the degree of constructed inequalities (availability of services); it would allow people to use their inherent inequalities in a positive way. This shows that inequalities are not all simply a fact of life and that they are also not a moral ill. They can have a positive as well as negative effect on society.

While Rawls’ theories would benefit society in a perfect world, there will always be those who are greedy and find a way of making money without helping others. Furthermore his theories do not take into account those who receive a good upbringing and talents that are useful for their environment. If Rawls’ theory was put into practise there would be no aspiration to do better and would make it difficult to measure success or good qualities: in perfect conditions everyone would constantly be in a uniform social position. It would therefore leave society unable to progress or excel. To allow people to excel they must be able to achieve by themselves, and not simply be supported by those better off in society. This is where the State is necessary. People have to have rights and liberties to ensure they are able to succeed, and stop them from being persecuted by the majority or the most advantaged. An example of this is the freedom of movement. A person’s talents may not be needed in their birthplace, however they may have an advantage in another state. It is morally wrong to confine them to their birthplace, where they will not be able to benefit from society’s resources or requirements. Furthermore they will become a burden to society, as they will be in constant need of support, whereas in the other state they will be able to positively contribute to that society. Thus immoral inequalities occur when citizens’ rights and liberties are limited. These are constructed, not inherent, and should be tackled.

A corrupt government will reduce the liberties of a citizen, as well as restrict their rights. This means that Locke’s theory that we abide by rules as we give ‘tacit consent’ due to benefitting from what the state provides cannot be true in the case of corrupt government; a citizen may not benefit from the state, but may in fact suffer under it, yet they are forced to abide by the law of that state.  These inequalities that arise from a corrupt government’s actions are constructed. They are morally wrong as they occur due to something consciously inhibiting the citizen from using their talents or even surviving. Thus it is possible for an inequality to be a moral ill due to them being within man’s control. If they have become out of man’s control it is still possible to say they are a moral ill as they were created by man.

An example of constructed inequalities being a moral ill is Stalin’s use of terror. He organised it and created it, however many argue that by 1941 (when the USSR entered the Second World War) the terror was out of Stalin’s control. However the inequalities his regime caused could not be called a fact of life.  From this is it possible to conclude that a stable, functioning government that upholds its citizens’ liberties is essential to ensure the significance of constructed inequalities are reduced and inherent inequalities can be used to a person’s advantage.

To achieve equality discrimination must occur. For example to achieve equality of opportunity there must be positive discrimination to ensure those less able have an equal chance of succeeding in a particular area. It may in fact create more immorality if the talented are restricted as the quality of work will decrease, leaving everyone with poorer services. Moreover if those who are not of sound mind or do not have good intentions are given an equal chance of having a high level of influence, for example in governing a country, they may cause corruption (and in turn morally wrong constructed inequalities) in their favour. This suggests that it is less morally wrong in reality to use our inherent inequalities to create a more just society than to use discrimination to achieve equality; once again showing that inequalities that we possess due to our nature as human beings are not morally wrong.

Aristotle said that because there is always a form of discrimination equality is not about eliminating discrimination, but deciding which forms are just. He said that to determine this one must identify the ‘telos’ (purpose) of something. An example that Michael Sandel uses in his book: Justice is a person’s acceptance to university. To see whether it is just that one person with higher grades receives an offer, when someone else does not, one must look at the purpose of that university. If it is there simply to give top qualifications to intellectuals then this discrimination is justified. Aristotle also put forward a theory called the “fit model”. This states that everyone should be allocated a job according to his or her talents and nature. This takes into account their telos. Furthermore from it a natural hierarchy occurs; a hierarchy that is necessary to not only allow people to thrive in a specific field, but help others too. For example babysitters are needed to the same degree as politicians because for the politician to be successful (if the politician is female especially), they need help looking after other aspects of their life, in this case their children. Thus with this hierarchy inherent inequalities can be used positively. In a perfect world this would also mean that constructed inequalities were used positively too as placing someone in a particular profession would benefit them and society, not harm them.

While Aristotle’s theory would create a society where inequalities were a positive thing and also used to stop moral ills, like Rawls’ idea of the Difference Principle, it would not work well in reality. This is because people have aspirations to work in areas where their greatest talents are not present. Furthermore pride and self –interest may lead to a person not accepting their given position in society; wanting a higher level of influence or status. Moreover this theory may lead to some justifying slavery, or alternatively if someone felt their telos was to be a suicide bomber it would cause problems. Therefore in reality this is potentially a dangerous theory because of people’s desire to achieve higher, in a particular field, than their talents allow and the lack of good intentions present in some of society.

An inherent inequality discussed previously was self-interest. Expanding on that we have a natural desire to help our own kind. This may be seen as a morally ill inequality due to the unfair distribution of wealth and resources around the world, however it is out of man’s control. In perfect conditions loyalty to one’s own does not create moral ills because if everyone helps their own then no one is abandoned. It is also not morally wrong when a country intervenes in one state to help its citizens, but not others. This is because it is not directly harming other states, simply helping one to a larger extent. However problems occur when a state does not, or cannot (due to lack of resources), help their own. Inequality of resource distribution around the world is largely out of our control; people should act against it, but not before helping one’s own, as it is often hard to help others without a large degree of understanding of how their state and culture work. Moreover if a state were to invest in helping others before its own and failed, it would result in two impoverished states, instead of one.  Lastly a person being strongly compelled to help their own is a much more positive thing than the equal alternative: to be impartial to all. As Michael Sandel said in his book, Justice“a politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life”. Thus the inequality caused by our inherent desire to be loyal to our own and help them rather than others is not a moral ill unless, in the process of helping our own, others’ rights and liberties are violated.

The idea of a just society being created and maintained by its citizens having an active desire to uphold a concern for everyone within it is undermined when the gap between the rich and poor is extended beyond a certain point. This is because a difference in wealth leads to a difference in lifestyle. When this is enhanced past a certain point, the differences are entrenched so much so that inequalities occur. These inequalities are not a fact of life as they are constructed as a result of financial awards. Michael Sandel put an example of this forward. He said that when a group in society earns enough money to buy cars they stop using public transport. As a result they spend less money on tickets so there is less money going towards public transport. The budget then gets cut and the state is no longer able to uphold a good service. However there is still a group in society that is too poor to afford a car. This leads to two sections of society having completely different lifestyles and they will eventually not relate to one another through lack of integration. Although it could be argued the unequal rewards are ultimately a result of the intrinsic talents a person possesses from their genes being what was needed to achieve their position, this form of inequality is constructed by society and the opportunities that it provides adults; thus is not an inherent inequality, but over time can create the intrinsic inequality of upbringing as the rich and poor’s children will be brought up with different opportunities. The parents’ position in society is a constructed inequality, but the child’s is not. Sandel’s example is a moral ill because its cause is not arbitrary. The state should be used here to ensure inherent inequalities like this example do not cause constructed inequalities of this degree; however a society must not become dependent on the state as this may put them in a vulnerable position is corruption was to occur.  Thus the constructed inequality that can arise from loyalty to one’s own can be a moral ill and is not simply a fact of life. It should therefore be monitored and kept under control.

Although loyalty to our own kind can be used positively, instead of to be or to cause a moral ill, it can also lead to a hyper sense of a person’s rights. This would occur if someone who was not one of their own were to receive something they did not, leading to a false sense of what is morally wrong. It may seem unfair that someone from abroad received a place at the top university, leaving one of its natives without a place, but this is not a moral ill. This example goes back to Aristotle’s theory of determining if something is just by considering its ‘telos’.  When considering the right to life there is a difference between protection against being murdered and being cured of cancer; being cured of cancer is not a right as not everyone has access to it. If a person is not treated for cancer it is not necessarily a moral ill, as that treatment is an additional benefit of living in that particular society. In contrast every state in the world has the ability to endeavour to protect their citizens from murder and it is only a corrupt government that will deny their citizens this. Therefore state intervention is necessary to ensure that people’s liberties true rights are upheld, however too much state intervention may lead to a complacent society that depends on services or law enforcements that are not really ‘rights’; this is an unsustainable style of government that will not be successful, which can be seen now with the realisation of the UK government that the NHS is unsustainable. Thus this shows why some may perceive more inequalities to be a moral ill than is the case.

In conclusion inherent inequalities are irremovable and affect every aspect of life. These inequalities are not moral ills in themselves as they are not within the control of man; they are morally arbitrary. Having said this these inequalities may cause morally ills, for example self-interest causing someone to murder others to achieve what they want. In reality events like this occur. Constructed inequalities are usually, especially in reality, moral ills. In the case of murder it would be morally wrong if certain members of society were to receive a more serious sentence than others. The state must be used to allow its citizens to achieve themselves and to guide society to create social capital. When the conditions in a society are correct (i.e. an incorrupt state) the use of inherent inequalities should be encouraged as a way to eliminate moral ills. They should not be accepted as a fact of life as even though there may be nothing we can do to stop their presence, we can use them to create a strong civil society. In a perfect world this would be possible using Aristotle’s theory of the “fit model”, however human nature does not always work like that, therefore people would not always accept their given profession or telos. The fact that there is always a level of corruption within society also means that Rawls’ Difference Principle would not work either. As a result of this corruption it is much more effective to use inherent inequalities as a protection against moral ills that exist than to attempt to make everyone in society equal. Aspiring to perfect equality in society may be more of a moral ill because it stops the most talented from helping those less able. Thus it is not inherent inequalities that are a moral ill (while constructed ones may be), but the effects of attempting to ignore or eradicate them. Inequalities are neither a moral ill nor simply a fact of life; they are an ever-present part of human nature that should be nurtured to create the most civil society possible.

Is Inequality a Moral Ill, or Simply a Fact of Life? (Written 2012)

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