Zoe Williams today vindicates the profession - and the purposes - of political philosophy. Good for her for doing so. This is how it comes about. Williams contrasts the prevailing attitude to slavery - namely, that it's flat wrong - with the way many people think about inequality, where, instead of appealing to a clear moral principle, they argue more pragmatically, referring to the likely outcomes of doing this or that as a way of dealing with it. But, she says, there's a principle here as clear as the principle that no one can rightfully own another person; it's the principle that 'all people are born equal'. It entails that it cannot be right for one person to be earning 185 times more than another; and it entails that it cannot be right for the incomes of the poorest households to stagnate while gross domestic product increases. Williams concludes:
We will not tackle inequality until we start talking about wages that are fair. We cannot make any dent on what is fundamentally a moral issue unless we're prepared to talk about morals.
She's right about this; inequality is a moral issue, whatever else it also is. But her comparison with slavery conceals a problem. For whereas with slavery a clear moral line can be drawn as to what is to be prohibited - the ownership of some persons by other persons is out, and that is the end of it - with the principle of moral equality we are only at the beginning of the discussion.
What does moral equality require? It is notorious that so soon as you invoke the idea of equality as a desideratum, others are entitled to ask of you, and you are then put upon your mettle to answer: equality of what? Do we realize the principle of moral equality by insisting that everyone should control the same quantity of resources; or that they should enjoy the same level of well-being; or get similar rewards for similar levels of effort; or all be able, equally, to make use of their talents and acquire what they can by doing so; or enjoy equality of opportunity (and, in that case, meaning what by 'opportunity'); or what? And the question of fairness goes beyond 'wages', beyond income and earnings, to the differential ownership of unearned resources.
In any event, Williams is right to worry over the huge disparities in earnings, and she's also right to identify this as an ineradicably moral issue. She points to the rationale of political philosophy just by the way and its importance to public debate.