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The Pareto Argument and Inequality

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The Pareto argument for inequality holds that any change from a position of equality to one of inequality is justified so long as everyone benefits from the change. G.A. Cohen criticizes this argument (which he attributes to Rawls) on the ground that changes can normally be found which preserve both equality and Pareto-efficiency. However, this does not resolve the basic conflict between the two desiderata. Strong egalitarians hold that Pareto changes are not for the better if they increase inequality too greatly. Thus if the Pareto argument holds, then strong egalitarianism is unsustainable. I argue that egalitarians need not be troubled by the Pareto argument for inequality. The Pareto criterion would not be widely accepted unless it takes account of moral harms; but if it does take account of moral harms then there is no reason to doubt that egalitarian concerns can be incorporated into the Pareto argument.

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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Glasgow University

Publication date: 1999-07-01

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