Tag Archives: On Inequality

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.

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.