According to the World Inequality Report 2018, recent decades have shown a large rise in global income inequality in nearly all countries in the world. For example, in the United States, the people with the top 10% income shared 34% of the American national income in 1980, while they currently possess 48% of the national income. This increase was lower in Europe (from 32% to 37%), but income inequality in China, India and Russia has increased at an even higher pace. In Russia for instance, statistics show a rise from 21% to 56%, which exposes how the abandoning of communism has affected inequality. The few exceptions that have a relatively stable income inequality, such as the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil, show constant huge income differences over time, as 10% of the top-earners in these countries received between 55% and 77% of the national income. Analysing the complete picture since 1980, the top 1% richest individuals in the world have benefitted from twice as much growth as the bottom 50% of people (1).

Not only these income differences indicate how unbalanced our current world is; differences in capital distribution are equally substantial. In 2017, the 500 richest people on earth have seen their ownership of capital rise with almost a 1,000 billion dollar, leading to a total capital ownership of 5,300 billion dollar. This is a rise of 23% in just one year (2). At the same time, human development organisation Oxfam has estimated that the poorest half of the world population possesses 400 billion dollars (3), which is half of the one-year total rise of capital ownership by the richest in 2017. Oxfam claimed that this year, for the first time in human history, the richest 1% of the world population own more than half of the world’s wealth (50.1%). More specifically, their report pointed out that the richest 42 people in the world possessed the same amount of money as the poorest 3.7 billion people, more than half of the world population. This is a significant difference with 2009, when 380 billionaires owned the same amount of wealth as these 42 do now. In total, from the 9,000 billion dollar rise of global wealth, 82% of that rise ended up in the hands of the richest 1% of the world, while the poorest half did not gain any advantage from this growth (4).  This relates to the claim of UN coordinator Jan Vandemoortele, who argued that macro-economic stability and growth do not automatically benefit the poor (5), which means that numeric averages of economic growth are poor indicators of a reduction of poverty or inequality.

While the trend towards growing inequality may not be similar in every country, the overall curve is steadily increasing every year. It is claimed that this will soon lead to the emergence of the first ‘trillionaire’, which illustrates how vast extreme wealth is developing. A trillion dollar is a one with twelve zeroes, a thousand billion dollars, or, as The Independent reporter James Vincent pointed out, enough to offer every person on earth 140 dollars each or buy all real estate of central London (6). Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is rapidly coming closer to reaching this almost unimaginable amount of wealth with a current ownership of 116.8 billion dollars (7). Even though he ‘only’ possesses roughly 10% of the magic number of a trillion dollars, the rapid growth of income and ownership by the richest 1% since 1980 made Oxfam speculate that the arrival of the first trillionaire might happen within the next 25 years (8). In consideration of this and the data of the previous paragraphs, it can be concluded that the group of richest people in the world is not only becoming wealthier, but individually also reach new levels of wealth that are creating even wider gaps with the remainder of the world population. An important note here is that the numbers about ‘the richest 1%’ are not only about the billionaires and the upcoming trillionaires, but embrace all people with a yearly income of 30.250 euros or more[1] (9).

While the wealth levels of the richest people are steadily increasing, 10.7% of the world’s population live below the extreme poverty line, meaning that 767 million people live off 1.90 dollars or less a day. Especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, many people need to survive on this bare minimum. However, at the same time, it is claimed by The World Bank that the number of people living below the poverty line is steadily declining, with an average pace of 1.1 percentage points a year since 1990 (10). Yet, while looking at more of Vandemoortele’s assertions, it cannot only be questioned whether existing poverty norms are valid minimum levels, but it can also be argued that considering economic growth as the best way to reduce poverty might be a wrong assumption. According to Vandemoortele, “Much will depend on how [economic] stability is achieved” and “more nuanced positions and conclusions are warranted, given the many complexities that govern the relationship between growth and poverty” (5). A good example of this can be found in Africa, where recent reports show that the number of people living in extreme poverty has grown substantially, even though general poverty numbers may be lower than previous estimates (11).

So, where there soon might be people having so much wealth that they could buy Apple, help approximately 8 million Americans through all four years of college or order 26,000 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO’s (12); a huge part of the world’s population will live in deprivation and will not be able to provide their families with basic health care, enough food or a roof over their head. This contradiction, combined with the data mentioned thus far, leads to the content and the purpose of this paper[2].

I strongly believe in Nelson Mandela’s claim that “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest” (13).  Or, in slightly different words, if there is a group of people who have sufficient resources to live a humane, healthy and peaceful life, they cannot turn their eyes away from a group of people who lack the means to also live such a life. In Part I of this paper, by analysing the various consequences of huge global inequalities, I will offer reasons why the validity of this reasoning can be strengthened, as inequality has many negative and even dangerous implications. To do so, I will adopt an interdisciplinary approach where I will combine various sources from political and social sciences. Next, in Part II, I will assert different theories within the discipline of Political Philosophy that can be used to combat inequality. These principles of ‘Distributive Justice’ offer concepts on how the benefits and burdens of society should be distributed and how for example income, wealth, opportunities, jobs and welfare should be allocated. Finally, in Part III, I aim to offer a framework for a pragmatic approach of Distributive Justice by combining existing theories of Distributive Justice with current data on global inequality. By doing so, I intend to make the abstract ideas of Distributive Justice applicable to one of the most urgent and difficult challenges of contemporary times: reducing the extent of global inequality.


We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in
the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
Louis Brandeis

The introduction of this paper has shown that global inequality is not only persistent throughout recent decades, but is also increasing at a steady pace. However, so far, nothing has been said about the consequences of inequality itself. How does inequality affect people’s behaviour? How does it influence political relations and stability? How can it cause obstacles related to health care or food and water access? To address these types of questions, I will now examine the psychological, political and humanitarian implications of extensive inequality.


Various studies show that inequality has two sorts of psychological implications. On the one hand, it has been established that being at the bottom of the wealth distribution has severe, negative consequences for one’s psychological well-being. For instance, a 2012 study on the relationship between inequality and happiness showed that (income) inequality directly affects people’s happiness for two different reasons. The first and most obvious reason, self-interest, affects people’s well-being as people tend to have negative attitudes towards inequality when they themselves are on the ‘wrong’ side of it. The second reason, regard for others, affects people’s well-being as research shows that humans often have truly egalitarian preferences and strong beliefs on fairness. If these preferences or beliefs are not met, it will have an impact on their happiness level (14). After all, when you think of yourself watching a commercial of starving children in Africa, it is quite likely that you will experience the negative feeling that the world is rather unjust than fair.

A different study, performed in the United States, argued that there is a strong relationship between income inequality and poor health, as the study pointed out that more unequal states showed higher incidences of depressions (15). Other research on inequality has shown similar results, but also demonstrated that places with high inequality rates are associated with increased anxiety and mistrust about social status. This does not only lead to lower happiness, but also to lower social cohesion, weaker morality, higher mortality and worse health (16). Furthermore, there is evidence found that more egalitarian societies consistently do better than unequal ones, and even that psychiatric problems such as schizophrenia, narcissism and psychotic symptoms are more common in less equal societies (17).

On the other hand, research has shown that being at the top of the inequality scale can lead to negative attitudes towards people who are less fortunate. Princeton University has conducted a study in which the brain activity of university students was monitored while they were looking at images of different sorts of people. The MRI scans specifically focussed on the part of the brain that normally is activated when someone thinks of other people. However, when images were shown of homeless people, drug addicts or other less-fortunate people, this part stayed inactive. On the contrary, the (mostly affluent) students responded to these images as if they “had tumbled on a pile of trash”. The research concluded that being extremely wealthy could lead to seeing the less rich as “subhuman” (18). Similar results were found in a study from the Universities of Amsterdam and California, in which couples that never met before were asked to share personal issues with each other. It was demonstrated that the wealthier individuals tended to show fewer compassion towards the difficulties of the less-rich and less-powerful (19).

By analysing the consistency of the above explained study outcomes, it can be determined that a large social gap between people (i.e. large inequality) often leads to a high prevalence of mental illnesses, lower happiness levels and poorer health. At the same time, it is also shown that it can cause severe implications for the way people behave towards each other, which leads me to the next section of this chapter: the political implications of inequality.


Concluding from the previous paragraph, inequality has a significant impact on the empathy levels of wealthier people. It has been argued that as a consequence, this may well influence political decisions and policies (18). For example, when there is a large social distance between a (wealthy) politician and a (poorer) working-class individual, and therefore a lack of empathy from the political side, social policies will find it harder to come into existence. After all, if you would consider the poor person to be less human or when you lack the empathy to understand her or his situation, it is less likely that you will think of policies that can help this person out of deprivation.

This is in line with the findings of philosophy and law professor Thomas Christiano. In his paper Money in Politics he explains how money can be turned into political power, and how this has strong influence on laws and policies. According to Christiano, this can occur via four mechanisms. Firstly, as rich people can easily use money to fund political parties and individuals, it will not only create significant influence by the donor on the political program, but may also lead to a situation in which the implemented policies protect the donor’s own interest. An extreme example is currently occurring in American politics, where a new tax bill by president Donald Trump proposes a drop of 2.6% for the individual tax rate (from 39.6% to 37) and a drop of 14% for the corporate tax rate (from 35% to 21%). It is claimed that this will only benefit the richest classes and large companies, and will simultaneously deprive the American middle class, thus leading to higher levels of inequality (20). However, the bill does not only benefit the well-off, but will also benefit Trump’s own companies, as calculations show that he will save approximately 11 million dollars a year if the new tax system would be implemented (21).

Secondly, when the ability to raise funds becomes an important aspect of political campaigns, and the upper-middle-class and rich people have more possibilities to fund these campaigns (as they simply have more money), the political candidates who represent these groups are more likely to end up as final candidates. Resulting from this, candidates who represent the poor and middle-class people are therefore less likely to be elected, and the political influence by these groups consequently decreases. A recent example can be found in the US Democratic elections of 2016, won by Hilary Clinton, went on to almost win the US elections of 2017. With a joint income of 10.5 million dollars, a political campaign largely funded by large banks and with a campaign budget of 623.1 million dollars (22), it is claimed that she only represented the rich and successful people of American society. Characterizing for this was her statement regarding Trump voters, whom she called “the basket of deplorables” (23), reinforcing her distance from the working-class people. However, at the same time, the other democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, had to campaign without support from large companies and ‘only’ had 234.3 million dollars to spend[3] (25), while he placed a much stronger emphasis on combatting wealth inequality, establishing free education and creating higher salaries in favour of working-class people (24).

Thirdly, as the media can be highly susceptible to money as well, they can easily be used by most well-off to spread their political ideas and create positive attitudes towards their political goals. A good example can be found in Italy, where for decades (extremely-wealthy) ex-president Silvio Berlusconi has wielded immense political influence, even though he was part of several scandals. It is often argued that his ownership of several Italian media sources allowed him to decrease the impact of his own controversies. Furthermore, there are claims that his influence in the media was also used to spread his own political ideas (26; 27).

Lastly, as the most well-off people often have portions of their wealth concentrated in large firms, they have the capability to use the economic power of these firms to change political discourse (28). To give an example, imagine a labour union that comes to an agreement with the government about higher salaries for low-skilled workers. The companies that employs these workers could respond by threatening to move to another (cheaper) country, thereby causing unemployment and economic instability. The government might then reconsider the agreement and continue to allow the low salaries, and thereby continue to reinforce inequality.

Concluding from all this, it can be said that inequality can both arise from politics as well as influence politics, and that it directly endangers democracy and political equality. The consequence of the most well-off having high political influence could be that public spending is not directed – as normally – to the common good, but rather to benefit the rich by tax cuts and regulations. This can then result in under-investment in public services such as health, social benefits and education, and in extreme cases, may lead to a society that is solely ruled by the wealthy, i.e. a plutocracy (29).


Apart from severe psychological and political implications, there are also humanitarian consequences to extensive inequality that directly harm people. These are often strongly related to environmental issues caused by human behaviour. An unfortunate but coherent example of this can currently be found in South Africa, where the major city of Cape Town is coming closer to ‘Day Zero’; the day that the city runs out of water. A researcher at the Global Change Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, David Olivier, claims that the main causes of the shortage are the general attitude towards water usage and the way people live. According to Olivier, “It’s ‘we pay our taxes’ and therefore we should be as comfortable as possible” (30). However, a claim like this can only be used by the people who can actually pay for high water usage. A large part of Cape Town’s residents lives in townships such as Khayelitsha, where people have no bathrooms, much less a dishwasher or a washing machine. While the richer people complain about the current water restriction of 25 litres a day[4], people in the townships are used to a maximum of 50 litres a day for years (31). They do not have the swimming pools, gardens and other water-intensive means that play a big part in the water shortage issues (32). However, even though the problem is largely caused by the water usage of people who can afford such large water consumption, they are at the same time the people who are least affected by the problems. The affluent can use expensive water delivery and in-built tanks to meet their demand for water, while the poor people are seeing their already low water consumption being reduced even further (33). A water crisis like this is not only endangering stability in Cape Town, but also threatens cities such as São Paulo, Bangalore and Beijing; cities that also endure high inequality levels (34; 35; 36; 37).

There are many other examples of humanitarian implications of inequality. Think of construction workers in Dubai, who are living in extreme poverty while working for the extreme rich in dangerous conditions. Because the poor work for starvation wages[5], the rich are capable to expand their wealth and property to a great extent (38). A different example can be found in the clothing business, an industry that clearly demonstrates the global humanitarian consequences of large inequalities. According to a report by the International Labour Organisation, most of the 170 million children that are globally engaged in child labour are working in this controversial industry. Clothing companies can only keep up with the large demand of (wealthier) consumers in Europe, the US and beyond by using these forms of cheap labour from for instance Egypt, Pakistan, China, India and Bangladesh (39; 40). Another example are fuel consumption patterns, as many people continue to use relatively cheap gas from companies that have consistently participated in human rights violations that expanded inequality, such as gas company Shell (41). It seems that extensive, global inequality only leads to greater inequality, and even causes humanitarian threats that can result in severe harm for large numbers of people.


The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”Aristotle

Based on the previous part, we can conclude that inequality has harmful implications for large groups of people. Does this make inequality morally unjustified? This question leads us to political philosophy, a field of study in which principles of ‘Distributive Justice’ try to determine what a justified distribution of goods should be. These principles can be considered as the framework or the moral guidance for political policies and structures (42). In this second part, I will briefly address three principles of Distributive Justice that are all very much related to the social-scientific data discussed thus far. I will start with examining the principle of Egalitarianism.


The principle of Egalitarianism claims that people should be treated the same, be treated as equals and/or receive the same. The moral idea behind this theory, historically emerged from the Christian belief that God loves all human souls equally, is that all human beings are fundamentally equal in what they are worth. Someone who supports this principle will uphold the idea that all people ought to be treated as equals and all are intitled to the same fundamental level of dignity. Within this principle, no one can and should be born into a caste or a favoured race. This preference for full equality can have an instrumental value, where equality is deemed important due to its advancement of solidarity and community among people, or it can have a non-instrumental value, whereby equality has moral importance and is understood as a component of justice.

Within Egalitarianism, the concept of Equality of Opportunity is often considered as an ideal situation. This idea states that every single human should have the same opportunities in life, and if not, should be given the resources to have these opportunities. This means that in an ideal society, everyone would have the same starting position, and jobs and positions would be open to all applicants. As all people would have the same starting position, no one is able to use pre-owned wealth to prepare oneself better for life opportunities. A strong egalitarian will therefore aim to eliminate any advantages created by family wealth or social status (43). At the same time, Equality of Opportunity is not necessarily incompatible with inequality. While in a caste society inequality can result from simply being born; in a society of Equality of Opportunity, inequality can arise from forms of competitive processes to which everyone is eligible to on equal terms. After all, if everyone is given the same starting point, they can then compete for the positions and jobs they would prefer, which could still lead to some people having more than others (44). Thus, Equality of Opportunity allows distributive differences, as long as they are not fixed in advance and result from processes in which all people are treated equally (45). Famous philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) summarizes this reasoning in A Theory of Justice (46):

“Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system”. (Rawls, p. 73, 1971)

However, it is often claimed that this ideal might lead to unequal rewards, which are then incompatible with the egalitarian principles. How should these rewards be limited and justified? Harvard philosopher Thomas Scanlon (1940) has proposed a three-level justification for inequality emerging from the Equality of Opportunity, which consists of Institution Justification, Procedural Fairness and Substantive Opportunity. The first justification claims that having an institution that generates certain inequalities is fair, which means that inequalities can be justified “simply by the fact that they arise from interactions between individuals exercising their property and contract rights”. This Institutional Justification relates to Rawls’s Difference Principle, as this principle would allow institutions to create inequalities, as long as they benefit those who are worse-off (46). The second justification says that inequality is justified when the process that led to inequality was procedurally fair, meaning that for example “no fraud or theft was involved”. The last justification says that it is not unjust to withhold people from an opportunity if they do not have the necessary qualifications (47). Following these justifications, inequality can be legitimated, even within Egalitarianism.


Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (1929) has argued that not everyone should have the same, as has been claimed by Egalitarians, but rather should have enough. He further examined this idea in his principle of Sufficientarianism. From a moral point of view, Frankfurt claimed that the very idea of equality cannot be neutral and rather creates “envy”, and at the same time causes “moral shallowness” because of its lack of interest in determining what is enough. According to Frankfurt, “it is whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others” (48). Thus, the importance is not to compare wealth differences between certain groups of people, but rather to make sure that people have sufficient means to reach a threshold that allows them to have a decent life prospect. The doctrine of Sufficientarianism therefore holds that it should be prevented that people fall below a sufficiency threshold that would prevent them from having such a life (43). According to philosophy professor Paula Casal, a good reason to support Sufficientarianism can be based on the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994), who stated the following (49):

“[There is] no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. Human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.” (Popper, p. 570-71, 1943)

Following Poppers reasoning, it is not the pursuit of happiness that should have the highest priority, but rather the avoidance of situations that could harm people, which would therefore make Sufficientarianism the strongest principle of Distributive Justice.

The principle of Sufficientarianism is based on a positive and a negative thesis. This means that when one individual finds her- or himself below the threshold of sufficiency, while someone else is above the threshold, the priority should be given to the first individual in order to put her or him above the threshold. This is the positive thesis. However, when both individuals are above the threshold, the position of the less well-off does not matter; this being the negative thesis. The goal of Sufficientarianism is to use all available resources to give as many people as possible enough (50). This also means that when people pass the minimum threshold to live a decent life, there is no need to offer further forms of aid (51).

The idea that everyone should have enough brings forth two questions: enough of what and how much is enough? Economics philosopher Amartya Sen (1933) tried to answer this question by creating a framework to measure poverty and use this to determine a minimum threshold (52). Elizabeth Anderson has rather claimed for ‘democratic equality’, meaning that everyone should have the ability to fully participate in a democratic society, which closely relates to the concept of Equality of Opportunity (53). Frankfurt himself proposed that a threshold is reached when someone does not have “an active interest in getting more”, as “a contented person regards having more money as inessential to his being satisfied with his life”. Even though someone might enjoy additional benefits by receiving more money, he is not “particularly eager or restless” in receiving it (54).

Sufficientarianism has been criticised and several scholars tried to improve it. Nonetheless, the underlying idea of Sufficientarianism can be used as valid argument to support those in need and was of great influence in the emergence of welfare states (55), After all, the providence of some minimum living standard is widely accepted in several countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Sweden (56).


A quite new principal within Distributive Justice is what philosophy professor Ingrid Robeyns (1972) calls Limitarianism. She advocates that it is not morally permissible to be rich, where being rich is defined as “having more resources than are needed to fully flourish in life”. The underlying reasons for holding this view are closely related to the implications of inequality that have been mentioned earlier in this paper. For example, Robeyns also points to Christiano’s paper Money in Politics to demonstrate how extreme wealth has severe implications for democracy. Simultaneously, she uses an argument that strongly relates to the humanitarian implications of inequality discussed in part I, which she calls the argument from unmet needs. This argument is considered legitimate when at a certain moment in the world there are [1] extreme global poverties, [2] local or global disadvantages for people, [3] urgent challenges in collective-action and when these three conditions can be changed by active government-action and the appropriate financial resources. Robeyns uses data comparable to those that have been discussed in part I of this paper to show that our current world fulfils all these conditions. For example, she claims that much of the current global poverty can be reduced by interventions that require financial resources, including the institutional changes to make such interventions possible. Also, she claims that people who are not extremely poor in a material way can still be “deprived or disadvantaged in many other ways”. Think of children who need special education that they are not receiving or people with mental health problems who cannot get adequate support. Robeyns also argues that there are indeed “numerous collective-action problems that require the attention of governments or other actors of change”, as many of the major problems in the world “could be effectively addressed if only the government were to devote sufficient attention and resources to these issues”.

Robeyns uses the Rescue Principle of Scanlon (57) to support her doctrine, which states the following:

“If you are presented with a situation in which you can prevent something very bad from happening, or alleviate someone’s dire plight, by making only a slight (or even moderate) sacrifice, then it would be wrong not to do so”. (Scanlon, p. 244, 1998)

Following this reasoning, the well-off would have a direct duty to support those in need. After all, using surplus money to prevent suffering does not demand a big sacrifice. However, according to Robeyns, her limitarian principle is less demanding, as she does not defend an intrinsic version of Limitarianism. In such an interpretation, being rich would be morally objectionable in itself. Robeyns rather stands for a non-intrinsic version, which holds that “riches are morally objectionable to a world where certain intrinsically important values are not secured and where Limitarianism is instrumentally valuable to securing those ultimate ends”. Therefore, she focusses her doctrine only on moral duties related to surplus money. This means that someone will not be prevented from buying a new piano or taking a holiday abroad, as this can be beneficial to further flourish in life and is therefore not considered to be wrong.

Related to the distinction between Limitarianism as an intrinsic or non-intrinsic doctrine is the question how the principle should be realized. If Limitarianism is merely considered as a moral doctrine, there would only be a moral duty not to be rich. This means that if one would become rich, no one would prevent her or him from doing so, and it would solely violate a norm that is set on the possession of wealth. However, Limitarianism can also be used as a political doctrine, in which the government actively taxes surplus money, or in a more radical version, reforms social and economic institutions so no one would even be allowed to gain surplus money. As Robeyns applied political justifications to her principle and used Rawls’s vision of justice, which holds that “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override”, and that “for this reason, justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others” (46), she argues for Limitarianism as political doctrine. After all, only when Limitarianism is accepted as part of Rawls’s view on justice, coercive measures to achieve a just society would be made possible (58).


“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and
can be removed by the actions of human beings”
Nelson Mandela

From what has been demonstrated in the first two parts of this paper, it can be deduced that the examined principles of Distributive Justice are not successfully applied to the current global distribution of goods, as on the one hand, the most well-off are getting richer, characterized by the possible emergence of the first ‘trillionaire’, and, on the other hand, the least well-off are living below thresholds that prevent them from fully flourishing in life. This leads to a still-growing inequality gap, as there is no wealth-limit for the first group of people and no sufficiency-minimum for the latter. Because of this, one might claim that Egalitarianism, Sufficientarianism and Limitarianism are merely ideal theories, rather than theories that are of actual practical value.


Even though the current global situation seems far removed from the discussed principles of Distributive Justice, this does not automatically mean that they could not work. For example, despite large global obstacles, we have seen how the basic idea of Sufficientarianism has been successfully applied in some welfare states. Still, on a larger scale, the global (political) system of distribution seems too powerful to be affected by the ideas of Distributive Justice. This is characterized by individual consumption behaviour and the unwillingness of governments to change policies in favour of these principles. Think for example of Trump’s tax plan in favour of the rich[6] or the consumption patterns that can cause large problems such as the water shortage in Cape Town.

Does this make these principles meaningless? After all, as philosophy professors Julian Lamont and Christi Favor have pointed out, “Distributive Justice is not an area where we can say an idea is good in theory but not in practice”, because “if it is not good in practice, then it is not good in theory either” (42). I agree with their statement, as I think an important goal of philosophers should be to reflect on how their ideas can work in practice. Nonetheless, I do not consider the principles discussed fruitless because of this. I rather think that they should not be seen as separate principles, but used as supplementary to one another. Robeyns already advised this regarding her own principle by stating that “The principle of Limitarianism can be combined with additional recipient-oriented principles of justice or with distributive rules about those parts of the distribution below the wealth line” (58).

Therefore, in this last part, I will argue for a hybrid model of Distributive Justice which I will call Realistic Egalitarianism. Within this new principle, Sufficientarianism will be made possible by the concept of Limitarianism, which can lead to a more equal, global society. The principle will be grounded by the existing principles of Distributive Justice, but also by the implications of extreme inequality that are described earlier in this paper. This makes the principle both morally and theoretically justified, and simultaneously practically achievable.

To show how Realistic Egalitarianism works in practice, consider the following figure:

As made visible, Limitarianism pushes the extreme wealthy – the ones above the maximum threshold (I) – downwards (II) by redistributing their surplus money (III) to the people below the minimum threshold (IV), making the goal of Sufficientarianism – providing resources to the worst-off to reach the minimum threshold – possible (V). The space between the thresholds will be called Just Competition (VI), in which a free market economy can exist and where inequality can occur as long as it is a result after complete Equality of Opportunity. This is not only a strong moral improvement of current global distribution, but also makes the model feasible, as it does not require the abolishment of a free market economy, i.e. capitalism. I will now explain the various arguments that justify the model in more detail.

The argument for limited inequality

Realistic Egalitarianism does not oppose inequality per se, but aims to allow it under certain circumstances, as I do not believe that wealth inequality in itself, or being richer than others, is intrinsically bad. While everyone should be entitled to the same opportunities and have the freedom to choose what to do with them, it needs to be taken into account that humans vary, and that some are more content with having less, just as others can be happier with having more and are therefore prepared to work more to gain more wealth. Having ambitions is relative, just as being content with less is relative. Therefore, within Just Competition, Equality of Opportunity is what matters, not full equality. Yet, it is important that within Just Competition, Scanlon’s three level justification (Institution Justification, Procedural Fairness and Substantive Opportunity) needs to be adhered, as only with those criteria the potential inequality can be legitimated.

Allowing inequality also has a practical reason, as I consider it unrealistic to think about an (almost) completely equal world where everyone has the same. Although I consider such Marxist thoughts to be morally relevant, I follow Richard Rorty (1931-2007) that we do not have to undo economic impoverishment by (solely) focussing on the wrongs of private ownership of the means of production. Still, we need to take these concerns into account, as I consider Scanlon to be correct when he stated that “workers, as participants in a scheme of cooperation that produces national income, have a claim to a fair share of what they have helped to produce” (59). However, even if it would be desired, I believe it is simply not possible to overthrew capitalism in our current global system in its current state. Like Rorty, I rather belief that we need a highly socialized democracy for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth (60). Therefore, I argue that the goal should be to limit the harm that capitalism has done and is doing, by aiming at a version of Realistic Egalitarianism in which capitalism and free market economy can still exist (and thus inequality), as long as it takes place between the two thresholds – within the space of Just Competition –, so everyone receives the fair share that Scanlon has argued for.

The argument for limiting wealth

While Realistic Egalitarianism allows inequality and therefore allows that some people are wealthier than others, it aims to prevent extreme inequalities by using Limitarianism to limit wealth possession. Or, to put it differently: it prevents capitalism to result in an unfair distribution of capital. This is because I do believe that extreme inequality is intrinsically bad due to its implications that directly harm human well-being, as shown in earlier in this paper. However, there is another reason why limiting wealth is not only justified, but is also a necessary measure that can be grounded in the relationship between environmental evidence and inequality; a relation that has already been discussed before. This connection can be further explained by the claim that humanity has already passed many boundaries that keep our planet hospitable to modern life, which has a strong impact on environmental issues such as climate change (61). It can be claimed that the most well-off people will have the highest influence on such issues, as they use the earth’s resources more intensively simply because they can effort to do so. Think for example about the water shortage in Cape Town or consider that only the well-off people can use many fuel-consuming transportation methods that affect climate change. This can be proven by considering the model of the Global Footprint. This footprint is calculated in global hectares, a metric that assesses the global per-person biological productive space, which can be used to measure how much of the earth’s resources one person uses. It is claimed that the current global average was 2.2 global hectares per person, which, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is 20% to 25% over the number that our earth is able to handle (an estimate of 1.8 hectares for every person) (62). However, if we consider specific countries, there are huge differences. For example, with an average of 9.5 global hectares, the United States uses six times more than the global average. And while the average in the Netherlands is 4.7 hectares, individuals in India, Tanzania and Afghanistan use less than 1 global hectare per person. The overall global trend shows familiar results, where richer countries indeed often play a more significant role (63), as is visible in the following map (where darker means a higher global hectare average):

At the same time, the environmental issues are not only mainly caused by the richer countries; research has also shown how this depletion of the earth will exacerbate inequality, as poor people will most likely pay the highest price for the economic consequences of for instance climate change (64). Thus, when considering the negative snowball-effect of the richer countries’ high usage of earth resources, a limitation to wealth is a necessary and justified measure, as this will force the well-off to reduce their usage of the earth’s resources[7].

The argument for redistributing surplus wealth

As explained, Realistic Egalitarianism not only limits wealth, but also aims to redistribute the remainder surplus wealth. There are two reasons to support this choice. The first reason is that the redistribution of surplus wealth is merely a methodological choice for the operation of the principle, as it is feasible to use surplus wealth – which is not needed for survival – for the providence of sufficiency for the least well-off. For example, we could follow the idea of economist and philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, who argued that we can use the profits of capitalism to provide sufficiency via certain arrangements, such as a universal grant (i.e. basic income) (65). Thus, within Realistic Egalitarianism, surplus wealth will be used to provide sufficiency for the people below the minimum threshold, simply because of its pragmatic strength of preventing poverty – hence harm -, therewith adhering to the Rescue Principle of Scanlon.

The second reason for redistributing wealth is grounded by the writings of ethics professor Thomas Pogge (1953). According to Pogge, there is a direct relationship between the deprivation of the least well-off and the wealth of the richest, as “the worse-off are not merely poor and often starving, but are being impoverished and starved under our shared institutional arrangements, which inescapably shape their lives”. Pogge has listed certain conditions that prove that this is currently happening, for instance when the well-off “enjoy significant advantages in the use of a single natural resource base from whose benefits the worse-off are largely, and without compensation, excluded”. This condition relates with what this paper has already shown, as many of the extreme rich can only be so rich because of the economic deprivation of the least well-off. For example, think back of the humanitarian implications of inequality, where the rich benefit from low wages in poor countries, or think about how climate change is largely caused by the well-off. Pogge argues that this negative contribution can invoke both the positive duty to “help persons in acute distress” and the negative duty “not to contribute to or profit from the unjust impoverishment of others” (66). Concluding from this, when accepting Pogge’s reasoning and thus accepting the duties that the well-off have, we have a valid legitimation for the redistribution of surplus wealth, as by doing so the well-off fulfil their (moral) duties towards the least well-off.


Concluding from the previous paragraph, Realistic Egalitarianism can be defended by three arguments. Firstly, while extreme inequality is bad, inequality itself is not, which justifies a limited version of a free market economy. Secondly, due to the severe implications of extreme wealth inequality, limiting wealth is justified. And thirdly, as the deprivation of the least well-off is directly related to the wealth of the richest, redistribution of surplus wealth is justified.

However, one might say that even though the model can be morally justified, the practical feasibility of redistributing wealth in form of money might be low, considering the results of existing global aid programs. Let me call this the Feasibility Objection. For example, an important paper on the effects of aid showed that there is no correlation between “aid inflows into a country and its economic growth”. The researchers also found “no evidence that aid works better in better policy or geographical environments, or that certain forms of aid work better than others”. They concluded their paper by stating that “the findings suggest that for aid to be effective in the future, the aid apparatus will have to be rethought” (67). Another study showed more positive results, but also pointed out that if aid has a positive effect, the effect is modest (68). Thus, one might indeed doubt if solely redistributing the surplus wealth to the poor is an effective way of implementing Realistic Egalitarianism.

My response to this objection is that I partly agree, as we should indeed be very critical of the effectivity of aid. However, within Realistic Egalitarianism, the redistribution of wealth should not only be limited to just giving money to the people below the minimum threshold. It should as well, as there is strong proof that aid will always improve and save at least some lives (69), but at the same time, the process of redistributing is not that single-sided. Instead, a less inequal world rather would require large reforms of global and systematic structures, just as philosophy professor Allan Buchanan (1948) argued: “because the distributional effects of a basic structure are profound and enduring, [global] justice requires systematic principles that are applied to the basic structure, not merely principles of aid to be applied by individuals, whether the individuals be persons or particular societies” (70). Therefore, to create a fair and realistic redistribution, we could consider existing models that aim to be an improvement or replacement of aid, such as Pogge’s Global Resources Dividend model (GRD). In his model, Pogge proposed that nations would need to pay a dividend, or a tax, on any of the resources that they use or sell. He calculated that a dividend of just 1% could raise 300 billion dollars each year, an amount that could be used to offer each individual in the poorest regions on earth a subsistence minimum of 250 dollars (66). Another more moderate proposal is to require large companies to pay their (low-skilled) workers a higher salary, as research has shown that this can decrease poverty and therefore could create sufficiency[8] (71). This might make end-products more expensive, but considering the wealth of the buyers in for instance Europe or the US, this should not compromise the sufficiency level of those consumers.

Just as aid, changes like raising minimum wages in poorer countries or more ambitious proposals such as the GRD model are instruments for redistributing wealth, but can be much more effective than just giving money. As Pogge stated about his GRD proposal, measures that change the way the system works “require only one — albeit [a] rather more far-reaching — political decision”, instead of the “national measures of development aid and environmental protection” that require to be constantly “politically fought for or defended year after year” (66).

One might object that such changes are infeasible as well, as there are no global governance institutions capable of implementing such changes. However, by using Buchanan’s reasoning again, this can also be counterargued[9]. According to Buchanan, it is wrong to assume that “principles of justice have no useful role to play prior to the point at which they can be successfully implemented”. They do, as before fully implementing them, they can “play a role in helping us to determine what sorts of institutions we need to build in order to be able to achieve justice”. Additionally, Buchanan claimed that “one should not assume that the ‘successful implementation’ of principles of justice requires that they be perfectly satisfied” (70). Thus, even though Realistic Egalitarianism (probably) might not be implemented from one day to the next, its mere existence and acknowledgement can in itself help us reach a more just world with less inequality.

Another objection that one might raise is that Realistic Egalitarianism is too demanding for the well-off in the world. After all, to belong to the richest 1% of the world, one would need to earn a yearly income of 30.250 euros or more, which would for example include many people in Western Europe. How politically achievable is asking an average European citizen to limit her or his wealth? Let me call this the Demandingness Objection.

It is indeed true that it will be very difficult to literally start taking money from the average European citizen. Also, even though it might be a small percentage, one can claim that they already participate in improving other people’s lives by paying taxes, as a part of that money is also spent on the least well-off. However, when considering Pogge’s reasoning once more, the well-off would not only have a positive duty of helping, but also a negative duty of non-participation in the processes that can cause suffering (66). Therefore, Realistic Egalitarianism requires two important commitments if the model wants to be successful.

The first commitment, education, consists of two main points. Firstly, there should be more education focussed on the relation between individual behaviour, such as buying a 5 euro Primark T-shirt, and the potential effects of doing so. Without knowledge of the exploitative aspect of the operations by Primark[10], one would have no reason to think about changing her or his behaviour. Secondly, if we want the acquired knowledge of consumption effects to actually change people’s behaviour, there should be a high focus on empathy development. This is grounded in the thinking of social philosopher Roman Krznaric, who stated that “empathy is about stepping outside yourself”, which can bring “an interest in human rights and social justice”. According to Krznaric, people with high levels of cognitive empathy – perspective-taking empathy – are more likely to act on injustice (72). Thus, if people want to change their behaviour that might harm other people, a greater level of empathy can make such change possible.

To see how empathy development can work in practice, we might consider the concept of Sentimental Education by Rorty, which can, according to Rorty, increase the visibility of similarities between different people. The main question within Sentimental Education is how empathy and compassion can encourage people to show affection towards strangers who are not kin to oneself, or even whose habits one might find disgusting. Rorty argues that the answer lies not in the (traditional) response that we should care because we belong to the same species, but rather because we should imagine how it would be to be in her or his situation, or, more specifically, envision a situation in which “she might become your daughter in law” or because “her mother would grieve for her”. Rorty suggests that the best way of doing so is not to focus on the presence of ‘a special added ingredient’ or ‘a sense of moral obligation’ that all humans possess (as Plato and Kant did), but rather by for instance reading novels that put oneself in the shoes of the other, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to Rorty, “such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe powerful people, to tolerate and even to cherish powerless people” (73).

I do believe in such forms of moral (or sentimental) development, which is aptly manifested by Mandela, a person who used empathy and compassion to institute great changes. He described the following in his autobiography A Long walk to Freedom (74):

“Whereas my father once told stories of historic battles and heroic Xhosa warriors, my mother would enchant us with Xhosa legends and fables that had come down from numberless generations. These tales stimulated my childish imagination, and usually contained some moral lesson. I recall one story my mother told us about a traveller who was approached by an old woman with terrible cataracts on her eyes. The woman asked the traveller for help, and the man averted his eyes. Then another man came along and was approached by the old woman. She asked him to clean her eyes, and even though he found the task unpleasant, he did as she asked. Then, miraculously, the scales fell from the old woman’s eyes and she became young and beautiful. The man married her and became wealthy and prosperous. It is a simple tale, but its message is an enduring one: virtue and generosity will be rewarded in ways that one cannot know”. (Mandela, p42, 1994)

This simple but accurate example shows how literature and other mechanisms can indeed help develop empathy, and can thus create compassion for people who are very different from ourselves.

Concluding from all this, a person who is educated in the effects of certain forms of consumption and is likewise encouraged to develop empathy, is less likely to participate in harmful consumption behaviour. After all, if you would not only learn about the effects of buying that T-shirt from Primark, but also embolden your capacity to think of yourself working in such bad working conditions, you are more likely to change your consumption behaviour. The same goes for eating a McDonalds burger from which you know that many of the employees who helped to produce that burger are extremely poorly paid (75), or fuelling your car at Shell while being aware of Shell’s participation in human rights violations (41), or buying that Huawei phone from which you are aware that the Chinese workers who developed that phone got sick from toxic gasses in the production facilities (76).

However, even if empathy and consumption knowledge would be increased, it is still quite demanding to require people to buy a 50 euro fair-trade T-shirt instead of a normal 5 euro T-shirt. As a result of this, the second commitment within Realistic Egalitarianism is aimed at the governmental level, which relates to the counterarguments of the Feasibility Objection. On the one hand, governments should be much stricter on following guidelines about safe-working conditions. They could, for example, oblige companies to participate in fair-trade labels, instead of leaving it as a voluntary choice. On the other hand, governments should be more committed to support fair-trade and ecological companies that develop clothes, food and other products in humanitarian conditions. Both measures would reduce prices of products that did not enlarge inequality, and raise prices of products that did. Combined with the first commitment of Realistic Egalitarianism, this can actually realise the negative duty of Pogge, and would therefore make the redistribution of wealth more realistic, as it does not only redistribute surplus wealth, but also aims to stop inequality-reinforcing consumer behaviour.


Trying to apply just one of the existing principles of Distributive Justice to arrange a more equal and just world has turned out not to be enough. If only Sufficientarianism is applied, the extreme wealth that can emerge after reaching a minimum level will jeopardize sufficiency and can cause harm in many ways. If only Limitarianism is applied, many people will still continue to live below a bearable minimum level and will not have the chance to a proper life prospect. And if the first principle would solely be applied on a local level, it will not only jeopardize sufficiency, but can even cause direct harm. For instance, when Sufficientarianism would be fully implemented in Western Europe, the European resource-usage – especially of those most well-off – will (still) have a big effect on climate change and can therefore harm the least well-off who are not equipped with the protection of a bare minimum.

Following on this, if we want at least some of the Egalitarian goals to be reached for all humans, both principles have to be combined; on a global level to be precise. Therefore, I have argued for a new principle of Distributive Justice called Realistic Egalitarianism that tries to fix the problems listed above. The general aim of Realistic Egalitarianism is to be of moral guidance for new global policies, but also to be an actual contender for existing global structures. At the same time, the principle does not only consider large, overarching changes, but also addresses individual consumer behaviour that can affect and even reinforce extreme inequality.

I have grounded the arguments for Realistic Egalitarianism in the existing principles of Egalitarianism, Sufficientarianism and Limitarianism, and also by acknowledging the severe harmful implications of extreme inequality. After all, it has become clear in this paper that extreme inequality is directly harming people all over the world and that it will continue to do so if no intervention is made.

To evaluate the strength of Realistic Egalitarianism, I discussed the possible Feasibility and Demandingness objections against this principle. I counter-argued the first objection by determining how redistribution within Realistic Egalitarianism should take place; not by merely redistributing money (i.e. foreign aid), but by making larger changes to the global system of distribution. Some examples of these changes that I have given are forced higher wages for the least well-off or existing models for a fairer redistribution, such as Pogge’s GRD model.

I argued against the second objection by explaining how education and empathy development are important pillars within Realistic Egalitarianism, which would make changes in individual consumer behaviour possible. Only by creating awareness on how individual well-off people are influencing inequality, while simultaneously trying to enforce empathy via education, a real change can be made. The latter is probably the most important pillar of Realistic Egalitarianism, as I indeed believe in certain forms of moral (or sentimental) development that have been so accurately put forward by Richard Rorty.

At the same time, to help people change their individual behaviour, I have claimed that governments, on the one hand, should be much stricter towards companies that use exploitative industries to sell their products, and, on the other hand, be much more supportive towards fair-trade companies and other institutions that take fair wages, good working conditions and human rights into consideration. Via this way, Limitarianism can be implemented by not only taxing surplus-money, but also by redistributing money via fairer market-mechanisms. Thus, both consumer attitudes as governmental interventions need to be altered in order to prevent extreme inequality from increasing.

Even though I think that I have effectively argued against the objections to Realistic Egalitarianism, there are future considerations left that will need to be addressed. For instance, the public acceptance of the changes that I have suggested need to be accurately considered, as it will be a challenge to convince people of the (moral) necessity to create a more equal, global distribution. Rorty may well have provided a strong direction to focus on – education in moral development -, but for the current generation it will be hard to change common beliefs. Related to this, it has to be considered to which extent human-beings are capable of broadening their empathy to people that are physically and mentally far away from them. Even though that certain forms of education will be of help, it has to be taken into account that one may always care more for the people that are closest to her or him. For instance, an often-heard argument for not spending more tax-money on aid to other countries is that “we should help the people in our own country first”, a line that is often repeated by the popular Dutch right-wing leader Geert Wilders (77). This is an important concern, as even in the Netherlands – one of the richest countries in the world – long-term poverty is increasing, which makes such a claim an understandable appeal. However, in the Netherlands, one is considered to be in poverty when she or he has an income of 1.030 euro or less per month (78), which is still a significant amount of money compared to the incomes in other parts of the world. How do we accurately focus on different forms of global injustice, while we prevent regional feelings of injustice when trying to reach a more just world?

At the same time, the question of which minimum and maximum thresholds to use is one of the most important and difficult questions to be answered. As described in Part II, there already have been attempts to create specific minimum thresholds, but to actually bring these ideas intro practice is a challenging task. After all, in the introduction we have seen how the existing ‘poverty line’ does not seem very realistic to offer a decent life prospect. On the other hand, when the bar for the minimum threshold is put too high, the feasibility might be jeopardized. And from the other perspective, which goes back to the first future consideration, a very low bar for limiting wealth might by hard to justify to the public, taking the fact into account that many people in for instance Europe belong to the richest 1% of the world. Thus, effective research on both the minimum and maximum threshold is highly necessary.

While keeping such future questions in mind, the final goal of the principle of Realistic Egalitarianism is to tackle extreme global inequalities, by redistributing wealth via changes in global structures and specific interventional methods. I believe that only via this way we are capable of improving the lives of many people living below bearable minimum thresholds. As Mandela has stated, we are not allowed to rest before poverty, injustice and gross inequality have been eliminated, as we are capable of actions that can indeed change and prevent such phenomena. Because of this, we need to take Pogge’s negative duty and positive duty of helping those of in need very seriously. Realistic Egalitarianism can be the key to feasible initiatives that can mobilize those duties.


[1] When considering wealth level instead of income numbers, the threshold is higher. To be part of the richest 1% based on wealth, you will need to possess a minimum of 720.000 euros in net worth (9).

[2] This paper has been commissioned by the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. The word count is – without footnotes – 10,282 and the paper consists of a total of 33 pages. The paper has been supervised by professor Santiago Zabala and is written in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Political Philosophy. The paper has been submitted in June 2018.

[3] Sanders did not received funding from billionaires and large corporations but raised his funding budget with small contributions from people all over America. In total, there were 7 million individual contributions paid to support his campaign, making it one of the most successful insurgent campaigns         in the history of the democratic party (79). Still, he lost the democratic elections.

[4] To compare, in 2014, average daily water usage per person in the US went over 500 litres. In Europe, per person water usage in countries such as Italy and Spain was between 300 and 400 litres a day. In countries such as Mozambique, Uganda and Rwanda, average water usage per person was between 5 and 20 litres a day (81).

[5] The average per capita income in the United Arabic Emirates is 2,106 dollars per month, while the average migrant worker earns only 175 dollars a month (78).

[6] One could argue that such tax changes can attract large companies to come (back) to the US and therefore decrease unemployment levels. However, at the same time of the tax changes, various federal social aid programs on which many poor people depend, such as Medicaid or anti-poverty efforts, are also being reduced (82). As the least well-off will be mostly affected by this, it shows that the general policy of the current US government is also not in favour of the least well-off, whether there is less unemployment or not.

[7] If interested, one can calculate her or his own global footprint via this website: This website also contains more useful information related to humankind’s usage of the earth’s resources.

[8] Caution has to be taken when raising minimum wages, as it has been shown that the success of decreasing poverty by doing so depends on several conditions. Therefore, when considering such a proposal, these conditions should be taken into account. For more details about these conditions, one can review the report by IZA (71).

[9] The objection is derived from an objection to Buchanan’s own reasoning in his article Rawls’s Law of Peoples: Rules for a Vanished Westphalian World (70), in which he argues against Rawls’s Law of Peoples. However, the objection is also applicable to Realistic Egalitarianism, ergo the counterargument.

[10] Among several other scandals, Primark has been shown to use child labouring in Indian refugee camps to produce its cheap clothes (80).


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