Utilitarianism and Equality

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the key topics in moral philosophy is utilitarian ethics–the notion that some principle or concept, usually happiness or pleasure or some variant, should be maximised across society. Famously created by Jeremy Bentham, the system of ethics has attracted many famous supporters over the years, most notably John Stuart Mill. However, many writers and theorists critical of utilitarian ethics, including John Rawls, have claimed that utilitarianism attempts to justify high inequality, forcing some to toil in misery for the gain of others. Today I’d like to explore this criticism of utilitarianism to see if it holds water.

Ironically, those who criticise utilitarianism for ignoring inequality are making a very pro-capitalist, pro-inequality assumption–namely, that in order to maximise happiness, well-being, or pleasure, a high level of inequality is necessary. What is the point of equality if it does not produce broad social gains that benefit wide sections of the population? If this assumption is true, equality is being given attention only for those who end up with the short straw, despite the existence of short straws being, on balance, socially advantageous. This sounds like a weak (though certainly not irrelevant) position from which to attack utilitarianism. More importantly, however, it strikes me as fundamentally fallacious.

Imagine that you have two people, poor man Paul and rich man Richard. In the village in which Paul and Richard live, Paul receives $10,000 a year, while Richard receives $90,000 out of a $100,000 output pool. What the people who criticise utilitarianism for justifying inequality seem to believe, is that the aggregate happiness of the society is smaller if you pay Paul $20,000 per year and Richard $80,000, even though that results in a 100% income gain for Paul and a mere 11% drop for Richard. Richard may very well be less happy in the latter scenario, but Paul is much, much happier. Richard may even end up happier too–perhaps previously, Paul felt a sense of injustice and was hostile to Richard, stole from him, or was less sociable with him. Giving a poor man a little more makes a big difference to his quality of life and well-being. Giving a rich man a little less does not.

It’s not merely a thought experiment. In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Strongerthere are a myriad of compelling, peer-reviewed statistical relationships made between various social ills and inequality, including lower life expectancy, mental health problems, obesity, lower educational performance, teen pregnancies, incidence of violence, low social mobility, and poor social relations. All of these concepts seem deeply connected to societal happiness, well-being, and pleasure.

There remain compelling arguments for why perfect equality and utilitarianism may be unable to go together. Perfect political equality where every citizen has an equal share of power or perfect income equality where there is no baseline unemployment are perhaps too such examples. However, that does not mean that a just society in utilitarian terms may not be substantially more equal than our present society, and these things are only examples because they appear to be incompatible with broad human happiness–a perfectly equal political system would be morbidly inefficient and lacking in expertise, and with no baseline unemployment it would be near impossible to move workers around, wages and inflation would be pushed up indefinitely, and worker incentive would be limited. Perhaps, rather than seeking an ethical system that endorses perfect equality, we should find the optimum level of inequality for promoting the wider social good. Perhaps utilitarianism can help us find a society that is equal, but not too equal, and provides for the maximisation of our welfare as a society.

We know that, historically, there have been periods in which inequality has indeed been substantially more equal than it is today. Take this data (for convenience, all data for the USA) measuring Gini coefficient, a popular measure of inequality, from the Federal Reserve:

We can see that inequality has risen more or less steadily since the late sixties, accelerating in the eighties. If inequality promoted our well-being, we would expect other indexes typically associated with measuring improvements in our well-being to rise with it. What have average GDP growth rates done? Declined steadily since the sixties:

If our society as a whole is getting richer at a slower rate, and overall national wealth has something to do with human well-being, it follows that we are not as happy and well off right now as we otherwise could be. Rising inequality may very well have something to do with it. Not only does high levels of inequality make for many miserable people that drag down average societal well-being, it also leads to reduced purchasing power for the workers, and lower economic demand. Inequality can not only make poor people miserable, it can reduce the poor’s ability to buy what the rich are selling, reducing economic demand and making all of society poorer as a result.

The sort of equality that might reverse those trends and improve growth figures more broadly is surely the sort of thing a utilitarian moral philosopher could get behind. Equality can hold its own under a utilitarian philosophy. It need not be coddled by apologists who incorrectly assume that inequality reduces growth in total social wealth or welfare. Even GDP growth, a notoriously anti-social metric associated with the political right, can illustrate this. Utilitarianism recognises some practical limits on inequality, but that does not make it an inherently anti-inequality moral system. Like many things that contribute to our social welfare and happiness, equality can be pushed to a point at which it compromises its fellow values and becomes a problem. However, the Western societies of today are nowhere near such a limit, especially considering that many of these criticisms of utilitarianism, like that of Rawls, were written in the seventies when inequality was lower. Champions of equality should find themselves much in agreement with well-considered utilitarianisms and their supporters, and vice versa. The absence of this cooperation only serves to thwart the social goals of both–inequality continues to rise, and the rate of improvement in social welfare and happiness continues to fall.