In the first blog in this series, I explained how Rawls’ arguments for the difference principle, his preferred theory of distributive justice, also support sufficientarianism, a rival theory.
In this blog, I consider a related question: what should the currency of sufficientarianism be? By currency, I mean the metric that is used to quantify what or how much individuals should receive under a sufficientarian distribution. Drawing on the ideas of Rawls, I argue the currency should be self-respect. In other words, provided everyone has self-respect, then they have enough.
Importantly, the debate here is about what currency is of fundamental moral importance, not simply what is an adequate proxy for this currency. We’re trying to work out what, from the perspective of justice, should be distributed fairly between people, even if, practically speaking, we need to allocate something more tangible (e.g. money) to turn the vision into reality.
What currencies are there?
Currencies of distributive justice fall into three broad categories: welfare, resources, and capabilities.
Making welfare our currency would mean trying to identify and then distribute units of wellbeing. This is motivated by the broadly utilitarian view that wellbeing – rather than, say, rights or virtues – is of ultimate moral importance and that we can accurately quantify it. Accurately measuring welfare might seem impossible, but there are credible ways of doing so. For instance, we could use surveys to measure how happy people are in different situations (or, in more technical language, their hedonic states).
The advantage to making welfare our currency is that it would enable us to account for the fact that some people might legitimately need more than others. For instance, disabled people might need more than non-disabled people so they could, say, buy a wheelchair or guide dog and attain the same quality of life. By using welfare as our currency, this reality would be reflected in our distributive choices.
However, with welfare as our currency we would not necessarily be able to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate reasons for differential resource allocation. An example of a potentially illegitimate reason is expensive tastes. It does not seem justifiable to give one person more because they need caviar to reach the same level of wellbeing as someone who is happy with a cheese sandwich.
Making resources our currency would mean distributing a good or service that is taken to be valuable for everyone. An obvious example is money. More sophisticated examples could be baskets of different goods and services that plausibly everyone would value, regardless of who they are.
The advantage to making resources our currency is that it would satisfy the intuition that we should be aiming for equality of opportunity rather than outcome. It would give individuals the ability to make choices for themselves about how to use their resources and, in this way, would protect and promote their autonomy.
On the other hand, using resources as our currency conflicts with the fact that different people plausibly need different amounts of resources to achieve equal levels of welfare or standing in society. (This is the same point made above in relation to the welfare currency).
Capabilities can be understood as freedoms or opportunities to do the things we want to do. G.A. Cohen distinguishes capabilities from welfare and resources using the example of nutrition. The capability to be well nourished would mean having access to nutritious food, which allows one to carry out the activities and accomplish the objectives one wants to. By contrast, the welfare currency would focus on ‘the utility [a person] gets out of eating food’, while the resources currency would be concerned simply by a person’s ‘food supply’.
Having capabilities as our currency would involve trying to identify what they should be and then either distributing them fairly or ensuring everyone had access to them. There are a range of plausible contenders for capabilities, such as access to healthcare, housing, education, and employment. The UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index, inspired by the capabilities idea, is an example of what they could look like when operationalised. This index measures countries’ development based on their life expectancy, levels of education, and per capita income indicators.
Making capabilities our currency would arguably combine the best of the welfare and resources currencies. Like welfare, capabilities emphasise what people can actually do with various goods and services, rather than their mere supply. Like resources, they protect and promote individuals’ autonomy because they enable people to make choices for themselves about what to do with their opportunities.
Yet as well as having the advantages of the welfare and resources currencies, the capabilities currency may have some of their downsides. Under the welfare currency, it may be difficult to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate reasons for differential resource allocation. Similarly, under the capabilities currency, it may be hard to specify which capabilities are normatively valid. The resources currency struggles with the fact that different people may legitimately need different quantities of resources. Likewise, the capabilities currency faces the challenge that different people may need different amounts or compositions of capabilities to achieve the same ends.
|Welfare||Enables us to account for the fact that some people may legitimately need more than others.||Fails to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate reasons for differential resource allocation.||Utilitarianism|
|Resources||Protects and promotes individuals’ autonomy by enabling them to choose how to use their resources.||Doesn’t capture the fact that some people may need more resources to achieve the same welfare level or standing in society as others.||Gerald Dworkin|
|Capabilities||Emphasises what individuals can actually do with resources, while protecting and promoting their autonomy.||May be difficult to specify which capabilities are normatively valid; people may need different amounts or compositions of capabilities to achieve the same ends.||Amartya Sen|
What should the currency of sufficientarianism be?
In theory, sufficientarianism (along with all other distributive principles) could be combined with any of these three currencies. Welfare sufficientarianism would ensure that everyone in society had a base level of welfare; resources sufficientarianism that they had access to a minimum quantity of goods and services; and capabilities sufficientarianism that they at least those capabilities deemed essential for all.
Nevertheless, it may be that certain distributive principles are conceptually better suited to one currency or another. For instance, utilitarianism seems clearly suited to the welfare currency.1 Unlike the resources and capabilities currencies, utilitarianism isn’t motivated by appeals to individual autonomy. Instead, like the welfare currency, it is motivated by the idea that we can assess what is good for people from an impartial perspective and make comparisons between how well-off different individuals are.
Similarly, I think sufficientarianism is best suited to a particular currency: self-respect. I won’t comment in detail on how to categorise this currency using the framework above, but I’d suggest it falls somewhere between resources and capabilities.
1 Utilitarianism is not commonly thought of as a principle of distributive justice, but it can be interpreted in this way. It holds that a just distribution is one that maximises either the average or total amount of a given currency within society. For more on the wide variety of ideas associated with utilitarianism, see this interesting website.
What do I mean by self-respect?
Rawls argued that self-respect comprises two conditions:
- ‘A person’s sense of his own value, his secure conviction […] that his plan of life is worth carrying out’
- ‘A confidence in one’s ability, so far as it is within one’s power, to fulfil one’s intentions’
I call (1) the psychological and (2) the material condition. While Rawls doesn’t say this explicitly, I think we can take him to mean the conditions are individually necessary but only collectively sufficient for self-respect.
The psychological condition refers to an individual’s belief that their life is important and meaningful. I’d suggest that whether one can coherently hold this belief depends on whether one’s society conforms with some basic principles of equality and tolerance. A society is made of up of individuals pursuing different goals. Nevertheless, if everyone agrees that no-one is automatically more important than anyone else and that there are many legitimate goals one can have, then everyone can appreciate they are important and able to live a meaningful life, regardless of who they are or what goals they have.
The material condition relates to an individual’s ability to translate their goals into reality. My interpretation is that this does not require that everyone does achieve their goals. People’s goals may be unreasonable; for instance, not everyone is going to be a famous singer or football player. Instead, it requires that have everyone has an opportunity to achieve goals it is reasonable for them to have, such as success in a career. This is essential because a person who doesn’t have such an opportunity cannot genuinely feel their lives are as important or meaningful as others who do.
One might object that condition (2) is psychological, not material. Logically, a person could be ‘confident in one’s ability […] to fulfil one’s intentions’ even while living in extremely poor material circumstances. Such a person would arguably be delusional though; they would need at least some material resources to achieve their reasonably-held goals. Correspondingly, material resources would still be necessary, even if indirectly, for them to have self-respect.
Why the currency of self-respect?
Sufficientarianism with the currency of self-respect would ensure that everyone in society had enough to secure their self-respect. In line with the interpretation of self-respect I set out above, in practice this would require that: (a) society conforms with some basic principles of equality and tolerance; and (b) everyone has an opportunity to achieve reasonably-held goals.
So why self-respect? I noted above that certain distributive principles seem conceptually better suited to one currency or another. I think this is the case for self-respect in relation to sufficientarianism.
Rawls’ argument that parties in the original position would select a distributive principle that secures the social bases of self-respect gives one reason. (See the blog post before this for an explanation of this argument). What better way to ensure that the ultimate distribution secures self-respect for all than by making this the very currency of the distributive principle?
Yet there are also grounds to support self-respect as the currency of sufficientarianism even if you do not buy Rawls’ reasoning. The concept of sufficiency depends, at least partly, on a social context. Once a person’s basic needs have been met, whether they have ‘enough’ is a function of what others around them have. It plausibly means having access to a quantity and quality of goods and services that a person could reasonably expect depending on the society in which they live.
The currency of self-respect, unlike welfare, resources, and capabilities, is sensitive to social context. It would have different implications depending on the society to which it was applied. For example, in a wealthier society, meeting the material condition may be more demanding than in a poorer society; a person might need more to have to achieve their reasonably-held goals. Accordingly, a sufficientarian distribution with the currency of self-respect would set different levels of ‘enough’ in different societies (varying across both time and place).
One objection is that the currency of self-respect appears to have regressive implications. We can easily imagine a society in which the quantity and quality of goods and services a person can reasonably expect is very low. The currency of self-respect could legitimise the existence of poverty in such a society, even though we might strongly believe that this poverty is morally bad.
My initial response would be that the currency of self-respect would plausibly imply a high minimum threshold regardless of the society in which it applied. For the material condition to be met, a person would need access to a reasonably high quantity and quality of goods and services. This means the objection has less bite.
A more profound response is that, in this situation, we could agree that the poverty was morally bad, but not for reasons of justice. Instead, the existence of poverty could be morally bad because it showed that well-off people had not acted upon their obligations to help people in need if it came at insignificant cost to them. We might maintain, though, that the poverty was not unjust. Justice relates to the background rules and principles that should govern society, rather than obligations incumbent on individuals.
A second objection is that the currency of self-respect is insufficiently distinct from another currency of distributive justice: Rawls’ primary goods. Primary of goods are things, divided into the categories ‘natural’ and ‘social’, that Rawls claims it would be rational for everyone to want (see a list in the table below). The specific objection is that Rawls already includes self-respect (referring to it as ‘the social bases of self-respect) within his list of primary goods. So what makes the currency of self-respect different?
|Type of primary good||Including|
|Social||Rights and freedoms |
Income and wealth
Social bases of self-respect
In answering, I would highlight that other primary goods Rawls identifies are implied by the currency of self-respect. Specifically, the psychological condition would guarantee some basic rights and freedoms, while the material condition would ensure everyone had access to a base level of income and wealth. The currency of self-respect should be preferred to primary goods on the grounds that it is a simpler theory.
A third and final objection is that self-respect is not a workable currency of distributive justice, because accurately measuring whether someone has self-respect is impossible.
In response, I would emphasise that we’re trying to identity a currency that is of fundamental moral importance and that this may not be easily measurable. Nevertheless, I do think that the psychological and material conditions give us some practical steps to securing self-respect for every individual. Moreover, other currencies, such as the welfare currency, might have appeared impossible to measure, but psychologists and economists have now devised credible methods to do so. This makes it seem more plausible that accurate ways to measure self-respect could be created.
In the third and final blog in this series, I’ll explain how sufficientarianism with the currency of self-respect has some surprising and advantageous features. Specifically, it enables a satisfactory response to the claim that sufficientarianism is indirectly self-defeating. This provides further grounds for holding that the currency of sufficientarianism should be self-respect.
With thanks to Yannic Vitz and Cedar Green for helpful comments.