To follow up on Bas’s recent post, I’d like to briefly revisit the most powerful argument for thinking that poverty rather than material inequality per se is what matters morally: the leveling down objection. If material equality is intrinsically valuable, then we have reason to equalize even when it harms some (or even everyone) and benefits none. Here’s Derek Parfit, the originator of the objection:
If inequality is bad, its disappearance must be in one way a change for the better, however this change occurs. Suppose that, in some natural disaster, those who are better off lose all their extra resources, and become as badly off as everyone else. Since this change would remove the inequality, it must be in one way welcome . . . Though this disaster would be worse for some people, and better for no one, it must be, in one way, a change for the better. Similarly, it would be in one way an improvement if we destroyed the eyes of the sighted, not to benefit the blind, but only to make the sighted blind. These implications can be more plausibly regarded as monstrous, or absurd (“Equality and Priority“).
Indeed, insofar as material inequality is intrinsically valuable, we have reason to equalize even when equalization harms those who are very poor in absolute terms. In this case, egalitarianism is in direct conflict with humanitarianism.
Since we don’t have reason to equalize when it harms some and benefits none, we can infer the material equality has no intrinsic value. Of course, it could still be the case that material inequality has instrumental value as a means to poverty alleviation, etc. But that’s an empirical issue, not a philosophical one.
Some egalitarian political philosophers maintain that material equality is intrinsically valuable but reject leveling down all things considered. They claim that we have some reason to level down, even in Parfit’s blindness case, but our reason to promote well-being is stronger. This claim strikes me as counterintuitive–I agree with Parfit that it is in no way an improvement if we harm some and benefit none. But even if I’m wrong and there is some reason to equalize for its own sake, egalitarianism remains pretty toothless at the practical level: if well-being trumps equality, then the bottom line is that our institutions shouldn’t promote equality at the expense of well-being.