Equality, roles and station
8 January 2014
The topic of distributive justice (within a single society) is normally approached through the question:
Q: How and why should a society’s resources be distributed across its population?
Or, more colloquially, ‘Who gets what?’ I propose we split Q into two less familiar questions:
Q(i): How and why should a society’s resources be distributed across various social roles?
Q(ii): How and why should a society’s roles be distributed across its population?
The reason for making such a split is twofold. First, justifications of inequality are, in practice, usually tied directly to social roles and only indirectly to the people occupying them. In the context of paid employment, for example, an office cleaner receives less than a university professor because of differences in how these roles are constituted and evaluated. Much of the existing philosophical literature on equality glides over this fact (or else focuses solely on the role of free-market entrepreneur).
Second, it is tempting for supporters of social equality to think that, broadly speaking, equality thrives better under conditions of co-operation, collaboration and common purpose than under conditions of competition between individuals in, say, an open market. In this talk I examine justifications for inequalities that emerge when we work together as part of a group or society. Working together involves us in occupying different roles. I argue that diversity between social roles (in respective of their entrance/exit conditions, their obligations and entitlements, the importance of their function) permits non-egalitarians to defend a relatively uneven distribution of society’s resources. I end by considering possible egalitarian responses, with the hope of improving on Cohen’s response to Rawls on entrepreneurs.