Morality, inequality, and charity

If Tim is correct that he has a higher IQ than Polly Toynbee, then this is unfair. Dissembling nature has blighted Polly with lesser abilities to perform certain kinds of cognitive acts, abilities that Tim has in such abundance that he is able to demolish my feeble arguments in less than a paragraph.

Polly and I both have powers of reasoning inferior to that of Tim Worstall. These are brute facts of reality. We are each born with a different set of endowments, and this places limits on what we can achieve. Life is unfair. And Tim is right that calling these brute natural inequalities “immoral” is a misuse of words, and I concede the point.

Something can be unfair without necessarily being immoral. We speak of something being “immoral” when it falls within the realm of human choice. It is unfair that Tim is cleverer than Polly Toynbee (as he assures us he is), but it wasn’t Tim’s decision (or anyone’s decision) that this should be so.

But sometimes things are both unfair and immoral. Society, being the product of human choice, is a realm in which we can say that because something is unfair it is immoral. Society is the way it is because people have chosen that it should be that way. Our society is riddled with inequalities of power and wealth that are not the result of nature. And this is unfair and immoral.


Readers will be familiar with the arguments of the philosopher John Rawls, whose big idea was that justice is fairness. There are arguments along Rawlsian lines that a certain degree of inequality is justifiable, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition to such an extent that even the very poorest are made better off than they would be in a more equal situation. But these arguments only enter into consideration after we have established the idea that the first and fairest way of distributing humanity’s finite resources is equally. Equality of resources should be the baseline, and any deviation from that equality should be determined on a case-by-case basis.


Put it like this: if, at some point in the future, humanity develops technologies that enable us to improve our cognitive capacities in various ways, including perhaps elevating poor old Polly Toynbee to the intellectual heights of the likes of Tim Worstall, then it would be fairest to distribute that technology as equally as possible. It would, I think, be immoral to restrict such a technology to only those with enormous wealth and power. At this point one’s IQ would cease to be a brute fact of nature, and would become a question of fairness. We – that is, humanity – would have  to choose how to distribute the gifts of intelligence, just as we now choose how to distribute the gifts of material wealth.

And this brings us back to charity. If you accept that chosen inequalities are morally objectionable, then any situation where one person has surplus wealth that they can choose to give to someone in need of that wealth, in turn becomes morally objectionable. Charity becomes an issue of private virtue and public vice. On an individual basis, charity is laudable, but when politicians start praising charity or calling for a ‘big society’, we should be more condemnatory. Politicians should be in the business of making a better society, not in perpetuating the inequalities of existing society. The better society is one with robust and non-voluntary social supports, not soup kitchens.


Anyway, Merry Christmas.



Worstall’s cold, grey, loveless thing


Tim Worstall asks:

And what the fuck’s wrong with voluntary collective action rather than State enforced collective action?

Answer: charity presupposes a condition in which some people have stuff which they can do without, and some people lack stuff that they really need. This inequality (which, like all inequalities, is morally objectionable on the face of it) is only sustained by the actions of the capitalist state in enforcing property rights through its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In a more just world, there would be no need for charity because you would not have a situation in which some people have, whilst others need.

Aside from this obvious point, I honestly don’t see any moral difference between a spontaneous, voluntary urge to do good on the part of certain individuals, and a reflective, truly collective urge to do good as manifest in a legal requirement to provide support to those in need through the existing system of taxation and welfare.

There is however, a practical difference, in the sense that the former option has more failure modes than the latter. If we, as a community of individuals, choose to rely on charity as the means to ensure that those in need do not starve, then there is a greater chance that certain unfortunates will slip through the system, or be denied what they need because they’re ugly, or smell bad, or are for whatever reason thought to be undeserving by the ‘charitable’ individuals left to dispense their support.

As Britain’s greatest ever prime minister once wrote:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.