Nagel’s “Equality”, a Defense of Rawls

There are two major developments which Thomas Nagel made in his chapter “Equality” in his book Mortal Questions. The first is the way he develops the debate around egalitarianism as a debate consisting of (at least) three competing values. The second major aim of this chapter is to develop a criticism of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice which Nagel takes as an argument for a form of egalitarianism.

The three competing values which Nagel says are in conflict are the values of equal rights, equal consideration and substantive equality. People who support the first type of equality tend to frame rights as predominantly negative rights, which Nagel described in terms of a right to non-interference, or as a limited veto right against the actions of other people. The type of state which would be defended by people concerned with equal rights would be a libertarian state, in its purest form. With such a state, no amount of public opinion will be sufficient to impose a popular egalitarian law since such a law would impose unjustified restrictions on the freedom of some people.

The second value, the value of equal consideration, he identifies with utilitarian theory. This type of right is a right to have one’s experiences counted as equal to all other people. It basically states that when determining the structure for society, the best possible outcome is the society which leads to the highest overall utility. Due to the doctrine of diminishing marginal utility, such a principle should tend towards what I am calling substantive equality, meaning that in most circumstances the society which has the highest overall utility will also tend to be the society with the greatest (or at least a high degree of) equality. However, since the value is itself equal consideration and not substantive equality, it is possible that the theory would support an outcome which is very unequal if that arrangement would lead to the best outcome for aggregated utility.

His discussion of the third value, equality, starts with a discussion of John Rawls’s theory of justice, a theory which Nagel takes to be egalitarian. Nagel says that there are two arguments in normal moral theory, and a third which is theoretical, which he wants to discuss from Rawls’s theory. The first argument is that Rawls claims that inequalities that are the result of luck (e.g. from the unequal distribution of talents and abilities) are not themselves deserved, and can only lead to inequalities if they are to the greatest benefit of the worst-off in society, which is usually outlined in terms of the difference principle. Nagel thinks that this argument is not conclusive since it presumes that undeserved inequalities are morally arbitrary without justification.

The second argument Nagel considers is the argument Rawls made against utilitarianism that utilitarianism, while acceptable for a single person to use to guide their own action, is inapplicable at the state-level of action because, whereas I may be compensated for a loss I sustain at one point in my life, e.g. I can trade the tastiness of buttery popcorn for greater health later in life, it is unreasonable to expect one person to accept a similar trade-off at the society-level, e.g. I agree to give you ten thousand dollars because you will derive greater utility from that money than I will. Nagel’s response to this argument is simply that Rawls, as with the previous argument, does not provide reasons for us to accept his position. Nagel is not siding with the utilitarian, he is merely pointing out that Rawls has failed to give us any reason for accepting his position instead of the position supported by utilitarians. A trade-off like the one I gave above could be acceptable or required of us.

The third argument of Rawls’s which Nagel considers is his original position argument, which he uses to justify the difference principle, in addition to his other principles. According to Nagel the original position has two details which are of importance for his chapter. First, the decision made behind the veil of ignorance (in the original position) must be unanimous, second, it must be done without knowledge of the probabilities of being in any particular position in society, i.e. we do not know whether we will be one of the best-off or worst-off members of society.

Nagel’s chief complaint with Rawls’s version of egalitarianism is that it (seemingly) gives absolute priority to the worst-off in society. This, even though Rawls has given us no reason for thinking that the decision we made behind the veil of ignorance should be compelling to us once we have removed the veil. In other words, even if Rawls is correct in thinking that his principles of justice are the principles we would choose behind the veil, he still needs to prove that we should find this reasoning convincing in the real world.

In order to show why he thinks that Rawls’s principles of justice are too strongly egalitarian in nature, Nagel presents the following example. Suppose that I have two children, one which is normal and healthy, and the other which has a painful disability. We are given the choice between moving to an expensive city which is close to a treatment centre and special education facility for the second child, or moving to a semi-rural suburb which is not near either of the two facilities. If we take the first option, the entire family will be worse off since the city is very expensive, meaning that the first child will be much worse-off than she would be in the suburb. Furthermore, even if we move to the city, the first child will still have a very poor life, although somewhat improved over the life he would have in the suburbs.

While Rawls would seemingly defend the first option, moving to the city, Nagel thinks that the correct answer will depend on how we balance equality with the other two values of overall utility and rights. So while Nagel might agree with Rawls in the above scenario, he thinks that small changes to the scenario could lead him (Nagel) to change his position. For instance, there were two normal children instead of one, the disutility to the two children from moving to the city might be enough to outweigh the small benefit that would be received by the one child. More convincingly, Nagel believes that at some point we must acknowledge the value of overall utility. At some point the number of children on the one side ought to tip the scale away from the value of equality.

Having outlined Nagel’s argument I believe that Rawls could respond in a number of ways. First, the above argument is problematic because of its scope. Nagel has assumed that his argument is scaleable to the state-level of justice. My criticism here is that the type of problem which Nagel has described would never arise in discussions of justice since we never really face situations where we must do one of two options. We would not, for instance, be given the choice to either fund schools for the disabled or fund parks (which, for our purposes here, would benefit the rest of society more than the disabled). We do not have to choose between providing treatment for disabled people and having a good life, for Rawls, we can have both so long as that inequality leads to greater benefits for the worst-off.

My second criticism of Nagel’s argument is that the type of problem described above simply would not arise for Rawls because Rawls did not treat the severely disabled as subject to the principles of justice. The problem that Nagel has described is one where a group of people, i.e. the disabled, would require vast number of resources in order to improve their lives, effectively leveling down everyone else in society. Rawls has defined these people out of his theory in order to avoid this kind of objection, ensuring that the people at the bottom will be relatively easy to make well-off. The conflict between the values of equality and utility should not arise, except perhaps minor disagreements, since in most cases the poorly-off will be easy to make well-off.

This does not mean that Rawls’s theory is without flaw, as we may decide to push him on his unwillingness to include the disabled in the principles of justice (he does say that should be subject to our consideration at a second level of justice, just not to the principles themselves), but I do not think that Nagel’s criticism succeeds here.

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