In the paper “Equality and Priority” Derek Parfit notes that strict egalitarians will accept the following principle of equality: “It is in itself bad if some people are worse off than others.” He then describes briefly a hypothetical community in which the people could all be either equally rich or equally poor. Parfit then says, “The Principle of Equality does not tell us that the second would be worse. To explain that obvious truth, we might appeal to The Principle of Utility: It is in itself better if people are better off.”
I think it would be a worthwhile project to take Parfit to task on his assertion that it is obviously true that equal penury is worse than equally wealth. Imagine the following two societies. In the first, the individuals are equal, poor, and ignorant of their plight. They have no exposure to the frenetic pace of the outside world and are familiar with nothing other than their successful manner of subsistence living. In the second society, everyone is equally rich but only happen to be so as a result of government intervention. In other words, individuals are highly selfish and aware of the drastic changes in satisfaction they feel corresponding to differences in wealth. It seems that Parfit’s obvious truth holds for the second society but not for the first. In fact, the two seem to be inverse societies, each equally imaginable. In the first, well-being is greater before the introduction of a concept of material wealth. In the latter, material wealth is required to maintain well-being.
To me, this suggests that in determining whether or not it is better to be rich and equal or poor and equal we ought not appeal to a principle of utility, but rather to a measurement of subjective well-being. This entails that it is not obviously true that wealthy equality is better than poor equality. I contend that this is still an open question.