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Equality or Enoughness? - A Debate

What matters is not how individuals fare relative to one another. Rather, what matters is whether everyone has enough. A discussion.


An illustration of the debate between equality and enoughness

Illustration by Team Geostrata


The notion of how individuals “fare relative to one another” emphasises their comparative standing. “To have enough” refers to some certain standard of resources deemed adequate for decent living, regardless of how it compares to others. The former concerns egalitarianism, which holds that it is desirable for everyone to have equal amounts of income and resources.


The latter pertains to sufficientarianism, introduced within the theory of distributive justice by Harry Frankfurt in the 1980s, positing that ensuring everyone achieves a sufficient level is what is important. In rejecting equality as a distributive ideal, sufficientarianism is fundamentally opposed to egalitarianism.


This essay argues that sufficientarianism is a better theory of distributive justice than egalitarianism by:


i) highlighting the qualitative perspective of sufficientarianism as opposed to the quantitative focus of egalitarianism;

ii) tackling the egalitarian charge that sufficientarianism is indifferent to moral concerns like discrimination; and,

iii) evidencing from the sufficientarian premise that sufficientarianism does address implications of excess in distribution even after everyone has secured “enough”, by countering the indifference objection within the context of taxation.


Sufficientarianism includes both a positive and a negative thesis. The positive thesis requires that everyone reaches an adequate level of certain benefits, determined by a set threshold.

Meanwhile, the negative thesis states that beyond everyone meeting this threshold of sufficiency, there is no requirement for additional redistributive measures in the name of justice. This suggests that those who are above this level do not have claims to additional redistributive benefits. As per the doctrine of sufficiency, the notion of “enough” entails “meeting a standard” instead of “reaching a limit” (Frankfurt 37).


Everyone should have access to at least a minimal, standard threshold of resources as deemed fit for a fulfilling life. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, promotes equal wealth and resources for all. It supports the less privileged when their needs clash with those better off, believing it is inherently unfair for some to be worse off than others (Casal 296).


FIRST FLAW OF EGALITARIANISM


The first flaw of egalitarianism is to invest moral significance in whether one individual possesses less relative to another, irrespective of the absolute amounts either possesses. This misconception lies in the incorrect assumption that those who are economically worse off have more critical unmet needs compared to those who are better off. Claiming that an individual has enough money implies that they are satisfied. It would be rational for them to be content with the amount of money they possess without the desire for more.


The individual does not, or cannot justifiably, attribute any dissatisfaction or discomfort in their life to a lack of financial resources. However, an individual with sufficient financial resources may still be receptive to, and even delighted by, incremental economic advantages.

A content individual knows that although their economic situation could see enhancement and that their life might subsequently become better than its current state, this marginal improvement is no harbinger of a qualitative difference in their life. Whereas, when we observe individuals who are markedly disadvantaged compared to us, we feel morally troubled by their conditions.


In these situations, what truly resonates with us is not the quantitative disparity but a qualitative state. It is not merely that the financial resources of the less affluent are fewer in comparison to ours, but the tangible reality that these individuals are indeed poor.

In fact, egalitarianism, in attempting to draw attention to relative economic disparities between individuals as a moral concern, only reinforces sufficientarianism. This is because its main concern arises in situations where an individual genuinely lacks enough in absolute terms, creating a noticeable qualitative difference with those who have enough (or more).


SECOND ARGUMENT AGAINST SUFFICIENTARIANISM


A second egalitarian argument against sufficientarianism centres on its potential inadequacy in differentiating morally between types of discrimination. Using two examples — an employer who discriminates against the thirteenth applicant and a racially prejudiced employer — Casal (302) questions whether sufficientarianism can effectively distinguish between an act guided by irrelevant considerations (like superstition) and one with clearly harmful intentions (like racism).


While an egalitarian view can easily differentiate between the two, based on the systemic harm caused, sufficientarian faces challenges in justifying the difference in moral condemnation between the two cases.

This view, though, is mistaken. Sufficientarianism is about ensuring everyone has “enough” to lead a decent life. Let us consider the superstitious employer who discriminates against the thirteenth applicant. Even if the discrimination is not rooted in systemic prejudices like race, it still prevents a potential candidate from having an ‘enough’ opportunity based on an arbitrary belief. This arbitrary deprivation means that one individual is being denied an opportunity, not based on merit, but an irrelevant factor.


In a world where opportunities can be scarce, even one lost chance can mean that an individual doesn't have ‘enough’ of what they need to thrive. Now, looking at the racially prejudiced employer, the discrimination is systemic and deeply ingrained in societal structures. Echoing through generations, it prevents an entire group of individuals from achieving ‘enough’ in many interlinked aspects of life, not just employment.


While egalitarianism might focus on the relative, quantitative inequalities between these two actions, sufficientarianism would emphasise the absolute, qualitative deprivations they cause.

Both actions deny individuals or groups the chance to have ‘enough,’ but the scale and scope differ. The racially prejudiced employer's actions have a more profound, qualitative impact, and thus, from a sufficientarian standpoint, are more morally egregious. Thus, sufficientarianism can differentiate between these two types of discrimination by assessing how they hinder individuals or groups from achieving ‘enough’ fulfilment in absolute terms, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of their moral implications than egalitarianism.


THIRD CRITICISM OF SUFFICIENTARIANISM


A third criticism of sufficientarianism is that it is indifferent to how burdens are distributed once everyone has enough; for example, it cannot differentiate between progressive and regressive taxes if both meet the standard of sufficiency. If correct, then sufficientarianism is a bad theory because it only ensures enough for everyone, without necessarily addressing the implications of excess in the distribution (Casal 311).


Now, sufficientarianism's foundational principle is that everyone deserves to have enough. This means that any state of insufficiency is morally undesirable. Our ethical responsibility, therefore, is not just to support those currently below this sufficiency threshold but also to prevent others from falling into such a state.

It is important to clarify that the inherent risk of ending up below the threshold is not intrinsically problematic. Instead, the focus on minimising this risk serves a functional purpose: to reduce actual instances of insufficiency or qualitative disparity in the future. By striving to lessen this risk, we are acting in alignment with the central tenet of sufficientarianism, which emphasises the moral importance of ensuring sufficiency for all.


Imagine a society with Group Alpha, having just enough, and Group Bravo, having far more. Alpha members are more vulnerable to unexpected hardships. Given Alpha's vulnerabilities, it is justified to tax Bravo progressively, ensuring burdens are allocated considering proximity to the sufficiency threshold.


As a counterargument, one can ask whether sufficientarianism can truly back progressive taxation within the realities of modern welfare states.

It might demand for more than what’s practised in today's welfare state structures. This concern comes from an objection often termed ‘lexical priority objection.’ At its core, sufficientarianism seems to focus on those below a certain well-being threshold, seemingly neglecting the comforts of those above it. While many see the merit in this, they worry it might lead to overly taxing those better off, potentially at rates as high as 100%, to uplift the least fortunate.


But imposing such steep taxes could discourage the affluent from working, thereby shrinking the overall pool of resources meant for redistribution. This would inadvertently harm the underprivileged. So, genuine sufficientarian advocates would likely favour tax systems that balance effectiveness with the goal of aiding the less fortunate. In real scenarios, this should align with the progressive taxation models used in many welfare states today.


CONCLUSION


To sum up, sufficientarianism would constitute a better lens to adjudicate matters of distributive justice as opposed to egalitarianism.

Firstly, the sufficientarian advocacy for correction in resource concentration invests moral concern in the qualitative (or absolute) disparity in the level of resources between two individuals; whereas, egalitarianism alludes to a similar condition while incorrectly attributing moral significance in any level of quantitative (or relative) disparity.


Secondly, sufficientarianism offers a more nuanced understanding of moral concerns such as different cases of discrimination by evaluating the scale and scope of vulnerability to falling below the threshold of “enough” that one faces; whereas, egalitarianism only considers the quantity of individuals impacted even for arriving at a similar judgement.


Lastly, a crucial egalitarian charge against sufficientarianism, that it is indifferent to the distribution of burdens, is dismantled by demonstrating the sufficientarian reasoning for progressive taxation. It emphasises its dedication to ensuring everyone always has enough. Egalitarianism's pursuit of equal distribution might not necessarily ensure a decent life for those having the least resources in quantitative terms.


Thus, sufficientarianism is a better lens for ensuring overall well-being than egalitarianism. Thus, what matters is not how individuals fare relative to one another. Rather, what matters is whether everyone has enough.

 

ASISH SINGH

TEAM GEOSTRATA

info@thegeostrata.com

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