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Home / Opinion / Equality, efficiency and levelling down

One can furnish a rather elementary arithmetical example of a possible conflict between the social virtues of equality and efficiency, in terms of two 2-person utility distributions x = (5,5) and y = (5,7): x is an equal distribution and y an unequal one. So if egalitarianism is understood as an intrinsic valuation in favour of an equal distribution over an unequal one, then equality must rank x as ethically superior to y; on the other hand, since one individual has a higher income and is therefore better off in y than in x while the other individual is equally well off in both x and y, efficiency must rank y as ethically superior to x. In this view of the matter, egalitarianism ranks the distributions in one way and efficiency the other way—hence the perceived conflict between the two virtues.

Which of the two principles—egalitarianism or efficiency—is to be assigned the role of “villain of the piece" in this conflict? Many ethical commentators, including in particular the late Oxford moral philosopher Derek Parfit, have contended that egalitarianism is prey to what Parfit has called the “levelling down objection" (LDO). LDO states that if one state of affairs, x, is derived from another state, y, by simply dragging down the better-off individual in y to the level of the worse-off individual in x, then there is no respect—contrary to what egalitarianism would assert—in which x can be judged to be a better state than y. The claim becomes starker when we consider an example of “levelling down" due to the Princeton moral philosopher Larry Temkin (who however, as we shall see, is a vigorous opponent of the LDO). In Temkin’s example, all of the people in x are wholly blind while in y one-half of these people are wholly blind and one-half are blind in one eye: in terms of the LDO, it is repugnant to hold that there is at least one respect, that of equality, in which one must endorse deriving x from y by blinding the half-sighted in y.

Temkin outraged some ethical commentators by maintaining that there is nothing repugnant in certifying x to be better than y in at least the one respect of equality, even though—and as he was very careful to point out—y might well be judged to be better than x from an “all-things-considered" perspective.

What is Temkin’s objection to the LDO? It is to be located in what Temkin sees as the guiding principle behind the LDO. This guiding principle is just the well-worn Pareto principle, or what the Oxford moral philosopher John Broome calls “the principle of personal good", or what Temkin simply refers to as “the slogan". One way of stating “the slogan" is in the following terms: “If a state y is better than a state x for somebody without being worse for anybody, then there is no respect in which x can be regarded as better than y."

If we see the sentiment encompassed in “the slogan" as unimpeachably compelling, then we have no option but to defer to the LDO, and this must necessarily entail our calling into question the moral appeal of egalitarianism. But is “the slogan" really the wholly unexceptionable principle it might appear to be? Temkin denies this, with the help of several arguments, of which we shall consider just one. This argument revolves around the intrinsic appeal of a moral principle such as that of “proportional justice", a principle of desert which demands that people must be rewarded or punished in proportion to their virtues or vices.

Suppose x and y are two states in the after-world such that in x the “saints" receive a utility level of 100 each and the “sinners" a utility level of 20 each, while in y the “saints" receive a utility level of 100 each and the “sinners" a utility level of 200 each. Then, “the slogan" would not only hold y to be a better state than x, but it would also insist that there is no respect—including in respect of the principle of proportional justice—in which one can hold x to be a better state than y. It would require a fairly tenacious ability to bite the bullet in order to continue to see “the slogan" as an unexceptionable moral principle.

Another way of rescuing egalitarianism from the LDO is to ask if it really requires us to judge that any equal distribution is better than any unequal distribution (even if only in the one respect of equality). One can resist such a way of characterizing egalitarianism (as the present writer has done elsewhere).

A more sober, prudent, and moderate characterization of egalitarianism is the following one: “Given that x and y have the same population size, egalitarianism requires x to be judged a better distribution than y, whenever x is a more equal distribution than y, provided the total amount of utility in x is the same as that in y; or whenever both x and y are equal distributions, with the total amount of utility in x being greater than that in y." This sensible characterization of egalitarianism respects considerations of both size and distribution, as well as the clause “all other things being equal". In particular, and in this view of egalitarianism, we are not constrained to say that x = (5,5) is a better distribution of utilities than y = (5,7) from the perspective of equality: for note that in this example, the sum-total of utility is not the same in x as in y. That is to say, an egalitarian may, but is not required to, pronounce x as a better state than y.

Briefly, and whatever the intrinsic appeal of “the slogan", egalitarianism, sensibly defined, need not fall foul of the levelling down objection.

S. Subramanian is an economist and a former Indian Council of Social Science Research national fellow.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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