In your everyday life, you often have to decide whether or not you’re in favor of a proposed policy. Think about a policy that would prohibit the sale of large soda drinks. Would you be in favor of that? To make up your mind, you would ask what good and bad things the policy would deliver or prevent. You would decide, in other words, on the basis of the values that you think matter.
But values often conflict. Even if prohibiting large soda drinks would make people healthier, it would also make them somewhat less free (insofar as they are no longer able to purchase these drinks). So, to make up your mind about the policy, you need two kinds of information. You need to know, first, how much of a health improvement the policy promises to deliver. You could get that information from good social science. But you also need a different kind of information. You need to know how much gains in health matter, compared to losses in freedom. The methods of social science can’t give you that information. It is a task, instead, for moral inquiry. That is the kind of task that moral philosophers take up.
In my work, I focus on one particular value: the ideal of reducing inequality in how well different lives go. Just as promoting health can conflict with respecting freedom, so too the ideal of reducing inequality can conflict with other values. To see that, think about this highly simplified case:
Twin girls, sickly Sarah and healthy Hannah, are born. Although they will later go on to have good lives, Sarah has an incurable medical condition that will cause her to suffer greatly during her childhood. Hannah, luckily, doesn’t have the condition. Imagine you find yourself with a vial that you could administer to Hannah. If you do so, she’ll experience the same kinds of suffering during her childhood that Sarah does.
I’ll call this the Twins case. I hope you agree with me that, in the Twins case, there is a lot to be said against administering that vial to Hannah. You would be causing an innocent child to suffer. That counts very heavily against administering the vial to her. Is there anything to be said in favor of doing so? If you think that reducing inequality matters, the answer seems to be ‘Yes.’ Doing so would reduce the inequality in how well Sarah’s and Hannah’s lives go. In other words, the Twins case illustrates that reducing inequality can sometimes conflict with promoting health. And so, once again, to make a sensible decision, we need to know the relative importance of these values. We need to know how much health we should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of reducing inequality.
A brief side-note: Don’t take the wrong lesson from the Twins scenario. Sometimes, when I describe this case, people say in frustration, ‘But I would prefer to help Sarah, and not harm Hannah.’ Me too. But I’ve asked you to imagine that that’s not an option. I’ve asked you to imagine that harder choice, because I want the hypothetical scenario to function like a little science experiment, with the ‘apparatus’ set up to isolate the factor we’re interested in. Setting up our experimental ‘apparatus’ in this way helps to bring into sharp focus the question of whether there’s anything about inequality itself that’s regrettable.
As the reaction described above suggests, the Twins case focuses our attention on an even more basic question about inequality. When you thought about the scenario, you might have found yourself wondering, not how much it matters to reduce that inequality, but whether doing so matters at all. I share those doubts. Anyone who thinks that reducing inequality really does matter, in and of itself, owes us an explanation of why inequality matters at all.
Investigating that basic question about inequality—explaining why, exactly, inequality is a bad thing—is my current research focus. Giving such an explanation is a tall order. The explanation would have to make intelligible to us why there is a reason—something that really does speak in favor of—giving Hannah that vial. Since doing so is going to seriously harm her, it had better be a very good explanation. As it happens, I think there is a good explanation to be had. I think that reducing inequalities sometimes matters, in and of itself, because some inequalities are deeply unfair. The health inequality between Sarah and Hannah is one example. But that, so far, is only the barest outline of an explanation. Spelling it out carefully and in detail is difficult work. For one thing, since this explanation of inequality’s badness appeals to an intimate connection between inequality and unfairness, developing the explanation requires us to better understand what unfairness is.
I have just described a difficult task. And that difficult task is, I’m afraid to say, still only the first step of the work of moral inquiry. Even with a full explanation of inequality’s badness in hand, we would still only have established that inequality matters to some extent. We would not yet have an answer to the important practical question with which we began: how much it matters to reduce inequality, compared with other values. That can make the work of moral inquiry seem overwhelming. Nevertheless, it is work we cannot avoid. To see why not, think about a real-life case. A few years ago, the administrators of Boston public schools faced a hard choice. Well-off parents were withdrawing their children from public elementary schools in favor of private schools, taking with them resources and social capital, thereby making it more difficult for those schools to educate the worse-off children who remained enrolled. To entice well-off parents to keep their children in public schools, a proposal was made: give these families preferential access to the district’s best-quality schools. The influx of resources and social capital that these families would bring would, it was hoped, benefit the school district as a whole, delivering some benefits for worse-off kids, too. But, of course, the proposal would also greatly magnify the inequality in educational achievement between children from better-off and worse-off families.
What do you think? Would delivering some benefits to worse-off children be worth it, if the price was to magnify educational inequality between better-off and worse-off children? The issues raised by this real-world case, of course, are much more complex than my highly simplified Twins case. But the basic question raised by both cases is the same: How much does it matter to keep a rein on inequality? To answer that question, we need to know how much, and why, inequality matters at all. That is why we cannot avoid the work of moral inquiry, difficult as that work is. It is work that we must do well, if we are to make sensible decisions in our everyday lives.