Book Club: On Inequality 1, Economic equality as a moral ideal

Time to get started with a new book! This time it’s going to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality, an obviously current topic. Frankfurt, of course, is the author of a number of well received, often slim and incisive, books, most famously On Bullshit, where he clarifies, among other things, the distinction between a liar (one who knows the truth, and uses it to effectively deceive others) and a bullshitter (one who uses a chaotic mix of truths, half truths and lies in order to get whatever he wants — the current President of the United States arguably being the archetypal example).

Frankfurt divides On Inequality into two parts: economic equality as a moral ideal, and equality and respect. I will discuss the first part here and the second one in my next post.

The discussion of economic equality as a moral ideal begins with Frankfurt’s statement that the most fundamental social challenge in the United States today is not that people’s incomes are widely unequal, but that too many people are poor. In order to begin to back up this notion, he points out that, after all, we wouldn’t want to eliminate income inequality by making everyone poor. Frankfurt immediately acknowledges that there is a number of people in the US that have far more than is necessary to flourish, and whom he says are guilty of “economic gluttony.” Economic gluttony is a “ridiculous and disgusting spectacle,” but reduction in inequality would be a side effect of combating both poverty and economic gluttony, and should not be a primary goal in itself.

One of the reasons we need to rein in economic gluttony, argues Frankfurt, is that it carries a number of potentially anti-democratic effects, as when few very wealthy people essentially control political power through their money and influence. But, Frankfurt argues, many people seem to think that economic inequality is inherently morally problematic, a position that he regards as highly questionable. As he puts it:

“From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” (p. 6)

Frankfurt writes that being preoccupied with how much money other people have is alienating, in the sense that such preoccupation distracts us from reflecting on what is it that makes our own life worth living, and therefore from which focusing on the resources we actually need to pursue such a life. The result is that:

“The doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” (p. 14)

The chapter proceeds by considering a number of arguments often being made in support of the idea that inequality is undesirable. Frankfurt discusses several of these, aiming to show that economic equality only has value in a derivative manner, not per se. This strikes me as correct, but I also wonder who would, in fact, argue for an intrinsic moral worth — i.e., regardless of consequences — of equality.

One such example is based on the principle of diminishing marginal utility. The idea is that more economic equality maximizes aggregate utility, i.e. the aggregate satisfactions of members of society. This, in turn, derives from the rather hard to doubt notion that a marginal dollar brings less utility to someone who is already rich than to someone less wealthy.

But, Frankfurt counters, the demand for some kinds of goods will increase as a result of redistribution of wealth, because more people will want those goods, driving the corresponding prices higher. The outcome will be that any progress made by the most poor will be offset by a decreasing purchasing power of the middle class, thus — on average — nullifying the benefit of wealth redistribution.

Well, maybe. To begin with, it is not clear to me why one wouldn’t also see a countering effect due to the fact that at least some of the goods that come to be in large demand will be more efficiently produced, at increasingly lower costs. Moreover, this sort of conclusion cannot be reached simply on the basis of a qualitative argument. Detailed quantitative simulations, ideally backed up by empirical evidence gathered in the field, are necessary.

A bit later on (section IV of the first part), Frankfurt engages in one of those philosophical thought experiments which I increasingly think miss the point, and may arguably be misleading. He invites us to imagine an hypothetical situation where there is a limited number of resources, so that some, but not all members of a given population will survive. It is easy to contrive the numbers in such a way that forcing people to share equally — thus eliminating inequality — will result in everyone’s death. This is supposed to show that equality is not an inherent moral good.

No kidding, I would respond. First, again, I doubt anyone has sensibly suggested that equality is good per se (Frankfurt nowhere in the book provides direct evidence to back up this claim). Second — and most importantly — yes, in the highly artificial situation imagined by Frankfurt it would be grotesque to insist on equality. But no modern society is even close to being in such a situation, rendering the whole thought experiment rather silly.

In section V Frankfurt rejects what he sees as the widespread moral intuition that inequality is objectionable in itself, and suggests that what people find problematic is, again, that fact that some have to little:

“Mere differences in the amounts of money people have are not in themselves distressing. We tend to be quite unmoved, after all, by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich.” (p. 41)

The underlying idea here is that the two doctrines of sufficiency and equality are logically independent, and that one cannot simply deploy arguments in favor of one as if they were pertinent to the other. Frankfurt goes so far as accusing egalitarians of hypocrisy, pointing out that many are quite happy to accept large incomes that are not justified on the basis of their own theories. This, again, is what happens when one confuses sufficiency (which truly is desirable) with equality (which is not, except in terms of certain indirect consequences, such as disproportionate political influence).

The flip side of the coin when it comes to the “hypocritical” egalitarians actually reinforces Frankfurt’s point: these same people don’t seem bothered by the fact that others make a lot more money, so long as they make enough to be reasonably free to pursue their own goals. I certainly count myself in the latter group: I don’t care, per se, how much more money some people make compared to me, because I’m lucky enough to be able to live the kind of life I want to live. That freedom of mine, however, does not obtain for a lot of people who make less than I do. But here Frankfurt strikes me as being right: the situation of these people is problematic not because they make less than others, but because they do not make enough. Insufficiency, not inequality, is the problem.

Frankfurt is careful (p. 25) to stress that “having enough” does not just mean enough to survive, or to live a tolerable life. That, for human beings in modern societies, is not, in fact, enough. “Enough” means an amount of wealth sufficient to pursue the kind of goals one is interested in pursuing. In my case, for instance, living in a large cosmopolitan city, enjoying at least some of its offerings, and being able to devote much of my time to reading and writing.

Moreover, “enough” also doesn’t mean that the person in question couldn’t benefit from, or would not welcome, additional income. When the State of New York finally renewed its teachers’ contract (after five years of stalling), I got a significantly larger paycheck. I did not need it in order to live the life I want to live, but it was welcome nonetheless. The point, as Frankfurt articulates it, is that I did not have an “active interest” in getting a higher salary. When I got it, it was a nice bonus, which allows me to do a few more things. But I was not preoccupied in the least by the missing money (as much as it was ethically and legally due to me by the State of New York).

It was refreshing to see that Frankfurt — going against what I will call the Wall Street ethos, for lack of a better term — doesn’t think there is anything wrong with people who take my attitude toward money:

“There are quite reasonable people who feel that their lives are good enough, and that it is not important to them whether their lives are as good as possible. The fact that a person lacks an active interest in getting something does not mean, of course, that he prefers not to have it.” (p. 55)

In a sense, says Frankfurt, the situation is similar to a man who is deeply in love with a woman and is happy about his relationship. It would be perverse to criticize him on the ground that, if he really tried, he could do “better,” quite regardless of the fact that there obviously isn’t a single measure of “better” out there, and of the even more obvious fact that the amount of money in one’s bank account certainly is no such measure.

This leads us to the end of the first part of On Inequality. In the next post of this series I will tackle what Frankfurt has to say about the relationship between equality and respect.

144 thoughts on “Book Club: On Inequality 1, Economic equality as a moral ideal

  1. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Coel,

    But then I’ve also just done that using the concepts “selfless” desires and “selfish” desires.

    It’s not that simple though, as it is possible to think that selfish desires are moral. For example, if you are an ancient king and you think you have been appointed by providence, you might think that it is everyone’s moral duty to serve you and obey your every whim, and that it is morally right of you to demand such.

    I suspect it is also possible for selfless desires and moral desires to conflict, where you might have selfless reasons for wanting A but moral reasons for wanting B. As a politician you might want to take a hit in the polls by nepotistically appointing your daughter to a position of power and influence. This is arguably selfless in that it benefits kin at the cost of self, but you might also recognise it as being immoral. That’s not a wonderful example because you can easily expand “selfish” to include benefits to kin as well as self, but anyway, I hope it goes some way to showing that morality and selflessness need not be exactly the same thing.

    The fact remains that people feel that they have moral duties and obligations, they feel emotions such as self-righteousness and guilt, and so on. This is what morality is about. It is a specific kind of need or want. You don’t seem to want to throw out talk of hunger or thirst or lust or weariness and so on so I’m not sure why you want to throw out talk of morality.

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  2. Coel

    Hi DM,

    It’s not that simple though, as it is possible to think that selfish desires are moral.

    But what does that “… are moral” even mean? Can you translate the sentence into something that explains it? I can make some sort of sense of it under the presumption of moral realism, but even there moral realists have never produced an account of what moral language actually means, and anyhow I don’t think anyone here is arguing for moral realism.

    To me, that sentence is a prime example of how using moral language just confuses the issue, and why a translation into aesthetic language helps clarify.

    The fact remains that people feel that they have moral duties and obligations, …

    The basic problem is that most people are intuitive moral realists, and thus by default think that “morals” are about something other than emotional sentiments.

    You don’t seem to want to throw out talk of hunger or thirst or lust or weariness and so on so I’m not sure why you want to throw out talk of morality.

    That’s because no-one uses terms like “thirst” or “lust” in a way akin to your use of “are moral” in your above sentence, producing sentences that I (genuinely) do not understand.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fernando Andrade

    Massimo,

    “I get your point, but am not clear why you think this would be problematic for Frankfurt. Also, I find the suggestion by the righ people that poor people would be less happy because they would be envious to be both patronizing and self-serving…”

    I agree with you that the suggestion is patronizing and self-serving but maybe this is a way of applying Frankfurts idea of "good enough" that would lead to an increase in the inequality. This way, if poor people do not even know what are other possibilities, they would be 'happy' with whatever they get. Maybe his other idea of fighting the "gluttony' could counter this, but I couldnt fit that into my mind yet.

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  4. Daniel Kaufman

    socratic: I have no idea why you are directing your comment at me. And it doesn’t change my overall view. I believe capitalism is the best of the available choices. I am also against a UGI (universal guaranteed income).

    I have not found it productive when you and I argue about politics and economics, so I’d prefer not to. Again, apropos the article itself and Frankfurt’s book, I agree with him that inequality is not the problem, but rather, poverty is. The “problem of work” in the age of robotics and globalism is also a problem, but not one that is the subject of either Frankfurt’s book or Massimo’s post.

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    Sorry, I’m not playing games with you, no matter how much you enjoy that. You have stated a position that is unfalsifiable in principle, so it would be an utter waste of time for me to provide arguments and evidence against it. Got better things to do.

    DM,

    What are you asking for, a technical paper on this? It seems pretty clear to me that Parfit’s conclusion applies just as well to the case we are talking about, so I’ll leave it at that.

    “You seem to be confusing me for a libertarian or something”

    No, I don’t.

    “The point is not whether the conclusion is personally acceptable to you, but whether it is so absurd as to make utilitarianism untenable for any reasonable person”

    I never said it was about me. I said I use a different ethical framework, virtue ethics, within which one does not reach the utilitarian conclusion. I also never said that utilitarianism is untenable for any reasonable person.

    “Parfit’s repugnant conclusion, on the other hand, is more persuasive, as his conclusion is repugnant to most utilitarians also (myself included).”

    That ought to give you pause about the value of a utilitarian framework.

    “as far as I’m concerned the point of moral reasoning is to distill propositions down to see how they relate to our moral intuitions or preferences — which you yourself have called axioms — just as a mathematical proof tries to relate a proposition to a system of axioms”

    Right. But you left out the part that if/when the axioms/intuitions lead to conclusions that are objectionable on reasonable/empirical grounds then a rational person ought to revise her axioms/intuitions.

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  6. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Coel,

    I sometimes wonder if you feel the moral impulse at all. Perhaps you don’t. Some people do not. And some such people do not even realise that this makes them abnormal. If you don’t know what I mean when I talk of conscience, for instance, then perhaps it’s because you don’t have one. If you do have one, then talk of morality refers to feelings pertaining to conscience, just as talk of hunger relates to a feeling.

    That’s because no-one uses terms like “thirst” or “lust” in a way akin to your use of “are moral” in your above sentence, producing sentences that I (genuinely) do not understand.

    “Lust” is not analogous to “are moral” but to “morality”. The analogy to “is moral” is “is sexually attractive”.

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  7. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    That ought to give you pause about the value of a utilitarian framework.

    Yes, that’s my point, that you ought to use Parfit’s conclusion to make your point rather than an argument I don’t follow about utilitarianism somehow leading to universal poverty due to mass redistribution of wealth.

    So Parfit’s conclusion does give me pause to any utilitarian framework which leads to his conclusion. It suggests that such a framework needs rethinking, e.g. to place some value on average utility per person and not just on total utility.

    But you left out the part that if/when the axioms/intuitions lead to conclusions that are objectionable on reasonable/empirical grounds then a rational person ought to revise her axioms/intuitions.

    Well, I said that if our conclusions are repugnant we might want to revise the axioms. But moral conclusions are value judgements, and I’m not clear on how a value judgement could be shown to be false empirically or to be unreasonable (at least in the sense of irrational — we might I suppose deem it to be unreasonable in the sense of being highly idiosyncratic or in violation of widely-accepted norms).

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  8. synred

    Now if we’re talking about the fact that people who might have a certain degree of a higher yearly income than you do, OK they don’t have power over you. That’s just obvious, and has nothing to do with what people are talking about when they refer to wealth inequality because the inequality is just not significant enough for them to utilize an advantage

    So someone with a comparable income higher than you may have little poor over you.

    However, the middle class has power over the poor. In a dispute over an accident the poor will lose more often or not.

    No one might argue this is because they are less educated and articulate, but don’t please don’t argue that that’s unrelated to income and wealth.

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  9. synred

    Like Dan, I think capitalism (I would say coupled with a fair amount of socialist policies) is the best economic system we’ve so far come up with for wealth production and economic growth and overall promotion of utility, and that comes with inequality built in. So as it happens, I actually do think a massive redustribution of wealth would indeed leave everyone poor because it would destroy GDP, economic growth, entrepreneurship, etc, and reduce us to the kind of poverty we see in tightly centrally controlled economies like those of North Korea or the former USSR

    Sweden has large redistribution, high taxes, good social serves, less inequality, etc. It is a very pleasant place to live (apart from the weather).

    Capitalist enterprises still thrive.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. synred

    Again, what I said to Saphsin: nobody denies the existence of that empirical link. I don’t know how many more times I need to explain this before you guys stop coming back at me with comments that do not address my or Frankfurt’s point at all.

    Because extreme inequality leads to extreme power which makes it impossible to effectively tackle injustice. The ’empirical link’ matters and is strong.

    Because even if power and money are conceptually different, they are highly correlated.

    And because Frankfurt attacks the straw idea of absolute equality which virtually nobody advocates and which is certainly not distracting the poor or liberals from the real problem.

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  11. SocraticGadfly

    Dan, I don’t find it productive, either. But, you made a statement, and in partial response to saying what I thought was wrong in general with the Frankfurt book, I responded. And, am responding again. As far as Frankfurt missing the boat on systemic, structural, job loss, not only is capitalism not the answer to that, but, it’s actually predicated on that happening.

    The fact that this is not part of Frankfurt’s book is NOT irrelevant, contra your last comment. Structural job loss is part of increasing economic inequality. It forces more and more Americans into contract labor, with fewer benefits, lesser job security, etc. Those are all directly part of income inequality, ultimately. And, in for a penny, in for a pound — Frankfurt either knows that, and thus is being intellectually dishonest, in my opinion, or else he doesn’t know that, which further goes to alleged value of the book in other ways, in my opinion.

    (Oh, and this issue is affecting more and more white-collar careers, not just blue- and gray-collar ones.)

    In turn, that gets me back to some of the people blurbing the book, per the Amazon link. I’m sure all American commenters here know who George Will is. Tyler Cowen? Only one of the most ardently libertarian academic economists in America, at the home base of academic libertarian economists, George Mason University. I suspect his only concern with the book is that Frankfurt isn’t libertarian enough. (And, re structural job losses, Cowen has said, more than once, in various ways, “Deal with it,” in essence.)

    ==

    Massimo, 20 years ago, I might have said, “Hey, this sounds interesting.” Ten years ago, I might have found the book … “tolerable.” But, per discussions of selfhood, I’m not the same person I was then. And, per the issue of structural job loss, or job field destruction, the Internet and related issues weren’t on the horizon 20 years ago, and were just barely so 10 years ago.

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  12. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Arthur

    Sweden has large redistribution, high taxes, good social serves, less inequality, etc. It is a very pleasant place to live (apart from the weather).

    Capitalist enterprises still thrive.

    Indeed. In fact I almost gave Sweden as an example as my ideal economy.

    I think you meant your comment as a rebuttal, but I actually initially read it as supporting my point of view. You perhaps missed the bit where I said “(I would say coupled with a fair amount of socialist policies)”.

    Sweden has less inequality, but it still has some inequality, right? Some inequality is a necessary evil, that’s all I’m saying. Sweden is the kind of society a utilitarian should want, and the relatively small amount of inequality that remains in Sweden is the cost of achieving such a balanced, flourishing society.

    But Massimo was saying a utilitarian would want to reduce everyone to poverty with a massive redistribution of wealth. In my mind, this paints a picture of a Soviet-style economy where the government controls all wealth and everyone is poor. That’s the kind of society I think a utilitarian should not want.

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  13. Coel

    Hi DM,

    … talk of morality refers to feelings pertaining to conscience, …

    Sure, fine, so to you “moral” refers to whether we feel good or feel bad about something (whether we have a good conscience about it or a bad conscience). In which case we’re pretty much agreed. That the label “moral” is a value judgement deriving from how we feel about things is the heart of my stance.

    So your previous sentence “It’s not that simple though, as it is possible to think that selfish desires are moral” then translates to “it is possible to feel good about being selfish” or “it is possible to act selfishly without having a guilty conscience”. Agreed. I still think that the translations are clearer!

    Hi Massimo,

    Sorry, I’m not playing games with you, no matter how much you enjoy that. You have stated a position that is unfalsifiable in principle, so it would be an utter waste of time for me to provide arguments and evidence against it.

    So after telling myself and Robin that our position is “ignoring empirical evidence to the contrary” and that there are “very good arguments and even empirical evidence against that proposition” and that we “haven’t paid attention” if we think otherwise, you now say that it is unfalsifiable in principle?

    And I never “play games” here, I always argue as straightforwardly as I can for what I think is the correct way of understanding things.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. saphsin

    Well Massimo, I was trying to make the point that injustice can take the form of social relations, the structure of inequality itself. No, not just coupled and related to each other, but its the nature of inequality itself (yes there are some structural & instrumental inequalities, and some that are inevitable by chance that we can’t avoid, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about disproportionate control of a world with finite resources) I think calling something immoral because it is embedded with certain empirical consequences is perfectly sensible in how we use language in many other contexts. In fact, it’s in Frankfurt’s own language as Michael Mitchell points out:

    “On Inequality is a case against the intrinsic moral value of equality. The word “intrinsic” is vital to Frankfurt’s approach. Without it, his argument is obviously false. With it, however, it is not clear what his argument is against. What does “intrinsic” mean here?

    Often, Frankfurt’s demand for a defense of equality’s “intrinsic” moral value is a request for a defense of equality that does not appeal to any other values. It’s not clear why this demand should matter: Sufficiency can’t meet this standard either. Its moral value derives from its relationship to happiness, but that doesn’t trouble Frankfurt. If that approach to justification is appropriate, egalitarians can defend their view by demonstrating that equality is morally valuable because equality is constitutive of a more basic moral value. ”

    http://newramblerreview.com/book-reviews/philosophy/why-equality-matters

    I mean one of the points I keep bringing up that wasn’t addressed was what sort of relations is not logically independent from its harmful consequences? Yet are we seriously saying that such structural relations aren’t unjust? I think this is nonsense, try to come up with a single example of an injustice that can be described in this manner. But it is somehow regarded different in this case. I am unconvinced on Frankfurt’s arguments he brings up of why it is so, because his accusations of what egalitarians argue for and why are pretty much strawman and unhelpful, which me and others elaborated on.

    But whenever I try to make that point, you introduce an empirical point such as “plenty of people that make more money then me don’t have power over me” and then I have to spend a good chunk of my posts explaining why I think that is wrong or at least misleading if true. And then we go back in circles with you pointing out my apparent lack of understanding that Frankfurt doesn’t deny that Inequality and Power are empirically related. I get that already. I just don’t think this objection makes any sense.

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  15. Massimo Post author

    DM,

    “moral conclusions are value judgements, and I’m not clear on how a value judgement could be shown to be false empirically or to be unreasonable”

    Not “false” in the sense of factually so, obviously. But you think empirical evidence and arguments are irrelevant to distinguish between good and bad moral judgments? If so, then there is no point in ethical discussion of any sort, including the one we are having. But I know you don’t believe that.

    “But Massimo was saying a utilitarian would want to reduce everyone to poverty with a massive redistribution of wealth”

    Massimo was actually not saying that. He was saying that utilitarian reasoning would result in massive redistribution of wealth, which would lower the average standards, by a lot (since there are a lot more poor people than super-rich ones). I did not say that that’s what utilitarians want. It is simply a consequence of their own philosophy.

    Synred,

    “but don’t please don’t argue that that’s unrelated to income and wealth.”

    Once again: logically independent, but empirically correlated. There is a fundamental distinction there.

    Socratic,

    “in for a penny, in for a pound — Frankfurt either knows that, and thus is being intellectually dishonest, in my opinion”

    Is it really necessary or helpful to accuse someone you don’t know of intellectual dishonesty, just because you would have written then book differently? Or another book altogether?

    Coel,

    “And I never “play games” here, I always argue as straightforwardly as I can for what I think is the correct way of understanding things”

    I’m sure you think so, I never doubt your intentions. But I’ve now “known” you for years and I am increasingly less interested in playing your games. Once more: you stated a position that is empirically or logically irrefutable, so any further argument or evidence I might provide is simply irrelevant. It follows, logically, that it would be a complete waste of time for me to even try. Indeed, this is my last response to you on this thread.

    Saphsin,

    “I was trying to make the point that injustice can take the form of social relations, the structure of inequality itself.”

    I don’t know what that means, forgive me. If you mean that as an empirical statement applicable to particular societies at particular points in time, then yes. And Frankfurt wouldn’t disagree. If you mean that as a type of logical necessity, no, absolutely not.

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  16. synred

    I think you meant your comment as a rebuttal, but I actually initially read it as supporting my point of view. You perhaps missed the bit where I said “(I would say coupled with a fair amount of socialist policies

    It was not a rebuttal aimed at you. I depersonalized it some to avoid raising the temperature.

    I dislike this book and its thesis. It deploys too much straw. I was giving some examples of this till Kindle limited my cut and paste — though not many of these where posted. They mostly go in my informal notes, which are pretty much just for me as they are informal (incoherent). I only got to page 44 of the book. I’m not sure,if I’ll continue as I like to take notes and I’ll have to use snip to pluck excerpts for them.

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  17. synred

    Sweden has less inequality, but it still has some inequality, right? Some inequality is a necessary evil, that’s all I’m saying. Sweden is the kind of society a utilitarian should want, and the relatively small amount of inequality that remains in Sweden is the cost of achieving such a balanced, flourishing society

    Exactly.

    Well I don’t think the inequality it all that small, but not so extreme as ours.

    I take ‘utilitarian’ to be a rule of thumb like Occam’s razor. It’s a useful question to ask about a decision or policy, but need not be overwhelming.

    In general I have no idea how ethics works or ‘should’ work and just muddle through and still ‘waste’ too much money on sick cats. The one thing I retain from my Catholic childhood is that people are not to be treated as ‘resources’.

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  18. saphsin

    Massimo

    Well not in particular points in time, but it’s a structural quality that applies to all societies in all points in time, that’s why I emphasized that there is a structural problem with extreme inequality itself and not just instrumental to certain situations.

    I’ll also ask you to forgive me what “logical necessity” means because I have no clue what’s supposed to mean, except what entails from empirical realities. Frankfurt’s standard of sufficiency (which I’m critical about but it’s a different matter) hardly obeys such standards you’re putting out here. These are all ideals we pursue with some practical interest from empirical considerations, which may or may not be a final moral end in of itself.

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  19. synred

    Once again: logically independent, but empirically correlated. There is a fundamental distinction there.

    So? empirical is sufficient to oppose and try to reduce (extreme) inequality.

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  20. SocraticGadfly

    OK, an analogy:

    Let’s say Paul of Tarsus were writing the book of Romans 2,000 years later, and per his comments on homosexuality, I said he either should know better, per the science, and his ignorance undercuts him, or he does know better, and that silence undercuts him.

    Is it philosophically necessary to say that? No. Is it, to the degree book critiques are sociologically “necessary”? Probably. Is it sociologically helpful? I think so indeed.

    Best analogy to other book critiquing I could think of on short notice.

    And, last comment, in all likelihood.

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  21. Massimo Post author

    Saphsin,

    “what “logical necessity” means because I have no clue what’s supposed to mean, except what entails from empirical realities”

    It is logically necessary that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle amount to 180 degrees, per definition of what a triangle is. Empirically constructed triangles may deviate from this idea, depending on how they are constructed.

    Synred,

    “So? empirical is sufficient to oppose and try to reduce (extreme) inequality.”

    Sorry, but that is simply missing the point of Frankfurt’s analysis.

    “I said he either should know better, per the science, and his ignorance undercuts him, or he does know better, and that silence undercuts him”

    And I said, he did not write the book you would have want him to write. Not his fault.

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  22. saphsin

    “It is logically necessary that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle amount to 180 degrees, per definition of what a triangle is. Empirically constructed triangles may deviate from this idea, depending on how they are constructed.”

    Yeah I knew that. What I was actually questioning is what that has anything to do with ethics, especially practical ethics pertaining to political injustice. I think I spent some time carefully writing down sufficiently long posts multiple times what kind of problem I have with this sort of demand.

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  23. synred

    Sorry, but that is simply missing the point of Frankfurt’s analysis

    If his point is that we should not strive for less inequality because its not conceptual equivalent of poverty, I understand it, but don’t agree with it.

    Rather I think that because empirically inequality leads to poverty and powerless and makes it difficult to deal with poverty, we should strive to reduce (not eliminate) inequality.

    In the case of his 10 guys with only enough ‘medicine’ to keep 8 alive, it does illustrate the conceptual difference between inequality and its consequence. Later as he generalizes this conclusion to the world, it turns to straw.

    I showed that with slight modification, I can make a story the supports the opposite conclusion. My story is no more valid in general than his.

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  24. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    But I know you don’t believe that.

    If you know that then the most likely explanation may be that we are talking at cross purposes. It might help if you could give an example of some empirical evidence that would undercut a fundamental value judgement.

    If we are indeed talking at cross purposes, perhaps you might mean something like this: any claim that homosexuality is wrong because same sex parents cannot provide a balanced or healthy environment for a child would be undercut by empirical evidence that children raised by same sex parents are normal and healthy. If you interpret me to be saying that this kind of argument won’t fly then you misunderstand me.

    Rather, I’m saying that the most fundamental moral values we hold — values which are not justified with respect to other values such as the importance of providing a healthy home environment for children but are instead held to be self-evident — these values cannot be undercut by empirical evidence, because unlike the above claim about homosexuality they do not depend on anything else.

    So if person A fundamentally wants average well-being to be as great as possible (period) and person B primarily wants a society as equal as it is possible to be and only regards overall or average well-being as a secondary concern, then I have no idea how empirical evidence is supposed to show one to be more reasonable than the other. This to me is like a difference in basic aesthetic preferences, not something that can be reasoned out. The only way reason or evidence might be able to settle the disagreement would be if at least one of A or B didn’t actually value what they claimed to value when it came right down to it. It is possible that this could be discovered through thoughtful discussion, but if they really do fundamentally differ then that is simply not going to happen.

    That’s not to say that these values cannot change, but I don’t think they are likely to be changed by philosophical argument. Some values may change based on personal experience. Hatred of some out group may not be amenable to philosophical or empirical refutation as long as it is not based on any false claims, but it might well be extinguished by increased exposure to the out group or being aided by members of the out group in a time of crisis.

    I did not say that that’s what utilitarians want. It is simply a consequence of their own philosophy.

    If we assume that your argument goes through, then a utilitarian will agree with you that this is a consequence of their philosophy. Since utilitarianism is all about consequences, then if they yet pursue the program that leads to this consequence, this must be what they want. If it isn’t what they want, then it seems to me they would not take the actions that would lead to this consequence. So, from a utilitarian perspective, either you’re talking about a desirable consequence or your argument does not go through.

    He was saying that utilitarian reasoning would result in massive redistribution of wealth, which would lower the average standards, by a lot (since there are a lot more poor people than super-rich ones).

    It would leave the average standards exactly the same. Let’s take an example of a small number of super-rich people and lots of poor people. If A has $97, B has $1, C has $1 and D has $1 the average wealth is $25. If we redistribute it so that each has $25, then the average wealth is still $25.

    But the median is looking a lot better. Previously, the median was $1, now the median is $25. And overall well-being is a lot better I’d say, because the additional $24 will mean so much to each of the beneficiaries of the redistribution (who have each increased their wealth 25 times) than the lost $72 will mean to A (who has had his wealth divided approximately in 3).

    So, mathematically speaking, it seems to me your argument does not hold water.

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  25. wtc48

    Brodix: “If it really doesn’t compute, what I’m trying to describe is a feedback loop, between forward progress and balance.”

    Don’t forget backward progress, aka regression, much favored by our present government (“Forward to Yesterday”).

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  26. Massimo Post author

    Saphsin,

    “What I was actually questioning is what that has anything to do with ethics, especially practical ethics pertaining to political injustice”

    Ethics is just about the theory as it is about practice.

    “I spent some time carefully writing down sufficiently long posts multiple times what kind of problem I have with this sort of demand.”

    Well, I spent the time carefully writing a whole book, published on this blog, on the nature of philosophical inquiry, and in particular ethics: http://tinyurl.com/y8mnp8z7

    Let me try a different approach: Frankfurt’s point is that if X and Y are empirically correlated, but only X is morally salient, while instead people focus on Y; and if, moreover, it is actually easier to address X than Y, then it is a mistake — both conceptual and empirical, to concentrate one’s energy and efforts on Y.

    In our case, we are simply not going to convince people that inequality should be drastically reduced. But we may be able to convince people that: (i) those on the bottom should have significantly more; and (ii) those on the top should not have unfair access to the levers of power. This can be done, by proper legislation. And it is both easier, and more effective, than try to eliminate, or even drastically reduce, inequality.

    Synred,

    “If his point is that we should not strive for less inequality because its not conceptual equivalent of poverty, I understand it, but don’t agree with it.”

    On what grounds? Do you disagree that the two are conceptually independent? Why?

    “Rather I think that because empirically inequality leads to poverty and powerless and makes it difficult to deal with poverty, we should strive to reduce (not eliminate) inequality.”

    A reasonable analysis, but one that Frankfurt, I think correctly, believes is wrong, for the reasons I just wrote up in response to Saphsin.

    DM,

    Right, your example of homosexual parents clearly shows that empirical evidence is relevant to ethical discourse. And that’s all I meant to say.

    I understand that you, like Coel, maintain that “the most fundamental values” (like what, for instance?) cannot be challenged by empirical evidence. But that is simply wrong. People who have held to lifelong homophobic beliefs (“values”) have instantly changed their mind when they found out that their own children were homosexual, an empirical discovery that immediately crumbled their prejudice. There are countless other examples.

    If what you are saying is that it is more difficult to change one’s fundamental beliefs in response to reason or evidence, sure, basically by definition of “more fundamental.” But no, I don’t believe any human value is impervious to challenges. And your parallel with aesthetic preferences is also unconvincing, as people change those as well, sometimes because of argument or exposure to empirical examples. (“I hate rap music!” / listens to some rap because friends force him to / “hmm, okay, it ain’t too bad, really”)

    Sorry but Ifind your numerical example so artificial that it is irrelevant. The reality is that there is a small percentage of people who are orders of magnitude more wealthy than the overwhelming majority of humanity, so the sort of numbers you put together don’t even begin to give a realistic picture.

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  27. Daniel Kaufman

    I understand that you, like Coel, maintain that “the most fundamental values” (like what, for instance?) cannot be challenged by empirical evidence. But that is simply wrong. People who have held to lifelong homophobic beliefs (“values”) have instantly changed their mind when they found out that their own children were homosexual, an empirical discovery that immediately crumbled their prejudice. There are countless other examples.

    = = =

    Seems to me one could just as easily maintain that one value — thinking homosexuality wrong — was overridden by another value — supporting and caring for one’s children.

    I am with DM and Coel (and Ross) in not thinking that values can be overridden by facts, but only by other values deemed more pressing.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. synred

    On what grounds? Do you disagree that the two are conceptually independent? Why?

    Perhaps not so much. Maybe I’m confusing causal with conceptual.

    Even in my story, it’s the ‘Kings’ power that gives money value — causally related not conceptually.

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