Welfare Egalitarianism (hereafter, Egalitarianism) is the view that it
is intrinsically good for people to be equally well off. Or more
generally: it is intrinsically better for people to be more nearly
equal in welfare.
Survey question for curiosity: how many readers think that’s true? How
many find the claim intuitively obvious? (Think of your answer before
reading the rest.)
Following is an argument against Egalitarianism that I’d like to hear
comments on. It uses some premises from population axiology:
- The Unrepugnant Premise: For possible worlds x and y, if
y has a lower population than x, a higher average utility, a higher
total utility, and a perfectly equal distribution of utility, then y is
better than x.
- The Benign Addition Principle: If worlds x and y are so
related that y would be the result of increasing the utility of
everyone in x by some amount and adding some new people with worthwhile
lives, then y is better than x.
- Transitivity: If z is better than y and y is better than x, then z is better than x.
(Assume that there’s an "other things being equal" clause in the first two premises, and that in the following examples, there are no morally relevant features not required by the descriptions of the situations.)
The Unrepugnant Premise is so named because of its relation to Parfit’s "Repugnant Conclusion." But note that the Unrepugnant Premise is much less controversial than the denial of the repugnant conclusion; the Unrepugnant Premise seems to be accepted by everyone in population ethics, even those who endorse the Repugnant Conclusion. The latter people endorse the RC because they think some weight should be assigned to total utility (or because they endorse the Mere Addition argument in Parfit’s ch. 19), but even these people wouldn’t favor population increases that come with decreases in total utility.
I say a "benign addition" occurs when some people with positive welfare are added to the world, with positive effects on all the original people’s welfare. (Like Parfit’s "Mere Addition", except that in the latter you have no effect on the original people.) The Benign Addition Principle is motivated by the thought that, when a benign addition occurs, all the original people are better off, and the new people (if it makes sense to ask whether they are better off or worse off) are also better off.
Now consider three possible worlds:
World x contains 2 million people at welfare level 50.
World y contains 1 million people at welfare level 101.
World z contains 1 million people at welfare level 102, plus 1 million people at welfare level 1.
Here’s an argument:
- y is better than x. (from the Unrepugnant Premise)
- z is better than y. (from the Benign Addition Principle)
- z is better than x. (from 1, 2, Transitivity)
World z contains a mere 3 points more of total utility and 1.5 points of average utility than x, while it exhibits gross inequality. If world z is nevertheless better than x, then I think egalitarianism must be false; equality has no intrinsic value.