Individual Responsibility and Inequality

by Ryo Tanaka

Inequality has always been one of the common issues in many aspects of society, such as labor market and education. Here I define inequality as the situation in which an individual or a group of people is socially or economically disadvantaged for factors he/she is not responsible for. The idea that inequality should be reduced is based on humanitarianism that suggests “those who have suffered through no fault of their own should be helped” (Aguirre & Tuner, 2011, p. 55). But depending on what kind of inequality to look at, equalization could not contribute to growth. To take income inequality as an example, Kenworthy (2007) argues that “the smaller the income share of the rich (i.e., the less inequality), the less investment there is” (p. 29). The wealthy are expected to invest much of their money to accelerate capitalist economy. Otherwise, widened income gaps “may weaken consumer demand”, reduce “employee motivation and work place cooperation”, and “reduce the share of the population that is able to invest in higher education” (p. 29). Therefore, a certain degree of inequality should be kept to maintain economic well-being.

Now the question is how much (or what kind of) inequality should be kept to encourage people’s consumption, sustain people’s motivation to work, ensure opportunities to go on to higher education, and ultimately achieve the society that satisfies everyone’s will? At the same time, another big question is what should be equated? As mentioned above, income inequality should not be completely equalized because equal distribution of wealth is too egalitarian to encourage further economic growth. In order that individuals get higher standards of living and the whole society grows economically, individuals should be responsible for their own effort and every outcome of their effort. In this sense, they are even responsible for inequality of income.

At this point, inequality of outcomes is individuals’ responsibility. But it should be noted that they become really responsible for outcomes of their efforts as long as they are given opportunities to make efforts. For instance, if they have no access to school, simply they have no chances to make own efforts and expect responsive outcomes such as graduation degrees and other qualifications. Equal opportunities to learn should be guaranteed for everyone to allow everyone to participate in the given society.

In summary, I discussed how much individuals are responsible for their fate and the nature of inequality in relation to individual responsibility. At least they are responsible for outcomes of their effort including test scores and the amount of income. However, they become responsible only if the opportunity to make their own effort is given. By “own effort” I mean a certain amount of effort that an individual needs to make depending on his/her prospect about what he/she wants to achieve. In other words, everyone should have the right to decide how much effort he/she makes. If an institution like school controls how his/her make an effort for his/her own sake, it would manipulate the outcome of his/her effort. He/she then has no idea about how to be responsive to the outcome that does not depend on his/her own effort. Therefore, equal opportunities to make own effort are more essential than immediate financial control like redistribution of income. Inequality of outcomes is OK; inequality of opportunities is not OK.


Aguirre, A. & Turner, J. H. (2011). American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination (7th edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Kenworthy, L. (2007). Is Inequality Feasible? Contexts, Vol. 6, Number 3, pp 28-32.

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