Monday, June 27, 2005

Against Egalitarianism

I want to build on my earlier post about equality and priority. I suggested there that the "Levelling-Down Objection" is a decisive refutation of telic egalitarianism. There is nothing good about bringing the welfare of the best-off down to the same low level as the worst-off. But some egalitarians bite the bullet here. They say that there is something intrinsically better about the more equal situation (even if this is far outweighed by the massive harm done in terms of utility). So I now want to explore a second argument against such egalitarians, based on the importance of one's absolute level of welfare, and the irrelevance of relative/comparative welfare.

Note that both theories claim that it is more important to help the worst off. But they hold this for different reasons. The egalitarian is concerned with people's relative welfare: it is important to help Ben because of his comparative disadvantage to Alan. If Alan did not exist, we would no longer have this reason to help Ben. This view is not plausible. As the prioritist argues, what really matters is Ben's absolute level of welfare: we should help him because he is in need. His level of need is unaffected by Alan, the importance of helping him is unaffected by whether or not Alan exists.

Here's a thought-experiment to make the difference clear. Suppose that a charity works (successfully) to help the homeless and disadvantaged people within a society. We would think this was a valuable endeavour: it made the world a better place. Now suppose that another continent has just been discovered, and it contains many suffering people who are even worse-off than the homeless in our society. Here's the question: does the existence of these people make the charitable work done any less valuable? Would it have been more valuable had those others never existed after all?

Surely the answer is "no". The value of helping those in need is not affected by how they compare to others. Perhaps helping the others would be even more valuable, and hence more important, but that does not diminish the value of the former help. There is a difference between outweighing another value and diminishing it. Egalitarianism, by claiming that relative welfare is what matters, entails that the value of charity can be diminished (and not merely outweighed) by the existence of even worse-off people. This is absurd. What matters is our non-relative level of welfare. Whether others are better off or worse makes no difference to how well-off I am, nor to how valuable a benefit to my wellbeing would be. We should reject telic egalitarianism.


  1. I like your conclusion, Richard, but I'm not sure I think your thought experiment is compelling. In fact, even as an absolute well-being kind of guy, I'm willing to recognize that the discovery of the far-off worse-off people *does* decrease the value of whatever I've been doing that's been making my people happy -- maybe the net goodness would have been better if I'd been focusing my energy on those who need it more.

  2. Hmm... I think you're conflating "value" with "importance". Note the contrast I drew between diminishing the value of an action as compared to outweighing it (where outweighing a value might be understood as diminishing its relative importance).

    Like I wrote in the main post:
    "Perhaps helping the others would be even more valuable, and hence more important, but that does not diminish the value of the former help."

    You wrote: "maybe the net goodness would have been better if I'd been focusing my energy on those who need it more."

    Are you suggesting anything different from what I say in the passage above?

  3. Let's add some numbers. The homeless charity improves the value of the world from 100 to 110, say.

    Now, the suffering people are pretty badly off - without them, the world would be 50 units more valuable.

    Now, as I see it, without them the charity would have improved the world from 150 to 160. It's the same increase in value. The existence of a third party doesn't change this.

    Note that if we helped the others instead, we might bring them up from -50 to a neutral level of wellbeing. So that would improve the world from 100 to 150. That's clearly a bigger, and more important, difference than what the charity really did. It outweighs their 10-point difference. But it does not diminish it. It does not make their improvement less than 10 points.

  4. Come to think of it, my example probably would be more intuitively compelling if it went the other way.

    Imagine everyone in our society is equally badly-off, but the charity group managed to bring about a moderate benefit to us all.

    Next, suppose we discover a new continent full of happy, flourishing people. Does that affect the value of the previous charity work? The egalitarian says the charity work is now more valuable than it would have been if the other continent never existed. After all, we have not only made people better off, we have also (slightly) remedied an inequality!

    But clearly this is silly. As with the Alan and Ben example, the importance of helping the needy is not affected by the existence of others who are comparatively better off. The benefits to our poor society would be no less valuable if the flourishing continent had never existed.

    Okay. I'm using that as my example from now on :)

  5. I like your idea of using numbers Richard, what if we used wages as a way of assigning numerical value to poverty.

    Say People living on $1 a day are poor and struggle to survive
    People living on $20 a day are sustainable
    People living on $100 a day are rich and quite well off.

    Now suppose there is a country of people living on a $1 a day (Country A) but there is also a country of $100 a day earners (Country B) that donate $29 a day per each of the citizens of Country A bringing their wage up to $30 a day and reducing their own wage to $71 a day.

    For the sake of simplicity suppose that the value of the money is equivalent and that the disparity in wealth is solely due to the amount of natural resources that happen to be in each country.

    Now we discover Country C, people who are on 5 cents ($0.05) a day. Is the financial benefit to Country A modified in any way? Not at all, they still go from $1 to $20. But has the value of that donation changed? Yes I think it has.

    I have set up an objective standard of welfare in the sense that the citizens of Country A are poor whether Country B exists or not. However the value of helping the particular poor people of Country A diminishes with the discovery that there are people who are in far more need of welfare.

    On $30 a day the people of Country A are living on $10 a day more than they need to sustain themselves and Country B citizens are living on $51 a day more than they need to sustain themselves.

  6. According to your argument an egalitarian would suggest that it would be better if everyone was around the $33 mark.

    If we accept the wholly arbitrary nature of the distribution of resources in this example then that is probably right wouldn't you think?

  7. You cant donate money with out creatin or destroying wealth.
    Few (although i guess some) would argue that giving money to the poor is a bad thing because generally speaking the poor benefit mroe from a dollar than the rich (there is an exception in that if lets say your .05c a day population was donated 10 c this may be wasted money if they will die i nthe same way anyway on .15 c a day).
    the moral questio narises in general when you donate money and that welth is destroyed so that you significantly lower yourself and possibly the whole system in order to have a very small rise in their position.

    An extreme (but somewhat typical in its nature) example might be to take all the money/assets in NZ and redistribute it evenly today. it might help the poor and even the playing field - but it may well cause our system to collapse costing society as a whole.

    In the long term if you keep making decisions that shrink the pie but share it out more evenly your pie will tend towards zero. the potential to do this is VERY common issue faced by government.

  8. Illusive Mind, I don't think your example is helpful because it conflates welfare and resources. I'm only interested in the former. (I can support rough equality of resources on utilitarian grounds -- equality may have instrumental value. But, again, that's not what we're interested in here.)

    Now, it sounds like you are wanting to take the egalitarian position that the value of helping someone is dependent upon third parties. To this I can only repeat my earlier suggestion that such claims confuse an outweighed value with a diminished one. (If someone is worse off, the original benefit might seem comparatively less important than it used to be. But its brute value, i.e. how much it improved the world, in absolute terms, remains unchanged.

    I invite you to consider my latest example where we discover the continent of flourishing people. Are you inclined to say that the charity did more good because this third party exists? If not, you should reject telic egalitarianism (i.e. the view that equality is intrinsically valuable).

  9. I should emphasize: each 'utile' is of equal benefit to the person who receives it. That is, I am benefitted just as much when I go from 90 to 91, as is someone else who goes from 9 to 10. Each increment is of equal worth to the person who receives it. So this is very different from money or other resources, and we must take care not to let our intuitions about the latter mislead us here.

  10. Your last point is a nice summary of Parfitt's Prioritarianism in response to the Divided World thought experiment.


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