In the second blog in this series, I argued that the currency of sufficientarianism – the metric that can be used to quantify how much is ‘enough’ for each person – should be self-respect. If a person has self-respect, then they have enough.
In this third and final blog post, I explore the implications of this view. Specifically, I explain how it allows the rebuttal of a powerful objection to sufficientarianism: that it is indirectly self-defeating. This provides even stronger grounds to hold that the currency of sufficientarianism should be self-respect. With other currencies, like welfare or resources, the objection cannot be so convincingly answered.
What is an indirectly self-defeating theory?
A self-defeating theory is one which, if sound, would demonstrate itself to be unsound. For example, relativism holds that nothing can be true objectively, for all people at all times. Yet, if true, relativism itself would not be true objectively. Hedonism is a putatively self-defeating normative theory. It holds that people should pursue pleasure above all else. In doing so, however, a hedonist would conceivably receive less pleasure in the long run than if they had pursued another value. Pleasure is not the kind of thing that can be attained through conscious effort.
Derek Parfit made a perceptive distinction between directly and indirectlyself-defeating normative theories.
- Directly self-defeating: where doing what the theory tells you leads to achieve the aims it gives you less successfully than if you did something else (as in the hedonism example).
- Indirectly self-defeating: where efforts or attempts to do what the theory tell you leads to achieve the aims it gives you less successfully than if you did something else.
Parfit gives impartial consequentialism as an example of an indirectly self-defeating theory. Impartial consequentialism holds that the morally right action is the one that has the best consequences, impartially considered. An impartial consequentialist might not care much about keeping up with their friends and family. They’d be focused on achieving the best outcomes for people they didn’t necessarily know. Yet if everyone was an impartial consequentialist, then no-one would care about keeping up with their friends and family, and the value of such relationships to society would be lost.
To achieve the best consequences, impartially considered, it is plausible that it would be best if no-one (or, at least, not everyone) were an impartial consequentialist. Yet this isn’t because of an inconsistency within impartial consequentialism. Rather, it’s because impartial consequentialism neglects important social and psychological facts and so indirectly undermines itself.
How sufficientarianism could be indirectly self-defeating
Directly or indirectly self-defeating theories are unsound. If sufficientarianism were self-defeating, we should reject it and adopt a different principle of distributive justice (such as the difference principle, which I wrote about in the first post in this series).
How could sufficientarianism be self-defeating? Recall that sufficientarianism, roughly put, holds that a just distribution is one in which all members of society have at least enough to live a dignified life. Provided this condition is met, it would be fine, from the standpoint of justice, for individuals to amass as much wealth, power, and influence as they might want.
But now imagine a society where that is taken to extreme limits. A tiny fraction of the population emerges with incredible amounts of wealth, power, and influence, orders of magnitude greater than everyone else. This huge inequality between the 1 and the 99 percent would conceivably be very bad for social and political cohesion. This process could mean that those with the least in society lose out and no longer have enough to live a dignified life. For example, technological progress might drive large-scale automation of people’s jobs, leading to widespread unemployment. However, the increased profits from this automation may be concentrated in the hands of the 1 percent, with the 99 percent left without jobs or compensation.
In such cases, sufficientarianism would be indirectly self-defeating. By focusing only on ensuring that those at the bottom have enough, sufficientarianism neglects the fact that the sustainability of this situation partly depends on how much those at the top have. Too much inequality between the bottom and the top could threaten the integrity of the sufficientarian distribution. Efforts to achieve the aims given to us by sufficientarianism – that everyone has enough to live a dignified life – could therefore lead us to achieve these aims less successfully than if we followed a different principle of distributive justice, which prevented too much inequality from developing.
Why sufficientarianism is not (always) indirectly self-defeating
I think this objection is unsound. It falsely assumes that the currency of sufficientarianism is one that would allow such huge inequalities to emerge in the first place. Specified correctly, with the right currency, sufficientarianism could prevent this from happening.
What qualities would such a currency need to have? As well as imposing an explicit lower bound on what people should have, it would have to impose an implicit upper bound on what they can have. As I explain below, I think the currency of self-respect does just this.
My argument here draws on an insightful paper by Yannic Vitz about the relationship between libertarianism and limitarianism. These are two seemingly competing philosophical theories. Libertarianism is a set of views roughly holding that individual freedom should be prized above all other values. Limitarianism, meanwhile, is the claim that there should be a limit on the amount of resources that any one individual has. We might reasonably suppose that your average libertarian would completely reject this claim. Provided everyone is completely free, then there is no problem with having a lot. Yet Vitz shows that a popular interpretation of libertarianism implicitly does accept there should be such limits.
This interpretation is one that includes a condition regulating how people acquire resources in the first place. This kind of libertarian might hold, for example, that it is necessary to leave ‘enough and as good for others’, in the words of John Locke. A person couldn’t simply come along and grab all the resources before any else has a chance to. If they did, they would have to pay compensation to others. Moreover, the value of this compensation would have to be greater than that of the grabbed resources, to make up for the harm inflicted as well as the value of the resources foregone.
Vitz points out that, if one adopts this interpretation, then implicitly one is accepting that there is a theoretical limit on the amount of resources that an individual can have. An individual should not take more resources than they can compensate others for. ‘If one would do so’, in Vitz’s words, ‘one would be impermissibly well off’.
Similarly, sufficientarianism combined with the currency of self-respect would implicitly impose an upper bound on the amount that an individual or group of individuals could have. This is because, like libertarianism, it would implicitly set some practical conditions for how society is organised. As I explained in the last blog post, these would be that:
(a) society conforms with some basic principles of equality and tolerance; and
(b) everyone has an opportunity to achieve reasonably-held goals.
In practice, condition (a) would directly limit the amount of inequality that could permissibly develop. Condition (b) would do so indirectly. As a society became wealthier, so the expectations of people living in it would become more ambitious and they would need more to achieve their reasonably-held goals. Correspondingly, the level of what constitutes enough would rise, acting as a check on the growth of inequality. In combination, these conditions would arguably prevent the kind of dystopian situation I envisaged above from emerging.
One might object that, even taken together, these conditions would only be a weak check against the growth of inequality. First, even if people’s expectations did rise a society became wealthier, this could be at a much slower rate than increases in levels of inequality. Second, it is possible that people’s expectations would not rise at all (or not very much) as a society became wealthier. For example, there could be a widespread belief that individuals take full responsibility for wherever they end up, because success depends simply on how hard one tries. The fact that some people become wealthier or more powerful may have no bearing on what others reasonably expect.
In response, I’d note that both objections are empirical in nature. They need to be backed up with evidence before we can judge whether they are persuasive. Moreover, there may be good grounds for dismissing the second objection even if it is empirically valid. This is because it is morally objectionable to hold that individuals in a society must take full responsibility for wherever they end up, regardless of whether a majority believe this is right. This belief is mistaken. It neglects the fact that some people are privileged by the circumstances of their birth; that people have basic needs which others arguably have a duty to meet; and that gross inequalities may be objectionable even if they fully reflect people’s conscious choices.1
1 There is a parallel here with the problem of ‘adaptive preferences’ explored by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. The problem relates to situations where people living in deprivation or under oppression lower their expectations of life and need less to satisfy their preferences. This counts against preference-based theories of wellbeing, which hold that wellbeing consists in preference satisfaction. Preferences themselves are not necessarily innocent or value neutral.
A further defence of the currency of self-respect
If I am right, then sufficientarianism can escape the objection that it is indirectly self-defeating. Yet observe that this is only the case when the currency of sufficientarianism imposes an implicit upper bound on what people can have, in addition to an explicit lower bound on what they should have. How do currencies of sufficientarianism other than the self-respect currency fare in this regard?
First, consider the resources currency. This is clearly vulnerable to the objection. It would require only that everyone has at least a base level of resources, saying nothing against the emergence of extreme inequality in the amounts of resources different individuals have.
Second, consider the welfare currency. This would prevent the emergence of large inequality in the amounts of resources different individuals have, insofar as such inequality would push the group at the bottom of the distribution under the minimum acceptable level of welfare. Yet the size of such an effect may not be large and could therefore be a weak safeguard against the emergence of extreme inequality. More dramatically, we could imagine the wealthy and powerful deliberately maintaining the poor and weak in a state of ignorant bliss in order to keep them pliant, as in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or The Matrix films. Such a situation may be permissible under sufficientarianism combined with the welfare currency.
Finally, consider the capabilities currency. Depending on the specific capabilities included, this might prevent the emergence of extreme inequality. For instance, capabilities related to political freedoms or economic opportunities might indirectly limit the amount of inequality that could develop. This would be true to the extent that inequality could prevent everyone from having such capabilities. Yet this would not be the case with respect to other, perhaps more characteristic capabilities, such as access to healthcare, housing and education.
With the possible exception of the capabilities currency, the currency of self-respect emerges as one of the only plausible currencies that can enable sufficientarianism to escape the objection that it is indirectly self-defeating. This provides further grounds to believe that the currency of sufficientarianism should be self-respect.
In this series of blog posts, I have motivated and fleshed out an interpretation of sufficientarianism inspired by the ideas of Rawls. This interpretation may not persuade critics of sufficientarianism that it is the best justified principle of distributive justice. There are counter-arguments that I haven’t addressed. Nevertheless, I hope that my arguments have shown that, starting from a similar position to Rawls (one that is popular with many philosophers), it is possible to arrive at a different destination. If you take Rawls’ arguments seriously, then you should take sufficientarianism seriously too.
With thanks (again) to Yannic Vitz, Cedar Green and Karl Reimer for helpful comments.