Ashleigh McHenry’s Philosophy Essay

NCH London | July 26, 2019

What kinds of inequality, if any, are unjust?

Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights or opportunity, and as inequality is a lack of that, the person facing inequality is disadvantaged in some way in comparison to others. There are many ways in which this disadvantage can be expressed, the most common of which are Social and Economic inequality. Social inequality is an unequal distribution of opportunity and rewards amongst social positions, referring to gender, race, class, etc. Economic refers to three main subsection of inequality; income, pay, and wealth, and refers to the uneven distribution of these among a group of people. However, these two types cannot be so easily separated. It can easily be argued that there is a cycle of inequality; the way people behave and discriminate in society cause the unequal distribution of opportunity, which in turn impacts levels of economic distribution. The uneven distribution of income, for example, then leads to disadvantaged living, as they cannot provide themselves or their children with the opportunities others can, meaning their children face the same inequality. Because of these links, whether these types of inequalities are unjust would be difficult to analyse separately. Therefore, it would be more accurate to contemplate different methods of justice, and whether or not these inequalities have a place in a just state.

When considering inequalities, it is important to understand that most of them regard how things are distributed, whether that is income or opportunity. Because of this, it is best to use distributive justice. One of these methods is Justice as equality, which states that everyone should receive exactly the same amount of everything that is distributed. This would not allow for inequality in a just system because all things, including both income and opportunities would be evenly distributed to all members of the society. This however doesn’t take into account that some may need more than others, or that individual people have differing wants and needs. To contextualise this, this form of justice lends itself to a communist society, where the authority distributes all resources solely by number of people, no other extenuating circumstances. While this does classify all inequalities as unjust by strict definition, it has issues for any practical application that questions its face value claim of justice. It does eliminate inequality caused by aspects like gender and race, but there is one main problem: not everybody has the same needs. In an instance where this system was applied, people with disabilities for example would be put at a major disadvantage to the rest of the population, as they would be forced to use more of their distributed share in basic living, and would make everyday life harder for them than it is others. This system then, while classifying most inequalities as unjust, is bias against anyone who needs more than others, meaning it allows for this discrimination, and therefore inequality to be just. Furthermore, if this system was implemented onto a society as is, then the pre-existing inequalities would become just, as even though they would not be allowed to continue growing, they would still exist. There would be economic inequality namely, as unless pre-existing wealth was removed before justice as equality began, the people who benefit for this current inequality could have a higher starting point then others. Therefore, in theory this system classifies all inequalities as unjust, but would do little to prevent them if applied.

Need-based justice argues that not everyone should get exactly the same, but instead that everything should be distributed by need. Those with more specific needs than others are distributed what they need to deal with those needs, meaning that people at a disadvantage because of inequality are given what would be needed to correct it. Those who aren’t born into privilege in this system would be given an unequal distribution of income and opportunities to match that which others would naturally get in our current society on account of this privilege. This system is often about correcting existing inequalities, so is comparable to a socialist society in that way, as it would work towards dismantling a class system and making up for the pre-existing inequality by unequally distribution. As it would work towards correcting inequalities present, it can be concluded that going by this system means that any inequalities are unjust. A form of need based justice was presented by political philosopher Rawls, who argued justice as fairness which puts emphasis on the idea of correcting for the inequalities present in the world. He used the thought experiment the veil of ignorance to argue that natural inequalities exist in the world, and since you cannot choose the circumstances you are born into, any unequal distribution should benefit those
that are least well off in society in order to level the playing field.

This was countered by Nozick, who said that this wasn’t a fair assessment of the world, because there is little reason why the people who have more because of hard work or natural luck should not benefit from this, and why they should get less than others. This idea is an example of the  other type of distributive justice, merit-based. This form is centred around the idea that we should distribute everything based on how hard someone works. While at face value, this seems to rule inequalities as obsolete, because everything is based on hard work. However, this form is particularly susceptible to loop holes that allow inequality. This is best equated to a capitalist society, as it would reiterate a class system, as it would be almost impossible to qualify hard work, especially with the state of the world as is, and not have the distribution swayed by incorrect assumptions. In theory though, this form of justice rules inequality as unjust, and is not indefensible.

Nozick supported this form of justice because he believed that we shouldn’t have to work towards evening an uneven playing field as we’re entitled to the things we have, nothing more and nothing less. This brings forth the idea of negative and positive right, and how they apply to his theory. If something is a negative right, then people can’t stop you from getting what you need, but they are under no obligation to help them, like a job promotion for example, while a positive right is something you are entitled to as well as entitled to help getting it if you cannot get it for yourself, like medical care. While under a need based justice system, both of these make sense for theoretical application, merit based distribution argues that with positive rights, it becomes someone else’s duty to help you. It raises the question as to why we have a duty to answer others demands. This, then begs the question of why we have a duty to provide more to those who have less, to those who face inequality. Some would argue however that we have this duty as a society because of the reasoning behind the inequality in the first place. Economic inequality for example is influenced highly by position is society, which is undeniably linked to gender, race, ethnicity, and other such factors for a variety of reasons. This economic inequality then goes onto increase social inequality, which then means that their children are suck in the same position. The way people behave in perpetuating this cycle of inequality impacts the opportunities and wealth that individuals can generate themselves, meaning that because we are the cause of the unequal distribution, and that it does not occur naturally or through moral luck, then it is our duty to correct this, meaning that a need-based system of distribution would be most humanely applicable.

To conclude, when theoretically analysed, every system of distributive justice classifies inequality as unjust, it is only when you consider the real-life application that holes in these theories logic start to appear. The objectively fairest theory of distributive justice is justice as equality, because it distributes all things equally between everyone. This however is not truly fair to those who work harder than others, which suggest that merit based would be a better system of distribution. This too has its problems as despite the overarching goal, its vagueness allows for stereotypes to increase existing inequality by not defining hard work. This then leads to the conclusion that the best way to achieve fairness would be a need-based system of distribution, as humanity is the reasoning behind the unfair distribution, so it is our duty to even the playing field for those we have put at a disadvantage. This then means that the only fair, logical, or humane conclusion to draw from these methods of justice and their applications is that inequality in any form is undoubtedly unjust.

Ashleigh McHenry

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