I want to thank Martha McCluskey and the rest of the Class Crits organizers for inviting me to guest blog here. I’ve done about 100 posts on law and inequality during my five years blogging at Concurring Opinions, and it’s a recurring theme of my health law research. After the election of 2008, I hoped we might see a political coalition pay sustained attention to these issues. And while there have been a few successes, the larger trend is clear: self-reinforcing inequality, and few viable political options for narrowing the gaps between excess and deprivation. When we look beyond the “overdeveloped world,” even more startling patterns of poverty and privilege emerge.
What might reverse the trend? Stalwart consumer advocate (and 2000 election spoiler) Ralph Nader baldly says that “only the rich can save us.” More realistically, theorists of corporate social responsibility hope that dollar votes for sustainability will convince corporations to improve the world. There are many theories of change, which I’ll try to explore here this month.
But perhaps our time of crisis demands a broader historical perspective. Practices of unjust subordination can persist for decades or even centuries unchallenged. But moral progress does occur; the arc of the universe bends toward justice. How does that process occur? Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen suggests one answer. With a keen sense of history and moral theory, Appiah explores the decline of footbinding, honor killing of women, slavery, and dueling. He describes how each of these practices, once seen as critical to the honor of participants, gradually became questionable and, finally, despised as barbaric. We exist in an “honor world,” feeling “pride or shame” in what our “nation or . . . fellow nationals are doing.” Appiah argues that honor, “when purged of its prejudices of caste and gender and the like, is peculiarly well-suited to turn private moral sentiments into public norms” (178).
We see the beginnings of an honor code for egalitarians in recognition devices like the Slate 60, which highlight the most generous philanthropists. But we must also see more of the reverse: revulsion or embarrassment at, say, the spectacle of CEOs paid more before lunch on their first day of work each year than a minimum wage household earns annually. Or the global inequalities that help pad those incredible pay days at the top.
Appiah endorses the social project of taming “honor’s thirst for blood” (188). We also need to tame honor’s thirst for money. Johann Hari has observed that, “In America today, a janitor can pay more income tax than Donald Trump – and” some Americans “regard that not as a source of shame, but of pride.” That needs to change. Excessive inequality is not only inefficient, undemocratic, and cruel; it is also dishonorable, a moral embarrassment that a better future will look back upon with horrified incomprehension. Kudos to Appiah for imbuing the often dry field of moral theory with the passion and urgency that a historical perspective can inspire.