Income inequality and the ‘Groupon Theory of Morality’
Religion & Liberty Online

Income inequality and the ‘Groupon Theory of Morality’

For many years I was unable to understand the reasoning behind the claims that income inequality is a moral issue that only applies at the group level. Then it came to me like an epiphany—or more accurately, as a Groupon email.

According to Wikipedia, the Groupon works as an assurance contract: If a certain number of people sign up for an offer, then the deal becomes available to all; if the predetermined minimum is not met, no one gets the deal that day.

The popular argument for claiming that income inequality is a moral issue appears to rely on a similar idea: If a certain number of people agree to abide by a moral obligation, then the obligation is required by all; if the predetermined minimum is not met, no is required to meet the obligation.

In the case of income inequality, few people are willing to agree that it even compels a moral obligation, much less one they must abide by. So the income inequality moralists believe that force must be factored into the equation. The formulation then becomes:

Individuals have a moral obligation to do X. However, unless a certain number of people are forced to do X, then no particular individual should be expected to comply with this moral obligation.

Admittedly, this is not a completely accurate summation of their position. Many income inequality moralists think the obligation only pertains to other people (the rich, the “1%”, bankers, etc.) and not to them. But in order to present their case in the best possible light I will assume (whether it comports with reality or not) that they are neither hypocrites nor moral relativists. (Economist Bryan Caplan states the case less generously, but more realistically: “An egalitarian who defers to the law, does cost-benefit policy analysis, and refuses to go above and beyond the call of duty has become everything he hates.”)

Despite being familiar with most major ethical systems, I am at a loss to see how this fits in with any of them. Surely it must, though, for many people appear to believe they are being morally consistent. I’m curious as to whether there are any other moral obligations that fit this format.

Those who think income inequality is a moral issue but have never stopped to think what moral obligation is being violated or why they are allowed to exempt themselves will accuse me of creating a strawman. Perhaps I have, albeit unintentionally. If so, I hope someone will set me straight by providing a coherent and morally defensible argument for their position. Anyone want to take a crack at that?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).