Inequality & The Good Place

I’ve been watching the first season of The Good Place on Netflix which is a sit-com (with super-high ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes) about two people who are mistakenly sent to heaven and must learn moral philosophy to be able to stay. I like how the show illustrates a lot of interesting moral issues such as the fact that most of us tend to be more drawn to others who are not particularly moral and distance ourselves from the moral paragons.

It is easy to like the morally-flawed protagonist of the show and even though we admire the paragons of morality like the moral philosophy professor who is the protagonists’ sidekick, it is easy to understand why characters on the show frequently comment that, “everyone hates moral philosophy professors.”  Research confirms that most people prefer to have friends with moral flaws.  The moral paragons on the show can feel annoying whereas the flawed characters are often more relatable and it is certainly more cathartic to watch their foibles.  I suspect this helps explain why most Republican evangelicals prefer the obviously flawed Donald Trump over Mike Pence who is a paragon of virtue by comparison.  They don’t want impeachment to take away our flawed, cathartic leader and replace him with a boring, reliable one.

One of the moral philosophers who has most influenced the show is T. M. Scanlon whose philsophy of contractualism is the central guide for the show’s writers. Scanlon also argued that we should worry less about equality of outcomes and more about equality of opportunity. As Martin O’Neill wrote:

The distributive approach to equality fits with a model of egalitarian public policy that is essentially compensatory in nature. It may be seen as just a brute fact that, in the economic arena, many people lack opportunities or suffer indignities and harm to their sense of standing and self-respect. A state concerned with promoting greater equality could then come along after the fact and redistribute goods or welfare toward those who have lost out in economic life.

But, on the social egalitarian model that Scanlon advances, ex post compensation is not good enough. Instead, a state concerned with equality must ensure, from the start, that people are able to pursue lives of robust, individual agency within the economic domain, with a secure sense of their standing as equals among others. Instead of being concerned only with redistribution, egalitarian public policy should incline toward predistribution, which aims to reshape economic institutions so that they foster egalitarian social relationships, as well as more evenly distributed economic rewards.

Whether or not equality of outcome or of opportunity is the most ethical type of equality to focus on, equality of opportunity is the most politically achievable because both liberals and conservatives agree that equality of opportunity is important whereas many conservatives are skeptical about equality of outcomes. And in reality, there is tremendous overlap because you cannot have equality of opportunity without a big increase in equality of outcomes because each person’s opportunities are largely determined by what she or he inherits and inheritance is currently extremely inegalitarian because of the high inequality of outcomes in the previous generations.

You simply cannot have equality of opportunity without a lot of ex-post transfers from the wealthy of the previous generation to the children of the have nots in this generation. Because equality of opportunity requires that we stop the inequality of outcomes in the previous generation from being transferred as an unearned entitlement to their children in the next generation, there is no difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes when considering more than one generation and the welfare transfers from parents to children. And because equality of opportunity is more politically feasible since both the right and the left agree about it, we should focus on that if we want to accomplish more equality.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

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