Enough for all! sufficiency as a requirement of social and global justice

Drydyk, Jay (2018). 'Enough for All! Sufficiency as a Requirement of Social and Global Justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


KEYWORDS: sufficiency, social justice, global justice, dignity

Philosophers often distinguish between three competing requirements for social and global justice. Most commonly, justice is held to require some sort of equality; debate then ensues on ‘equality of what?’ Derek Parfit has championed the requirement of giving priority to the worst-off. And Harry Frankfurt contended that what is morally important is not equality, but rather sufficiency – having enough. Martha Nussbaum has developed this latter idea in new directions with the capability approach.


It is generally thought that these are competing ideas. In this paper I challenge that consensus by showing that a capability approach to sufficiency can be highly egalitarian.


Sufficientarians, who claim that justice demands ‘enough for all’, face the challenge of specifying ‘enough for what’. Frankfurt’s answer, ‘enough so as not to be dissatisfied’, falls to several criticisms familiar to the capability approach, such as adaptive preferences. Nussbaum’s answer has two components: ‘enough for a truly human life’ and ‘enough for a life of human dignity’. The first sets the bar too low, especially if (like Nussbaum) we follow Marx, who wanted to show that capitalism held workers down to inhuman levels of living. Thus for Marx life above this threshold is merely ‘not inhuman’. Surely justice demands much more than this, and so I turn my attention to the Nussbaum’s second answer, that ‘enough’ should mean ‘enough for a life of human dignity’.


While the central concept of dignity is straightforward, it leaves room for a myriad of divergent conceptions. Do we have dignity because we are rational, because we can suffer pain, because we are made in the image of God, or what? Nussbaum’s suggestion, that people with these divergent conceptions could be expected, through public reasoning, to reach a consensus on the thresholds of a life of human dignity, is simply not plausible. Instead, I propose a new interpretation, similar to Nussbaum’s views on dignity, that might be more successful at forging agreement in public reason, even as a ‘purely political idea’ without metaphysical or doctrinal baggage.


The main points of this new interpretation are:

  1. The ground of dignity is striving to live well (striving for a good human life).
  2. Equal dignity means that everyone’s striving to live well matters, and matters equally.
  3. I define a ‘social optimum’ consisting of the sets of highest capability levels that a given society could productively support for all of its members.
  4. I construct an argument that ‘enough’ is nothing less than this social optimum.
  5. I construct an argument that ‘enough’ cannot be higher than social optimum levels.
  6. I show why, if sufficiency of this kind is required for social justice, global justice must also require closing the gaps between the social optima of different societies.
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