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It’s about values: human rights norms and tolerance for inequality

Using principles of non-discrimination and status equality, human rights have the potential to fill the ethical void in economics. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on economic inequality and human rights.  EspañolFrançais

This debate on inequality as a human rights issue has so far focused on the instrumental importance of human rights to inequality and vice versa, rather than on the intrinsic value of equality as a human rights norm. While Samuel Moyn argues that the human rights regime and movement have little to contribute as means to combat inequality, Philip Alston, Juan Pablo Jiménez, Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heinz argue that inequality obstructs the realization of human rights. Yet it is in articulating equality as a valuable social norm—and inequality as an injustice—that human rights theorists and practitioners can make a vital contribution to these contemporary social and political debates.

Social attitudes on inequality are a critical factor in the politics of change.  Unless inequality is seen as a problem, there would be no support for redistributive measures. Is inequality bad? How much inequality is acceptable? Few would argue for a completely egalitarian society. Inequality that results from differences in effort and ability is just reward, and provides necessary incentive for hard work. At what point does public opinion turn to find inequality “excessive” or “extreme”? Surveys show wide variation across countries and individuals on attitudes towards inequality as a problem.

Research on tolerance for inequality has approached the issue as individual grievances over one’s relative income position in the framework of Rational Choice Theory and not as an ethical issue and a social concern.  Key economic theories (e.g., the median voter theorem, or Hirschman’s “tunnel effect”), built on the assumption of the self-interested individual, theorize that attitudes towards inequality and support for redistribution depend on an individual’s position in the overall income/wealth distribution, and tolerance depends on whether s/he feels aggrieved by this position, either at a given point of time or in terms of future mobility. Intolerance for inequality would likely rise with increase in the level of inequality. Yet research has not found much empirical evidence to support these propositions.

People reject extreme inequality as unfair, regardless of one’s own economic position and self-interest. This approach takes no note of concern people have over inequality as an undesirable state of the society they live in—a concern not due to having less than others, but because they adhere to egalitarian values. As Amartya Sen points out, attitudes to inequality are a part of an individual’s ethical values—a view on what is morally right or wrong. People reject extreme inequality as unfair, regardless of one’s own economic position and self-interest. Such views are often socially constructed and shaped by cultural norms, which vary considerably across societies and time periods. Some empirical studies have emerged that show that it is cultural values that can explain the difference in the tolerance for inequality. For example, Marc Suhrcke finds important differences between East and Western Europe, attributable to a difference in historically entrenched cultural norms about inequality. Using data from 26 countries, Malte Lübker finds that intolerance for inequality and public support for redistribution is not driven by the level of inequality. He argues that this is attributable to social justice norms, concluding that, “traditional rational choice theory is ill-equipped to understand a phenomenon that involves value judgments and moral considerations”.

Indeed, current public debates about inequality turn on the immorality of inequality at the levels that have been reached today. The outrage is targeted at what extreme inequality stems from—unjust institutions that create and recreate inequality of income and wealth but also opportunities and political power. Advocates for reducing inequality from Joseph Stiglitz to Oxfam do not argue that inequality is excessive in the abstract, but in context as it relates to the capture of democratic political processes and market competition.

The groundswell of protests around the world reveals a grievance against injustice and failures of democracy that extreme inequality manifests. A study of worldwide protests (843 protests in 84 countries covering 92% of the world’s population and in all regions) occurring between January 2006 to July 2013 concludes that, “the majority of global protests for economic justice and against austerity manifest peoples’ indignation at the gross inequalities between ordinary communities and rich individuals/corporations”. Even the wealthy and powerful are concerned. Based on a 2014 survey of 1,500 global leaders in business, academia, government and civil society, the World Economic Forum reports widening income disparities to be the second most pressing worldwide concern identified after tensions in the Middle East.


Flickr/Julien Lagarde (Some rights reserved)

A study of worldwide protests occurring between January 2006 to July 2013 concludes that, “the majority of global protests for economic justice manifest peoples’ indignation at the gross inequalities between ordinary communities and rich individuals/corporations.”


Current concern with inequality is about the injustice of inequality which economics is ill equipped to articulate. The tools of economic analysis help design effective policies to combat inequality. They can also reveal the destructive effects of inequality on economic growth and human development. But they are silent on the intrinsic value of equality as a social norm, and inequality as injustice. Human rights norms and principles can help fill this ethical void in economics.  The principles of status equality and non-discrimination anchor an alternative framework for analysis of inequality, one that is based on the intrinsic value of equality as a social norm, and one that explores unjust institutions as the source of inequality.

Ironically, this is the motivation for this openGlobalRights debate and how each of the contributors sees the problem—starting with Alston, whose opening sentence states that the current level of inequality is “obscene”. Yet he goes on to make a case for inequality as a human rights issue on instrumental grounds, that inequality obstructs the realization of rights. The principle of status equality—that all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights—should not be dismissed as the only human rights reference to inequality. It has far reaching implications for policies in wide ranging policies—equal rights to education, to health care, to voice and so on. It is a vital contribution to these current debates and to research on the politics and economics of inequality.

What is needed now is a more coherent articulation of human rights norms and inequality as injustice, which is currently underdeveloped, if not entirely absent. Reducing inequality and winning public support for redistribution requires shifts in social values. The critical role of the human rights community is to spread the norm of equality of rights.

About the author

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr is a Professor of International Affairs at the The New School and the coauthor—with Terra Lawson-Remer and Susan Randolph—of Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights, OUP 2015, the recipient of the 2016 American Political Science Association’s  award for Best Book in Human Rights Scholarship.

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr es profesora de Asuntos Internacionales en The New School y coautora, con Terra Lawson-Remer y Susan Randolph, de Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights (Garantizar los derechos sociales y económicos), OUP 2015, el cual recibió el premio de Mejor Libro de Derechos Humanos de 2016 de la American Political Science Association.

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr est professeur de relations internationales à l’université The New School.

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