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Can Limitarianism Be Justified? A Philosophical Analysis of Limits on the Distribution of Economic and Ecological Resources

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - FAIR LIMITS (Can Limitarianism Be Justified? A Philosophical Analysis of Limits on the Distribution of Economic and Ecological Resources)

Periodo di rendicontazione: 2022-01-01 al 2022-12-31

The Fair Limits project aimed to investigate whether upper limits to the distribution of economic and ecological resources can be justified. We all understand, almost intuitively, that it is bad and wrong if people are living below the poverty line and do not have access to minimal amounts of ecological resources, such as water or land - but is there any sound reason to think that the same could be said about the opposite, namely that we could become too rich, or be taking too many ecological resources? This question is being analysed starting from a distributive justice perspective, which allows us to zoom in on the most fundamental moral questions that need to be asked first, before we move to asking what this implies for policy recommendations and institutional design, as well as individual duties that may fall onto us. These are different questions, although in public debates they unfortunately often end up being conflated.

It hardly needs explanation of why investigating these questions is important for society, since we are living in a serious ecological crisis, and since there are increasingly citizens raising their voices against the growing inequalities of wealth and income. What the project aims to offer to society, is scholarly analysis on intuitions that citizens may have: what, if any, sound reasons are there for believing that there should be limits to the possession of economic resources (income, wealth), and to the use of ecological resources? For the latter, the Fair Limits project zooms in on the most urgent societal issue, namely climate change.

The overall objectives are to investigate, firstly, what limitarianism would mean, exactly; secondly, what could be reasons to endorse this view, and whether these reasons can withstand strict philosophical analysis; third, what could be objections to this view and how strong are those objections; and fourth, what would this imply for the design of public policies and institutions.
The Fair Limits team has made progress in understanding what Limitarianism means, and what understandings would instead be confused or internally inconsistent. We have also made progress in laying out the reasons for limitarianism in economic and ecological resources, as well as possible objections, and how these could be addressed and/or how these would require hybrid views (and hence modifications to the first statements on limitarianism from 2017).

From the point of view of the development of theories of distributive justice, the main results are the following. First, we have worked out the different ways in which limitarianism could be understood. The notion of limitarianism is of a similar type as the term 'egalitarianism' - and here, too, we know that this can be understood in different ways, some of which gain more normative support than others. Secondly, we have advanced arguments for why a pluralist or modular theory of distributive justice, which includes both a sufficientarian lower threshold and a limitarian upper threshold, could be an attractive account of distributive justice. Third, we have made general contributions to the field of normative political philosophy by advancing the development of a non-ideal or grounded method for normative political analysis, as well as by discussing what mainstream political philosophy on inequalities could learn from pluralizing the discipline -that is, including more diversity in the kind of approaches that inform our scholarship.

While some of our discussions are 'technical' in the sense that one needs to have very advanced training in academic political philosophy, and theories of distributive justice in particular, to understand them, we have also been very active in disseminate as much as possible our results to a wider audience; links to blogs, as well as some articles that can be read by a wider group of professionals and citizens, can be found on the homepage of our project, see (we aim to keep this website in the air for a few more years after the end of the project in December 2022).
The Fair Limits team is trying to make contributions to the state of the art of contemporary political philosophy, by developing a substantive view in the field of distributive justice, as well as making methodological innovations, that should help this academic specialisation to flourish. When the grant application for the FAIR LIMITS project was written, there was only one article published on limitarianism (the article from 2017 in which the PI coined the term and launched the idea). In the last five years, there have been several conferences and workshops held on limitarianism (and not just by the Fair Limits team!), and a special issue of the journal 'Ethical Theory and Moral Practice' has been devoted to the topic. If one now searches for "limitarianism" in google scholar, one finds 470 hits; the original 2017 chapter by the PI has been cited 136 times, and her 2019 article in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities (which was written as part of this ERC project) has been viewed more than 48.000 times, which is enormous for a paper in the social sciences and humanities. So I think we can safely conclude that ERC Fair LImits project has given us the resources to develop this idea up to a point where a much broader group of students, scholars and citizens are engaging with it. For the development of normative political philosophy in particular this is relevant, as it has added another concept or idea to this literature.

How will the research done within the FAIR LIMITS project affect normative political philosophy as a discipline? Philosophy is a discipline that develops slowly (as probably most of the disciplines). There is thus a possibility that after some more years of investigating limitarianism, arguments will be developed that make us conclude that there are no further insights to be gained from studying and developing limitarianism. But so far, the indications we have point to quite the opposite. Limitarianism has been further developed by scholars outside the network of the PI or the other members of the Fair Limits team, such as Dr. T. Malleson, who has defended limitarianism in his book 'Against Inequality' (Oxford University Press 2023). Limitarianism has been added as a topic to several syllabi on theories of distributive justice and on inequality (in both philosophy, policy studies, and economics programs). The program committee of the American Philosophical Association 2024 Eastern Division meeting has invited the PI to present a philosophical paper on limitarianism at an invited symposium. We might therefore conclude that within the international community of academic philosophers there is a strong interest in limitarianism, and thus that the FAIR LIMITS project has made a significant contribution to the field.
Screenshot of the CBS Sunday morning screening, see
Ingrid Robeyns in an episode of investigative journalism program Tegenlicht