If You’re an Egalitarian, You Shouldn’t be so Rich


G.A. Cohen famously claims that egalitarians shouldn’t be so rich. If you possess excess income and there is little chance that the state will redistribute it to the poor, you are obligated to donate it yourself. We argue that this conclusion is correct, but that the case against the rich egalitarian is significantly stronger than the one Cohen offers. In particular, the standard arguments against donating one’s excess income face two critical, unrecognized problems. First, we show that these arguments imply that citizens have no duty to further egalitarian political institutions—a conclusion that Cohen’s Rawlsian opponents cannot abide. Second, these arguments yield unacceptable implications for other questions of justice. We conclude that even moderately rich egalitarians are obligated to donate their excess income.

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  1. 1.

    For an argument in this spirit, see Gomberg (2002).

  2. 2.

    The discussion has been extensive. For an incomplete sampling of defenses of monism see, e.g., Cohen (1997), Murphy (1998). On behalf of dualism, see, e.g., Williams (1998, Wolff (1998), Pogge (2000), Cohen (2001), Scheffler (2006).

  3. 3.

    This style of claim is made in Cohen (2008: 40–46), Cohen (2009).


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Correspondence to Christopher Freiman.

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Brennan, J., Freiman, C. If You’re an Egalitarian, You Shouldn’t be so Rich. J Ethics (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-020-09342-2

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  • Egalitarianism
  • Distributive justice
  • G.A. Cohen
  • John Rawls