Welcome to our online discussion of Juliana’s Bidadanure’s recent publication in Politics Philosophy & Economics ‘Making Sense of Age-Group Justice: A Time For Relational Equality?’. The paper is available through open access here. Paul Bou-Habib is starting us off with a critical précis. David Axelssen (LSE), Paula Casal (Pompea Fabra), Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen (Aarhus), Martin O’Neill (York) and Christian Schemmel (Manchester) will follow with their comments. This is going to be a very interesting exchange, so please join in!
People who believe that our social and political institutions should aim at securing equal resources and opportunities for all citizens, or equal welfare for all citizens, must resolve a question about time. Should our social and political institutions aim for equality between the complete lives of citizens or between certain temporal parts of their lives, or both?
The view that favors equality only between the complete lives of citizens is known as complete lives egalitarianism. One powerful justification for this view is the possibility of compensation between different temporal parts of our lives. How we fare at any one moment in time can, at least sometimes, compensate for, or can be compensated for by, how we fare at other moments. This seems to suggest that our claims on each other shouldn’t always depend on how we fare at any one moment in time, but on how we fare over all of the moments that can compensate for each other during our lives, or, assuming that all the moments of our lives are of this kind, over our complete lives.
One objection to complete lives egalitarianism is that there may not be sufficient psychological continuity between all of the selves that live through the moments of a complete life. That objection should lead proponents of complete lives egalitarianism to specify their view so that it favors equality between the long (though not necessarily complete) periods of people’s lives during which they live through psychologically continuous temporal parts.
Juliana Bidadanure’s excellent article discusses a different objection to complete lives egalitarianism. This is the objection that it favours unacceptable inequalities between people at given moments in time. To illustrate the objection, she begins her article with Dennis McKerlie’s memorable example of a city block that contains a condominium complex and a retirement home (see page 7 of his book, Justice Between the Young and Old). Residents of the condominium are “middle aged, middle class, affluent, and happy.” The retirement home “is old, overcrowded, and badly managed. Its residents receive adequate medical care, but their situation offers them little dignity and little opportunity for anything that approaches happiness.” Suppose the old once lived in the condominium and the young will live in the retirement home (and suppose other things are equal). If we believe we must compare people over their complete lives, we might have to conclude that there is nothing troubling about the current inequality between the young and the old. Yet, intuitively, it does seem troubling.
Bidadanure’s main claim (p. 235) is that a certain kind of egalitarian can account for what is troubling about the simultaneous inequality that is illustrated in McKerlie’s case only if that kind of egalitarian makes a specific assumption. The kind of egalitarian Bidadanure has in mind is a comparative egalitarian – that is, anyone who believes inequality is bad because it involves a person’s being worse off than others. (Non-comparative egalitarians believe we should support whoever is worse off, not because inequality, as such, is bad, but because the moral importance of benefitting a person is greater the worse off she is in absolute terms. This view is also known as prioritarianism.)
Bidadanure argues that comparative egalitarians can properly account for what’s troubling about McKerlie’s example (and other examples of age group inequality one could think of) only if they assume that social and political institutions must prevent certain morally problematic relationships from arising between people, such as relationships of domination, marginalization and status hierarchy.
To justify this claim, Bidadanure needs to show two things. First, that this assumption about the importance of preventing problematic relationships (let’s call it, the relational assumption) does indeed enable comparative egalitarians to explain what’s troubling about McKerlie’s example. She shows this by pointing out that the old in his example are spatially segregated from the young, and that spatial segregation is often a prelude to marginalization. Their relative poverty can also be associated, she explains, with unequal status and unequal levels of respect. Comparative egalitarians can explain what’s worrying about the age group inequality in McKerlie’s example by pointing to these aspects of it.
Secondly, she needs to show that comparative egalitarians cannot explain what’s troubling with McKerlie’s example on the basis of any other assumptions (i.e. apart from the relational assumption). She considers several alternatives. The first is one that McKerlie examines and rejects in Chapter 4 of his book. This is an assumption that inequality between simultaneous segments of different people’s lives is bad in itself. What matters isn’t only that people have equal amounts (of whatever it is we take to be the relevant equalisandum) over their complete lives, but that they have equal amounts of it, also, over simultaneous segments of their lives. Bidadanure rejects this proposal on the ground that there is no non-arbitrary way in which to demarcate the lengths of the segments of different people’s lives that must be simultaneously equal. Is it each month of their lives, each year, each decade, or some other period?
A second alternative to relying on the relational assumption is to rely on what Axel Gosseries has called a continuous sufficiency principle – i.e. a principle that requires that all persons continuously remain above some minimum threshold throughout their lives. This alternative, as Bidadanure acknowledges, is also noted by Paula Casal, and I have also argued that a variant of continuous sufficiency can be grounded in the idea of the dignity of persons. Bidadanure points out that the only version of the continuous sufficiency principle that is available to comparative egalitarians is one that involves the relational assumption that she says is indispensable. If the continuous minimum threshold is defined in absolute terms – i.e. in non-comparative terms – it is unavailable to comparative egalitarians. If it is defined in comparative terms, so that the “minimum threshold” is set as a proportion of what the better off have at any given moment – then McKerlie’s example may well meet that requirement: what the old have in his example, she says, “is within the normal opportunity range of the elderly in their society, and they have had the opportunity to live a normal lifespan” (p. 250). The only remaining version of the continuous sufficiency principle is that the minimum threshold is set as a “relational threshold” – i.e. a threshold that protects people against certain problematic relationships. But that, of course, is just the relational assumption that Bidadanure says comparative egalitarians must endorse.
Suppose Bidadanure’s central claim is right. Why does it matter? Apart from telling us about the attitude comparative egalitarians should take to age group inequality, she points out that her claim has significance for a broader debate between “relational egalitarianism” and “distributive egalitarianism”. Relational egalitarianism is the view that we should care about equality or inequality because of their relevance for the emergence of certain problematic relationships between citizens. (By “distributive egalitarianism” I think Bidadanure means the same thing as what I above called “comparative egalitarianism”.) Bidadanure believes that if, as she has argued, distributive (or comparative) egalitarians must endorse a relational assumption, then, two things follow. First, relational egalitarianism cannot be reduced to distributive egalitarianism in some way – i.e. it is a genuinely distinct form of egalitarianism. (I am not entirely sure why this is an implication of her claim but I will explain the reason that I think Bidadanure has in mind in the next paragraph.) The second is that distributive (or comparative) egalitarianism is insufficient as a full statement of the kinds of commitments egalitarians should endorse. Bidadanure doesn’t believe that egalitarians should dismiss distributive egalitarianism. She thinks there are good reasons for caring about how certain important goods are distributed between citizens. So, the overall implication she takes her main claim to have is that we should endorse a hybrid kind of egalitarianism: “we should supplement the distributive view with a relational component” (p. 238). In other words, distributive egalitarians should combine the view that some equalisandum should be distributed equally over the complete lives of citizens, with a relational assumption that requires that citizens be protected, throughout their lives, from various problematic relationships.
Bidadanure’s article contains several, complex arguments. I won’t be able to discuss all of them here. Instead, I will raise two objections. The first objection, which I will mention only briefly, is about the broader implications of her main claim for the relationship between distributive and relational egalitarianism. Distributive egalitarians might argue that relational egalitarian concerns can be re-written as distributive concerns so long as we specify the equalisandum that everyone must enjoy equally in a complex way so that it includes the relational goods of non-domination, inclusion and status. But – and here is what I said earlier I think Bidadanure has in mind when she says that relational egalitarianism cannot be reduced to distributive egalitarianism – the core concern of relational egalitarianism is that people should enjoy these relational goods continuously throughout their lives, not that they should enjoy equal aggregate amounts of them during their lives (whatever that would mean). However, a continuous concern for equality between people is just simultaneous equality, which, as we noted earlier, is implausible. So, the core concern of relational egalitarianism cannot be re-described in distributive terms.
I am not sure this argument works because distributive egalitarians might argue that the relevant equalisandum that should be equalized between simultaneous segments of people’s lives should be restricted to the goods of non-domination, inclusion and status and that when it is restricted in that way, simultaneous equality becomes much more plausible. This argument allows distributive egalitarians to maintain that relational egalitarianism reduces to distributive egalitarianism and that distributive egalitarianism is sufficient on its own.
I want to spend more time discussing a second objection, which is about Bidadanure’s hybrid view (complete lives egalitarianism plus a relational assumption). The hybrid view doesn’t seem to account for all cases of troubling age group inequality. The elderly face hardships that don’t have anything to do with the kinds of problematic relationships to which relational egalitarianism is sensitive. Some elderly people face serious illness and severe physical pain. Some struggle far more on a daily basis under financial strain. Yet, even if the young will face those same hardships, and we assume their complete lives are equal, it still seems wrong to ignore them. One could try to make the case that those hardships always translate into problematic relationships with others, but that that is true in all cases seems a stretch. And besides, even if one could show, in a given case, that illness brings, say, marginalisation, what the elderly reasonably want help with isn’t just their marginalisation, but their illness. We don’t necessarily do the right thing by an elderly person whose illness has caused her to be marginalised, if we end her marginalisation, while ignoring her illness (even if she will have had as good a complete life as us). The problem, in other words, is that it is difficult to see how we can explain all troubling cases of age group inequality with a hybrid view that combines complete lives egalitarianism only with a relational assumption. Bidadanure may be right that a relational assumption should be included in our deliberations about what different age groups owe to each other, but the hybrid view is still missing something.
I think what’s missing is a non-comparative principle of one kind or another that explains why we have reason to worry about people’s conditions at specific times independently of the quality of their whole lives, and independently of whatever relationships they share with others.
Consider two possibilities. The first, which Bidadanure does not discuss, is endorsed by McKerlie in Chapter 5 of his book. McKerlie believes we should endorse prioritarianism – i.e. the view that the moral importance of assigning benefits to people depends on their level of welfare, in absolute terms, prior to their receiving those benefits. More specifically, McKerlie thinks we should endorse two kinds of prioritarianism: complete lives prioritarianism, which tells us to prioritise support for persons with worse whole lives, and time-specific prioritarianism, which tells us to prioritise support for persons who are worse off at specific times. He believes we should try to strike some sort of balance between these two kinds of prioritarianism in cases where they conflict.
Time-specific prioritarianism provides one possible explanation for why the inequality between the young and the old in McKerlie’s example is troubling. It is troubling not for the comparative reason that the old are so much worse off than the young during that specific time, or for any relational reason, but simply because they are so much worse off at that time than they ought to be.
Still, I don’t think we should endorse time-specific prioritarianism. If, as prioritarians believe, the basis for a person’s claims is his level of welfare, then it is difficult to see why it is his welfare at specific moments that should matter, as opposed to his welfare over his complete life. Suppose someone was better off than me in the past, and that that situation is exactly reversed right now. His past superiority in welfare seems to compensate him for his being worse off than me now, and there does not seem to be a reason to give him priority when allocating available benefits between us.
I think a more promising possibility is a non-comparative principle that is grounded in the dignity of persons. A person’s dignity is a separate reason for being concerned about her from her welfare. So, it can tell us to show concern for her at specific times independently of whatever levels of welfare she has enjoyed at other moments in life. Furthermore, the kind of concern it tells us to have for her is not restricted to the kinds of relationships she shares with others at that specific time. People need to be treated with dignity, but they also need to be able to live with dignity, and we are unable to live with dignity when we are incapacitated, in various ways, by illness or pain. Dignity thus grounds the kind of non-comparative principle we need in order to account for all troubling cases of age group inequality.
But what about Bidadanure’s objection, that comparative egalitarians, who care about inequality as such, cannot coherently endorse a non-comparative principle? That objection does not seem decisive to me. We can be comparativists at the level of our complete lives while endorsing the idea that people should be treated in certain ways continuously throughout their lives. We can coherently say that inequality at the level of our complete lives is bad as such, and that, while inequality is not bad as such at specific times, it is bad that people fall below some non-comparative threshold at specific times. And we can say this compatibly with also saying that it is important that people be protected against various problematic relationships throughout their lives. The view that emerges would be even more hybrid than the hybrid view Bidadanure defends. But, as Bidadanure shows us so well in her article, there is nothing wrong with hybridity as such. The concerns that preoccupy different egalitarians may not always conflict with each other. They may even be indispensable parts of a complete view.5