Moral Dimensions of Economic Inequality

There has been an enormous erosion of opportunities for people who are at the lower end of the scale. We have faltered in our commitment to create communities where everybody gets a share of the good life. A. Kornblum

While the subject of economic inequality has of late become more prominent, the defining issue of our time as the President once called it, there is scarcely any discussion of the moral issues posed by the enormous and growing disparities between the super-rich and the poor.

Instead, we have charts and tables, data and observations, liberal and conservative disputes, historical trends, recent findings and occasionally a proposed solution. And we have the widespread discussion of Thomas Piketty’s frequently discussed, frequently purchased, and, I suspect, not so frequently finished treatise, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

However, I am not overwhelmed with discussions of the merits, the morality or fairness of the “Great Divide.” Perhaps its moral unfairness is simply assumed. It’s hard to be sure about that. Are not the struggles and yes they are daily struggles of the poor even more important than all the oft-repeated facts? Have we grown to accept, desensitized, to the degree of economic inequality that currently exists in this country?

But is it right? Is it unjust? Is it cruel? What moral principles does it violate? Do we have to study philosophy all over again to answer these questions? Or can they be swiftly answered on grounds of simple fairness, commonsense moral arguments for justice?

Why such widespread silence on this issue? Where is the outrage, the protest, the demand for change?

William Sundstrom, an associate professor at Santa Clara University is one of the few who has confronted this issue head on (Santa Clara University Mark Kula Center for Applied Ethics, Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 1998).

Sundstrom doesn’t explore the claims he makes in any depth or provide their philosophical foundations. Rather he simply lists a set of moral concerns with a sentence of two describing each one. Conceivably he imagines they are self-evidently true. They include:

Compassion: As members of a larger community, we ought to care about individuals who are struggling to get by.

Fairness: Drastic inequalities between individuals in a market economy are incompatible with basic principles of human welfare.

Deservingness: A person’s income should have some relationship to what they deserve. “The low-skilled worker who puts in a long, hard day’s work may in the sense be as deserving as the high-powered lawyer or CEO.”

Opportunity: The limited opportunities of the poor to obtain an education, employment or exert political influence are inconsistent with a free, democratic society.

Individuals who seek to redress economic inequalities in this or other country might be well served by turning to these moral principles. In turn, those who wish to do nothing about the current and apparently growing differences between the rich and poor are obliged, in my mind, to formulate reasonable objections to those who believe the Great Divide violates basic principles of a just society.

Public discourse about the economic inequality seems to wax and wane. Piketty’s book stimulated interest for a while, as did the speech that Obama gave earlier this year. But he has not returned to the matter in any forceful way, preoccupied as he is by both large and small concerns elsewhere.

What will it take to focus public attention on this issue and, above all, its solution? Piketty’s book for all its intelligence and data is too academic. The broad economic policy speech the President delivered is all but forgotten. The economy seems to have recovered a bit from the Great Recession. The Occupy Wall Street movement has come and gone. Again, what is it going to take?