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Mr. Winterkorn’s Pay: A Typology of Justification Patterns of Income Inequality

Often, when a substantial premiss in an argument is unexposed, the argument convinces more than it would if that premiss were laid bare for inspection.

(G. A. Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 66)


This article develops a typology of justification patterns of income inequality by means of analysing the discourse surrounding executive pay in Germany. The case of a public debate about the record salary of the car manufacturer VW’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, in 2012 and 2013, is identified as a rich source for a reconstruction of specific argumentative patterns and their underlying premises. The typology presents five justification patterns, (1) equality of opportunity, (2) desert, (3) procedure of salary determination, (4) harmful consequences of income inequality and (5) need. Further cross-patterns are identified. A key finding is the crucial—but often not explicit—role of factual, definitional or behavioural premises. It is argued that unveiling the structure of justification patterns of income inequality can provide a key tool in scrutinizing as well as in further analysing public debates about income inequality.

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  1. Based on my master thesis (Bank 2013), available at

  2. He even won an ‘image award’ in 2011 for his alleged character traits like being down-to-earth and upright (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, FAZ, October 8, 2011, p. 18).

  3. FAZ, March 13, 2012, p. 9.

  4. FAZ, May 8, 2012, p. 16.

  5. Note that by the rules of formal logic, both elements (P) and (M) are premises of an argument with the conclusion (JP). Furthermore, both tend to be normative. It is obvious that the motif (M) is a normative premise. But the ‘factual’ premise can equally be normative. In fact, (P) may well rather than (M) turn out to be the implicit normative core of a justificatory pattern, whereas (M) then ‘only’ denotes the explicit normative label that by itself does not yet mean very much. However I take it that the above made preliminary conceptual distinction is the most straightforward framework to empirically capture justification patterns for a start, as well as to further structure them in a typology that marks out the relevant normative space of arguments for and against income inequalities. A further analysis of the structure and normative content of the premises themselves and their relationship to the motif may then allow further insights, but it should not anticipate the initial step of reconstruction attempted in this article.

  6. References to each quote are provided in the “Appendix”; translations into English by the author.

  7. Note that the distinction between intrinsic values of justice and functional relation to other values collapses in the case in which realizing another value is set as the principle of justice, as with utilitarian approaches. However, even in this case, the dimension may help distinguish principles that are either valuable in themselves (deontological) and principles that only indirectly serve another value (teleological).

  8. This distinction can for example be found in Offe (1977, p. 107), who identifies an ‘unresolved dualism’ (‘unausgetragener Dualismus’) of criteria contained in the desert principle.

  9. Although Marx only seems to see this as an intermediate goal which shall be progressively superseded by the principle of need (White 1996, p. 95).

  10. Note that Honneth does not endorse but rather describe the justification pattern in his theory of recognition (Honneth 2003, p. 166).

  11. A position that has been challenged as conceptually fragile by Cohen (1995). Directed at the above mentioned ‘Wilt Chamberlain example’, Cohen also points out that it need not be so that people who voluntarily pay for a ticket agree with the distributive results, which could likewise be legitimately ‘upset’ by redistributive policies (Cohen 1995, p. 26).

  12. A discussion of the historical evolution of different concepts of equality of opportunity from formal status and equal rights at the market, replacing feudal status differences, to social and political rights, emerging with the rise of democracy and the social welfare state, can be found in T. H. Marshall’s essay ‘Citizenship and Social Class’ (Marshall 1965 [1949]). Interestingly, T. H. Marshall also illustrates in how far the two motifs of equality of opportunity and the procedural motif of Social Partnership may overlap, as well as how Social Partnership and Democracy may overlap: Marshall calls the instrument of collective bargaining a ‘secondary system of industrial citizenship’, which helps transcend asymmetries of contract between employees and employers characteristic of the ‘individualistic phase of capitalism’ (Marshall 1965 [1949], pp. 103–104; see also Streeck 1988, pp. 17–23).


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I would like to thank my family, as well as Julian Becker, Florian Dahl, Hannah Höchner, Frances Marshall, Conor McGloin and Reuben Saxon, for their support and helpful comments. I would also like to thank the supervisor of my original master thesis, Wolfgang Streeck, as well as my current supervisor Till van Treeck, for making this project possible. All errors are mine.

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Correspondence to Julian Bank.

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References to the quotes in “Empirical Findings: Justification Patterns of Income Inequality in the Winterkorn Debate” section.

[1] Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) (2012, March 25). Dürfen Top-Manager ihre Gehälter an Star-Gagen messen?, p. 37.

[2] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), FAZ.NET (2012, March 27). Herr Winterkorn ist nicht gekommen.

[3] Bild am Sonntag (2012, March 25). Wir brauchen mehr Winterkorns.

[4] FAS (2012, June 3). Die Deutschen sollen gewinnen, p. 33.

[5] FAS (2012, June 5). ‘Wir in Deutschland sind verdammt gut‘, p. 37.

[6] Der Spiegel (2013, March 11). Deckel drauf!, p. 70.

[7] See [1].

[8] Der Spiegel (2013, February 9). ‘Ich werde weniger bekommen‘, p. 60.

[9]-[11] Günter Jauch, ‘Den Managern ans Gehalt – Brauchen wir ein Gesetz gegen die Gier?‘, talk-show broadcast 2013, March 10, on German TV Channel ARD.

[12] Der Spiegel (2012, April 30). Die Menschliche Gier, p. 75.

[13] FAZ (2013, January 28). Ohne schwarze Zahlen keine grünen Gedanken, p. 19.

[14]-[15] See [1].

[16] FAS (2013, March 17). Manager, haftet mit Eurem Geld, p. 37.

[17] See [9]-[11].

[18] FAZ (2012, May 5). Wir haben doch alle genug Geld, p. 44.

[19] FAZ (2012, March 14). Einsame Spitze, p. 16.

[20] FAZ, FAZ.NET (2012, April 23). Gehälter-Diskussion.

[21] FAZ (2012, March 23). ‘500000 Euro für die Bundeskanzlerin’, p. 14.

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Bank, J. Mr. Winterkorn’s Pay: A Typology of Justification Patterns of Income Inequality. Soc Just Res 29, 228–252 (2016).

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  • Income inequality
  • Justification patterns
  • Typology
  • Justice theory
  • Justifying inequality
  • Executive pay