Book Club: On Inequality 2, Equality and respect

We have seen last time that Harry Frankfurt advances a number of critiques of the commonly accepted idea that inequality is morally objectionable per se, as opposed to being objectionable for derivative reasons (e.g., because accumulation of wealth in the hands of few leads to undue influence in terms of political power). I now turn to the second (much shorter) part of his On Inequality, which discusses the relationship between equality and respect.

Frankfurt begins by stating that his analysis is compatible with a range of social policies and political viewpoints, i.e., it is neither limited to a left-leaning agenda nor opposed to it; and by rejecting the presumption that egalitarianism is an ideal of intrinsic moral importance, even though he personally supports a number of policies aimed at reducing inequality (for reasons other than the intrinsic immorality of the latter).

His claim, then, is that the moral appeal of economic egalitarianism is an illusion, since:

“Whenever it is morally important to strive for equality, it is always because doing so will promote some other value rather than because equality itself is morally desirable.” (p. 66)

Frankfurt takes on Thomas Nagel’s famous question: “How could it not be an evil that some people’s life prospects at birth are radically inferior to others’?” and responds that, empirically, it appears to be the case that inequality is compatible with having quite a bit, and that doing less well than others does not, in fact, entail doing badly.

As I argued in the course of the discussion following the first post on this book, Frankfurt is surely right if we are talking about modest discrepancies in wealth. The fact that there are some millionaires in New York City in no way implies that my life as a non-millionaire is bad, or that I am in no position to pursue my own projects and live a fulfilling life. Nor is anything of the sort implied for some people that are a little less wealthy than I am. Of course, if someone is truly poor (and that is, indeed, the case for many in the Big Apple) then those people’s ability to live a good life is seriously hampered. But that poses no problem for Frankfurt’s position, since the issue is that such people simply do not have enough, not that they have less.

But what about those, also to be found in good numbers in New York, who have so much more than is necessary even for a very comfortable life, and that frequently use their wealth to gain unfair access to the levers of power? There, Frankfurt argues, the issue — again — isn’t inequality per se, but rather the lack, or the non enforcement of laws that block the coupling between wealth and political power. The fact that these two are empirically correlated and often causally connected is not a logical necessity, says Frankfurt. Indeed, his point is that by focusing on inequality per se we miss the real problem, which is, for instance, the corruption of the political system. But despite Frankfurt’s claim that his approach does not prescribe any specific social or political reform, it actually does, since it shifts our focus from one kind of intervention (directly on inequality) to another (on corruption, or other undesirable empirical correlates of inequality).

Frankfurt again seeks to shift the attention of moral philosophers and people concerned with social justice:

“Surely what is of genuine moral concern is not formal but substantive. It is whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others. … What makes it an evil that certain people have bad lives is not that some other people have better lives. The evil lies simply in the conspicuous fact that bad lives are bad.” (p. 71-73)

Frankfurt asks us to consider what is important when we consider a person’s concern for her rights, respect, and consideration. Enjoying certain rights, or being treated with consideration and respect, have inherently nothing to do with how much more or less wealthy one is compared to others, because rights, respect, etc. are accorded to members of the human society qua human beings, not in proportion to their wealth — at the least in theory.

That latter point needs a bit of commentary. Frankfurt is not being naive here, I am guessing. He is not saying that, as a matter of fact, people enjoy the same rights and respect. That is patently empirically false. But it is also obviously true that we live in a society bound by laws, and more broadly a Constitution, that is designed to apply equally to people regardless of their race, gender, religion, and socio-economic status. That in and of itself makes Frankfurt’s point that inequality is logically distinct from other social issues having to do with injustice and unfair treatment.

Consider an analogy with the ongoing issue of police brutality against minorities, and blacks in particular. When people claim that the problem is not limited to individual policemen who may be racists, but is “systemic,” what do they mean, exactly? If they mean that police departments across the country tend to be characterized (with due exceptions ) by a culture of implicit or explicit racism, and that it is this culture that results in the disproportionate killing of black men, they are probably correct. But if they mean that the laws of this country are inherently racist, then that is obviously false. We are very clearly, very explicitly, all equal under the law. Recognizing this distinction — which is analogous to the one Frankfurt seeks to draw between inequality per se and undesirable empirical correlates of inequality — leads to very different types of actions: in one case one should seek to reform police departments, in the other case to change the law of the land. They are not at all the same thing.

A bit later on Frankfurt makes another distinction that is worth pondering:

“It is easy to confuse being treated with … respect … with being treated equally. However, the two are not the same. I believe that the widespread tendency to exaggerate the moral importance of egalitarianism is due, at least in part, to a misunderstanding of the relationship between treating people equally and treating them with respect.” (p. 76)

A simple example: I make a concerted effort to treat my students with respect, qua human beings. But they are certainly not my equals (I’m the teacher, they are the students), nor are they equal to each other in all pertinent respects, as some of them are smarter, have better background knowledge, or try harder than others. Some of my students may need to be treated differently precisely because they have different needs. But they all ought to be treated with the same respect.

Frankfurt quotes Isaiah Berlin, one of the defenders of the idea that equality should be the default moral position: “The assumption is that equality needs no reasons, only inequality does so. … If I have a cake and there are ten persons among whom I wish to divide it, then if I give exactly one tenth to each, this will not, at any rate automatically, call for justification; whereas if I depart from this principle of equal division I am expected to produce a special reason.”

This, Frankfurt comments, is surely right, but only because in the hypothetical case imagined by Berlin we have no knowledge whatsoever of the people involved, their needs, and their differences. Under such conditions of total lack of information (what John Rawls’ famous called a “veil of ignorance”) equality and respect coincide. But, argues Frankfurt, this is a happenstance, not a logical necessity, “for the only characteristics of each person that are relevant [in this case] — to wit, simply those that constitute his humanity — are necessarily shared by every other human being. Therefore, the criteria of impartiality and of equality must inescapably yield, in this case, the same result.” (p. 82) But, crucially, only in this case.

Frankfurt is perfectly aware that being ignored, discounted, or not taken seriously is disturbing and has real consequences. But he insists that demands for respect should be based on the realities of a person’s own conditions, and especially on her status as a human being, and not simply on the amount of wealth that she happens, or does not happen, to have. Which means that, even in terms of respect, the issue isn’t equality per se, but a recognition of the worth and dignity of being human.


Heads up: our next book club series will focus on a completely different topic and discipline. We will tackle my colleague Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Stay tuned.

102 thoughts on “Book Club: On Inequality 2, Equality and respect

  1. Robin Herbert

    Of course, if someone is truly poor (and that is, indeed, the case for many in the Big Apple) then those people’s ability to live a good life is seriously hampered. But that poses no problem for Frankfurt’s position, since the issue is that such people simply do not have enough, not that they have less.

    As I said last time, this misses the issue. Poverty level is structurally linked to economic inequality. Prices are a function of the ability to pay in society in general, so the price of a standard basket of groceries will depend upon the amount that all in the society can pay.

    A larger economic disparity will increase the number of people who can’t afford a standard basket of groceries. The same goes for other goods such as accommodation, medicine etc.

    So there are good logical reasons to ensure that economic disparity does not become too great.

    Not enough economic disparity has problems of its own, as it would remove the motivation for people to achieve things that would benefit society. However I don’t see any danger at the moment of not enough economic inequality.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. saphsin

    “Not enough economic disparity has problems of its own, as it would remove the motivation for people to achieve things that would benefit society.”

    I don’t quite agree with this part as alternative economics puts skepticism of what actually drives people’s incentives. It might end up being true, but it’s not as obvious as what’s commonly said, we’ll have to test out different models and evaluate the consequences. That’s not easy with economics as physicists can do in a lab.

    I agree with the rest of your post though. Inequality in of itself implies something empirically in a capitalist system with finite resources. It might not in an abstract world where the concept of inequality means something very different, which we don’t live in.


  3. saphsin


    I have some differences from the reviewer of the second link you posted but the common thread is that the problematic way of discussing political economy that goes way beyond that of the topic of this thread and is endemic to certain strains of liberalism & right-libertarianism. A picture of a world with individuals atomized from each other, who participate in a market, with a government institution on the side to interact with through legislation. It’s an extremely stifling model that is incapable of describing anything about how the society really works historically. Money is a socially defined phenomenon, except in the ideas perpetuated by neoclassical economists.

    Yanis Varoufakis:

    “I mean the whole notion that there can be a market system which is at an arm’s length separated from a state, which is the enemy, is the sickest joke in the history of humankind. If you think that this narrative of private wealth creation which is appropriated by the big bad wolf, the state, on behalf of trade unions and the working class that need a social welfare net, is just a preposterous reversal of the truth that wealth is being created collectively and appropriated privately but right from the beginning. I mean, the enclosures in Britain would never have happened without the king’s army and without state brutality for pushing peasants off their ancestors’ land and creating the commodification of labor, the commodification of land which then gave rise to capitalism. Just half an hour ago, we were being shown, some of us, the magnificent collection of maps of the city of New York in this wonderful building and you could see in one of the maps of Alabama, the precise depiction of the theft of land from Native Americans, the way in which it was parceled up, commodified. Now that would never have happened without the brutal intervention of the state and created the process of privatization of land and therefore of commodification.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ejwinner

    my apologies: “So who, exactly, published a book, 300 years ago, arguing for the logical independence of inequality from other morally salient issues, as well as for the the idea that inequality per se is not unethical?” Hobbes,Leviathan” – you really walked into that one. Your forte is philosophy of science, which doesn’t require knowledge of historical political philosophy. Mine is rhetoric, which requires such knowledge (not to mention that Hobbes had a crude but serviceable theory of semiotics). That is also true of the political arguments I remark (eg., Lincoln Douglas).

    I hope that our disagreement concerning Frankfurt does not impair our dialogue going forward. Frankfurt seems – to me – a ‘bright new shiny bauble,’ but although he might prove right, he still lacks the depth I expect of such arguments.

    We now can recognize that Rawls was largely mistaken; but his writing had the necessary gravitas to make his text on law worth reading and thinking over.

    I’m just frustrated that discussions of the political seem reduced to glib comments and minor complaints about passing fads. But what else can we expect in the age of Facebook and Donald Trump?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bunsen Burner


    ‘Not enough economic disparity has problems of its own, as it would remove the motivation for people to achieve things that would benefit society.’

    I agree with what you’ve written but this last part I am sceptical about. What makes you convinced of this? Economic inequality might drive some forms of motivations, but how does it make people more motivated to benefit society?


  6. Massimo Post author


    Nice one, Leviathan! But of course Hobbes didn’t mean anything remotely close to what Frankfurt is talking about, nor was he responding to the same background of philosophical positions that Frankfurt addresses.

    That said, of course our disagreement will not impair future dialogue. Looking forward to the next round!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. brodix

    That’s a very entertaining discussion between Varoufakis and Chomsky. It really goes to the reason why the underlying issues cannot be addressed on an economic and political level, because the reality is very much known and understood. It’s just not “useful.”
    And for that will be utterly ostracized.
    Reciprocity, circularity and feedback need to be promulgated at a much more conceptually intrinsic level and then percolate into social realities.
    Though when the current debt bubble bursts, the powers that be will loose control of the narrative for awhile, so it might have some direct application.
    Of course, then it might feed back into the more linear and atomistic cultural and philosophic models!


  8. brodix

    Why do we have lower taxes on capital when it is so abundant that much of it is sitting on the sidelines rather than being put to work in our economy? Why do we tax labor income more highly when one of the problems in our economy is lack of aggregate consumer demand because ordinary people don’t have money in their pockets? When economists like former Treasury secretary Larry Summers talk about “secular stagnation,” this is what they are referring to. “The main constraint on the industrial world’s economy today is on the demand, rather than the supply, side,” Summers wrote.


  9. SocraticGadfly

    Ahh, guess Massimo didn’t close comments here yet. EJ, yes, your plaint is in part mine. Frankfurt tries writing in a vacuum about an issue with great degrees of political and public policy import.

    Also, per one of the links I posted above? Both pieces that constitute the book were originally written before the turn of the century. Note to Dan: That’s Dennett-level recycling.


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