What the rich owe the poor
RONALD DWORKIN explains in “Taking Rights Seriously” that fairness as a matter of principle “does not mean receiving equal treatment, but that everyone should be treated as an equal.” There is nothing wrong if some people are very rich. But everything seems wrong when there are people who end up extremely poor. What this situation makes manifest is that the ability to achieve on the part of some has been at the expense of the powerless majority who have been deprived of equal opportunities.
Equality in terms of status is not our problem. People in the margins of Philippine society are under no illusion to become rich given our circumstances. Our real problem is the injustice brought about by those inequalities that make manifest the fact that some people are not treated as an equal. A poor farmer does not really care if some executive drives a BMW or dines every night in some posh restaurant at BGC. But if the social condition that has enriched this executive is something that prevents the poor farmer from purchasing his own dinner or sending his children to school, then something is morally wrong.
Social justice in this regard is about making available those opportunities that enable people to achieve the social goods necessary for their wellbeing. The social contract tradition preaches such. In order to ensure fairness in society, John Rawls proposed in “A Theory of Justice” that we must “imagine a state of nature where we are blind as to our status or position in society.” This means that as parties to a social arrangement, people must not know ahead of time where they would end up or which fortunes they might get in the natural lottery. As Will Kymlicka puts it, “under this veil of ignorance, the position of equality is guaranteed as it ensures that those who might be able to influence the process in their favor, due to their better position in society, are unable to do so.”
But to assume that people will follow just rules can never be guaranteed. Intelligent people may develop self-serving interests and their insatiable desires will undermine the original agreement in the social contract. In this regard, while to be disadvantaged on the basis of the natural lottery is already bad, what makes matters worse is the fact that those who are at the top of the hierarchy may abuse their position of advantage.
President Aquino has spoken about the future of the next generation of Filipinos. But the truth of the matter is that the minds of a generation of young Filipinos have been primed only for employability in order for them to become mere “cogs in the machine” in the country’s feudal economic order. Indeed, the element of personal responsibility is important if the future is at stake. Proper decision-making is integral in terms of how one might be able to overcome a disadvantaged predicament. But while people may have expended considerable time and effort, the harsh reality of the lives of people is that one may still not enjoy the things one deserves on the basis of merit.
The legitimacy of any government rests on its ability to be able to distribute the primary social goods fairly, which means that it is the duty of any government to be able to secure that no individual will be disadvantaged in the social arrangement. Retirees, for example, are supposed to enjoy the twilight of their lives. The reality, however, is that they will actually lose in a year or two what they must have received from their small retirement benefits because of poor health, mounting debts, and family pressure. The basic point here is that to be disadvantaged even if one has been responsible in life is unacceptable. But I think the fault lies not in the choice of career or job. The fault lies in the system.
What sort of inequality is truly unjust? We can mention the situation of very rich people, celebrities included, who pay millions of pesos in income taxes. Compare their situation to a public school teacher’s from whom income tax is withheld. The situation is not really fair. The situation still disadvantages the poor teacher insofar as there is a huge disparity in terms of their take-home pay. This is exacerbated by what happens next. Reports indicate that very rich people hide their incomes under corporate layers to avoid paying the exact taxes they owe the government.
The life situation of people must be determined “as a matter of choice.” When people suffer on the basis of certain circumstances or actions that are an affront to their basic freedoms, it can be said that such a situation is something that they do not deserve—hence, unjust. Social solidarity is a byproduct of responsible citizenship. Citizens will only embrace their civic duties if social cooperation is to the benefit of everyone. Talent and intelligence must be duly compensated. The poor do not really intend to take anything from the rich. It is the rich who actually owe the poor an explanation.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.