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1. Inequality and ethics

  • Inequality is a situation where certain people have access to things - places, goods, services - which others do not. Historically, inequalities have often been enforced by fiat, such as aristocracies and guilds, or perhaps based on group characteristics, such as apartheid or slavery or casteism. In today's societies, property rights are used to restrict peoples' access to resources. Justifying inequality therefore entails arguing why some deserve more wealth and hence greater access to places, to goods and services, to social opportunities, than others.


Defenders of inequality typically rely on one of 3 ethical arguments:

  • Desert Ethics: According to the Desert ethics, it is only fair to treat a person, as the person deserves. So, if somebody has created something, say wealth, he is entitled to it, and he must have all the rights to exclude others from using it.

  • Voluntarist Ethics: According to it, the exchanges which led to an unequal distribution were voluntary - people consented to the transactions, therefore they consented to the resultant outcome. So, inequality is just an outcome of what people have already consented.

  • The Ethics of 'Growing the Pie': According to this theory, granting superior legal status to few, will result in more wealth and opportunities for everyone.

  • But most of the wealth acquired by a person is through luck. Even those who develop strong work ethics is mostly due to their genetic makeup, environment and upbringing. Also, natural resources which are free gift of nature are exploited more by rich to become richer. Public services such as rule of law, infrastructure, and health and education also play major role in acquisition of wealth. Also, higher inequality results in lower growth of incomes of poor. So, inequality indeed has moral bearings.


High degree of Inequality presents following ethical issues:

  • Inequality creates a less virtuous society because,

  • o the virtue of Trust among members of society is lost e.g. acute deprivation may force a person to steal or lie.

  • o the virtue of Individual Self-determination is lost as Inequality removes the level playing field to achieve success in life e.g. a rich child has better access to education and nutrition than a poor child.

  • o the virtue of respect and tolerance in the society is lost e.g. the wasteful expenditure of rich undermines their rationality and intellect in the eyes of poor.

  • o the virtue of obedience is also lost e.g. people start protesting, breaking rules, creating riots etc.

  • Inequality violates distributive justice e.g. wages are not distributed according to the labour or efforts one puts in the work.

  • The right to have a dignified Life, the right to equality, the right to have an equal opportunity gets jeopardised in case of extreme Inequality leading to lack of food, education, healthcare, etc. Inequality creates compulsion and takes away the right to choose.

  • Inequality creates sufferings at many points, which may lead to a society where rich force the poor into positions of servitude. Morality lies in reducing such sufferings.

  • Inequality also undermines democracy as it creates unequal access to the political system and to the positions of power. (John Rawls).

  • Rawls says that inequality can be justified only when it benefits everyone in society, particularly those who are most poor and vulnerable.

  • Economic prosperity, if it does not ensure justice to all, will not lead to long-lasting peace, well-being, and development in the world. Those who are denied justice and even a minimum means of life will rise against the powerful who deny them justice and oppress them in different ways. A number of revolutions and people’s movements in the history of the human society clearly show this. Hence, development in solidarity is necessary for peace and harmony in this world. Ensuring justice is not merely to satisfy some legal requirements, or to avoid wars and conflicts. It comes out of the conviction that all people on earth basically form one single human community, that everyone is related to everyone else and everyone is responsible for the well-being of all. This concept of justice is fundamentally rooted in love and solidarity with all people on earth.

April Ethical Issues

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