What Types of Inequality are Acceptable?

I got some push back last week for posting an essay that argued that income equality is not in and of itself evidence of injustice.  On a related note David Brooks explains which types of inequality are socially acceptable and which are not in America:

Academic inequality is socially acceptable. It is perfectly fine to demonstrate that you are in the academic top 1 percent by wearing a Princeton, Harvard or Stanford sweatshirt.

[. . .]

Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates have given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

Moral fitness inequality is unacceptable. It is out of bounds to boast of your superior chastity, integrity, honor or honesty. Instead, one must respect the fact that we are all morally equal, though our behavior and ethical tastes may differ.

[. . .]

Church inequality is unacceptable. It would be uncouth to wear a Baptist or Catholic or Jewish jersey to signal that people of your faith are closer to God. It is wrong to look down on other faiths on the grounds that their creeds are erroneous.

Income inequality is acceptable. If you are a star baseball player, it is socially acceptable to sell your services for $25 million per year (after all, you have to do what’s best for your family). If you are a star C.E.O., it’s no longer quite polite to receive an $18 million compensation package, but everybody who can still does it

Read more . . .

Inequality is a fact of life. To be sure, some inequality reflects human sinfulness. But not all inequality reflects our fallen condition.  Like illness and death, not even those differences that are rooted in our fallenness are not necessarily the result of personal sin.

Does this mean that we should be indifferent to those among us who are in need? Of course not. It does however mean that we need to be discerning in how we understand and respond. Not all “helping” is helpful.

As Brooks argues above, at least in America there is a sliding moral scale of inequalities. Some we condemn, some we accept, and others we positively delight in. Where income inequality fits in this continuum of acceptable and unacceptable differences is a question that can, and should, be debated.

Such a debate needs to be guided not only by economics and empirical data, but also the Church’s moral tradition. One without the other is of little use.

But if our concern is a more just society, neither economics nor moral theology are sufficient. What is also need is the virtue of prudence. As I said above, not all help is helpful and this because we lack not only a knowledge of the facts but the practical skills need to make a bad situation better.

In my reading of the discussions of income inequality, it is not so much the lack of compassion but the lack prudence that is most worrisome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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