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Three Views of Inequality
Different philosophical traditions have very different takes on the issue of inequality. What follows are a few summaries and thought experiments, to go along with the first installment of our series of shows looking at different aspects of inequality.
The Greatest Good for All Individuals
Utilitarianism is an ethic-based theory that argues one's conduct and action should be the one that ensures the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of individuals.
Thought experiment: If you were walking down the street and saw a small child drowning in a shallow pond, what would you do? Philosopher Peter Singer argues it would be morally wrong to not save the child. And if you agree, Singer believes it does not make a difference whether the child is drowning in a shallow pond is in your neighborhood or starving in Africa. In other words, if you have the ability to save a life — whether that life is in Oregon or Africa — you have a moral obligation to do so. In regards to our society, Utilitarian thought would argue that it is immoral to spend $200 dollars on an iPod, a non-necessary comfort, instead of an aid-organization that provides food and shelter to those in need.
Protecting the Minority
Justice is Fairness is composed of two main principles. The first is that everyone has equal claim to full liberties. The second principle is that the only social inequalities exist under two conditions:
First, if there is an unequal power attached to positions and offices it must be open to anyone, under any condition.
Second, if these inequalities exist they should be of greatest benefit to the most disadvantaged members in society.
Thought experiment: John Rawls's “veil of ignorance” posits people coming together to determine the laws of a society, as representatives of real citizens. These representatives, though, don’t know the race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, wealth, natural abilities, etc, of the citizens they will represent. These representatives have to determine the principles of justice that should order the political structures of that society, in order to ensure the fairest system for all. Broadly, under this veil a representative doesn’t know whether she represents an ultra powerful banker or a mentally challenged homeless person. It’s an argument that a truly fair society can only be achieved if self-interest is removed from the determination of the principles of justice.
The Power of the Individual
Libertarianism argues that individuals are born with equal rights, and any attempt to redistribute resources or property or social rights is a violation of their freedom. It asserts that equality is opposition to freedom.
Thought experiment: Two women have extra time in their day. One spends that time working overtime so she can buy a concert ticket, the other spends that time on leisure (cycling the promenade). Now, if the government were to tell the second woman that she could not go cycling in her free time, but had to work, that would be an infringement on her rights. Philosopher Robert Nozick then questions, what is the difference between seizing the second woman's leisure and the first's goods? Or, if the government is not allowed to tell an individual what to do in their free time, how can it tell her what to do with the money she earned in her free time?