Is Inequality Immoral?
Equality is ethical when it is required for people to meet their vital needs.
Posted May 14, 2018
Inequality with respect to income and wealth is rapidly increasing around the world, according to many studies. One percent of the world's population owns half its wealth, and the richest get increasing amounts of gains from economic growth. The gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically over the last few decades within particular countries such as the USA and Canada, and also across countries with extremes of wealth and poverty such as the USA and the Congo.
But is there anything morally wrong with the discrepancy between rich and poor? According to some right-wing ideologies, inequality is perfectly natural. Tinkering with it would illicitly interfere with people's freedom. In opposition, left-wing ideologies insist that inequality is fundamentally unjust, and governments have an obligation to ensure that all people are equal with respect to what is required to lead a successful human life.
Here is an argument intended to show that equality is not the fundamental moral value that many people think it is. Inequality is natural, because people vary with respect to biological features such as height, strength, energy, and intelligence. There is no way to level people down to the same abilities, so we should expect that some people will be more successful in accumulating wealth. Interfering with this accumulation will infringe on people's rights to fundamental freedoms that include freedom from harm and the right to property. Inequality matters only for a narrow set of rights, such as free speech, equal opportunity, and equality in legal treatment. History shows that restricting such freedoms with the aim of a more equal distribution of wealth produces totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union. Moreover, such controlled societies have a dismal record of achieving the kind of economic growth that benefits everyone: a rising tide lifts all boats. Such arguments can be found in Letwin (1983).
There are many flaws in this line of reasoning. Opposition to inequality does not suppose that people are perfectly equal in all respects such as physical abilities. Equality does not demand complete leveling of income and wealth, only that all people have sufficient resources to ensure that their basic human needs are met. Countries such as Sweden and Canada have developed social programs like national health systems that help to meet human needs while maintaining high levels of freedom. Hence freedom and equality are not incompatible, and a reasonable balance can be achieved without undue coercion. But an argument is still needed for why inequality is morally wrong and should therefore be reduced by government activities such as taxing the rich. Here are four reasons why inequality is bad.
Reasons For Wanting Equality
First, inequality with respect to income and wealth undercuts equality of opportunity, which depends heavily on access to education. Poor people tend to have much worse access to educational resources, because they live in worse neighborhoods with worse schools. One of the reasons that the United States has less upward social mobility than other wealthy countries is that university education is much more expensive. So even with respect to what is supposedly a narrow right to equality of opportunity, income inequality is a serious concern.
Second, equality before the law is severely challenged when people do not have access to good legal representation. Wealthy people can hire expensive lawyers to ensure that they are more likely to benefit than lose when dealing with the legal system.
Third, people need good health in order to function fully as human beings, and the negative impact of inequality on health has been well documented (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2015). The impact of inequality is partly that poor people often cannot afford medical treatments. In addition, people who are low in social hierarchies tend to have less control over their lives, which leads to more stress and resulting diseases and unhealthy behaviors.
Fourth, inequality leads to bad social effects such as increased crime, lack of social cohesion, and lack of trust. Numerous international comparisons find a strong correlation between equality and positive aspects of society such as happiness and human development (Atkinson, 2015; Milanovic, 2010; Wilkinson and Picket, 2010). Inequality between countries contributes to illegal immigration, which is stressful both for the immigrants and for citizens whose precarious financial states are threatened by low-price immigrant labor.
Equality and the Satisfaction of Vital Needs
Walzer (1983) and other writers have maintained that equality should be measured with respect to the satisfaction of needs, but what are needs? Needs are much more fundamental than wants, because people may acquire a wide range of trivial desires because of individual quirks and social influences. For example, people may say that they need a smartphone, but their lives can function well without one. In contrast, biological needs are crucial for supporting life, for example food, water, shelter, oxygen, and healthcare. Are there also psychological needs?
Yes. A theoretically strong and evidence-based account of psychological needs has been developed by clinical psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2017). They use stringent criteria for deciding what should count as a basic psychological need.
First, a candidate factor should be strongly positively associated with psychological integrity, health and well-being, while its frustration is negatively associated with health and well-being. Second, a need must come with specific experiences and behaviors that lead to human well-being, in contrast with vague ideas like Maslow's self-actualization. Third, hypothesizing a need should serve to explain or interpret experimental phenomena concerning work and personal attachments. Fourth, psychological needs differ from biological needs in that they are connected with the growth of an individual, not just with drives to prevent deficits. Fifth, needs are causal variables that when satisfied lead to positive outcomes and when thwarted lead to negative outcomes such as illness. Six, basic psychological needs are ones that operate universally, across thousands of human cultures. Together, these six criteria serve to distinguish basic psychological needs from whimsical wants.
Ryan and Deci use these criteria to support claims for the existence of three fundamental psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Autonomy is the need to self-regulate one's own experiences and actions. This need supports various freedoms and human rights, because people suffer without the ability to control much of their own lives. Without sufficient financial resources, people cannot choose how to run their own lives. Lack of income may force people to work for poor wages under dangerous conditions.
However, the right to freedom is limited because other people also have a right to freedom, and because people have other needs besides autonomy.
The need for relatedness concerns feeling socially connected, including belonging to a social group, being cared for by others, and being treated as significant. Relatedness supports rights concerning being able to associate with various groups and being taken seriously rather than suffer discrimination because of sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Lack of money can diminish satisfaction of the need for relatedness, when it leads to stresses on individuals that make sustenance of good relationships difficult. For example, families suffer when parents lack sufficient income to look after their themselves and their children.
The third basic need is competence, which covers people's needs to feel effectiveness, mastery, and effective operation within their important life contexts. People need to be able to strive and achieve. Competence is thwarted when challenges are too difficult or when feelings of mastery are diminished by excessive criticism. If people are unequal with respect to the satisfaction of the basic need for competence, then they cannot develop fully as human beings. Rigid social hierarchies in income and wealth make people highly insecure in their work relationships, preventing them from gaining the benefits of the achievements that signal competence. When inequality leads to substantial unemployment, people suffer from both the lack of money and the lack of work achievement.
So it is wrong to have societies that interfere with satisfaction of needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
A critic might respond: Why should I care about the needs of other people? The short answer is because you are not a psychopath and are capable of empathic caring for people besides yourself. A fuller answer is in Thagard (2018).
There are many social initiatives that deal with these negative effects of inequality on needs satisfaction. Taxes on income and wealth can be used to reduce the huge gaps between rich and poor, and to support social programs that ensure that all people have the means of meeting their biological and psychological needs. The goal is not to make the rich have less money to spend on their wants, but rather to guarantee the well-being of people on the lower rungs of society who need help with food, shelter, and healthcare, as well as with autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
One innovative way of lessening equality is to use taxes to provide all members of the society with a basic income, which ensures that people can take care of their vital biological needs without bureaucratic tests and interference. Pilot projects are now underway in Canada and other countries. Support for such programs comes not only from the left, but sometimes also from conservatives who see basic income as a more efficient and less controlling alternative to traditional welfare operations.
A more established way to overcome inequality, social as well as economic, is to institute laws that prohibit discrimination based on factors such as sex, religion, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. In 2017, the Canadian Parliament amended laws to extend rights and freedoms to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Laws against such mistreatments are morally justified because discrimination prevents people from satisfying their needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
In sum, inequality is morally wrong when it prevents people from satisfying their basic needs, both biological and psychological.
Atkinson, A. B. (2015). Inequality: What can be done? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Letwin, W. (Ed.) (1983). Against equality. London: Macmillan.
Milanovic, B. (2010). The haves and the have-nots: A brief and idiosyncratic history of global inequality. New York: Basic books.
Pickett, K. E., & Wilkinson, R. G. (2015). Income inequality and health: A causal review. Social Science & Medicine, 128, 316-326.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford.
Thagard, P. (2018, fall). Natural philosophy: From social brains to knowledge, reality, morality, and beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Penguin.