Morality, Economic Inequality, and Policy Responces
by Salvatore Morelli, Dissertation Reviews
A review of What We Deserve:The Moral Origins of Economic Inequality and Our Policy Responses to It, by Jacob S. Bower-Bir.
Continued interactions among human beings within complex societal structures may lead to varying distributions of economic resources. A shared vision of justice, which is in turn shaped by human repeated interactions, can justify potentially wide divisions in the society among the well-to-do and the relatively less fortunate. In other words, the resulting unequal outcomes may be acceptable for society, even if perceived as discomforting and distressing to many, for they may be deemed just and equitable to the majority. If inequalities are deserved, the source of ever increasing inequality is posited on strong moral grounds and as such may not necessarily require any corrective intervention.
This simple but powerful argument constitutes the core message of Jacob Bower-Bir’s PhD dissertation, comprising 7 chapters.
The main conceptual and theoretical issues underlying the research question are outlined in the introductory chapter. The main source of data supporting the empirical investigations is also described: a large-N survey conducted on approximately 1000 American respondents that will feature in successive chapters.
In the Chapter 2, Bower-Bir first describes the nature and definition of desert as “the quality of meriting some rewards or punishments”. He then links, convincingly, the theory of social institutions and the diverse theories of justice to the more comprehensive notion of desert, suggesting that the latter has extraordinary and intrinsic explanatory and interpretative power, shedding bright light on each of these theories.
First of all, Bower-Bir suggests that “desert has all the hallmark of a social institution”. In particular, individuals definition of desert, as well as their assessment of social justice, define a set of morals that influence and constrain individuals’ behavior and define their expectations about others’ behavior. In other words, morals are social institutions, a statement that provides a theoretical justification for why people might follow the prescriptions of their morals, even if this is personally harmful.