Harry Frankfort on Inequality

Inequality is Not Immoral

The false belief that economic equality is morally important leads people to take too seriously a question that is inherently rather insignificant — namely, the question of how their economic status compares with the economic status of others. In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time…

Look within.

Photographer: Levent Kisi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The false belief that economic equality is morally important leads people to take too seriously a question that is inherently rather insignificant — namely, the question of how their economic status compares with the economic status of others. In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.

Advocacy of egalitarianism is often based less on an argument than on a purported moral intuition: Economic inequality just seems wrong. It strikes many people as altogether apparent that, taken simply in its own right, the possession by some of more money than others is morally offensive.

I suspect that people who profess to have this intuition are actually not responding to the inequality they perceive but to another feature of the situation they are observing. What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable in circumstances of economic inequality is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.

When we consider people who are substantially worse off than ourselves, we very commonly find that we are morally disturbed by their circumstances. What directly moves us in cases of that kind, however, is not a relative quantitative discrepancy but an absolute qualitative deficiency. It is not the fact that the economic resources of those who are worse off are smaller than ours. It is the quite different fact that their resources are too 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. The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty.

The fundamental error of economic egalitarianism lies in supposing that it is morally important whether one person has less than another, regardless of how much either of them has and regardless also of how much utility each derives from what he has.

Whether one person has a larger income than another is an entirely extrinsic matter. It has to do with a relationship between the incomes of the two people. It is independent both of the actual sizes of their respective incomes and, more importantly, of the amounts of satisfaction they are able to derive from them.

A preoccupation with the condition of others interferes, moreover, with the most basic task on which a person’s selection of monetary goals for himself most decisively depends. It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order to pursue his own most authentic needs, interests, and ambitions.

Exaggerating the moral importance of economic equality is harmful, in other words, because it is alienating. It separates a person from his own individual reality, and leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs that are not most authentically his own.

When someone is evaluating his well-being — his satisfaction with the resources at his disposal — what is it important for him to take into account? The assessments he has to make are personal. What he must do is to make assessments on the basis of a realistic estimate of how closely the course of his life suits his individual capacities, meets his particular needs, fulfills his best potentialities, and provides him with what he himself cares about.

If a person has enough resources to provide for the satisfaction of his needs and his interests, his resources are then entirely adequate; their adequacy does not depend in addition on the magnitude of the resources other people possess.

The same goes for rights, for respect, for consideration, and for concern. Every person is entitled to these things by virtue of what he is and what he has done. The extent of his entitlement to them does not depend on whether or not other people are entitled to them as well.

It may be that true the entitlement of all people to certain things is, in fact, the same. If so, however, it would not be because equality is important, but rather because all people happen to be the same, or are necessarily the same, with regard to the characteristics from which the entitlements in question derive — for instance, common humanity, or a capacity for suffering. The mere fact that one person has something or is entitled to something — taken by itself — is no reason at all for another person to want the same thing or to think himself entitled to it.

Inequality is, ultimately, a purely formal characteristic; and from this formal characteristic of the relationship between two items, nothing whatever follows as to the desirability or value of either, or of the relationship between them. 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.

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4 responses to “Harry Frankfort on Inequality

  1. This article brings up the important yet seemingly counterintuitive idea that inequality is not necessarily immoral by nature of itself. The article highlights that we moralize inequality in our comparisons of what we consume to what the wealthier consume. Focusing on inequality as immoral seems harmful, moreover, since it “separates a person from his own individual reality, and leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs that are not most authentically his own.” Basically, we miscalculate our own utility functions by looking at what other people consume.

    I would argue that beyond comparing the qualitative deficiency of the lives of poor and rich isn’t the sole reason we see inequality as immoral, but rather this tendency could evidence a larger preoccupation with an unjust system that affords such huge gaps in wealth. As Piketty highlighted, we are witnessing the advent of super-managers who earn incomes several hundred times over that ov the average worker. We’ve talked about a fundamental critique of capitalism as the exploitation of workers’ labor to profit from it by depriving them some of the value of their work. Thus, I would think people’s angers might be misdirected at inequality whereas they stem more from the perhaps unfair conditions that give rise to inequality.

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  2. I agree with this article that the possession of more money by some people than others is not and should not be morally offensive. As stated, “It is whether people have good lives, not how their lives compare with the lives of others.”
    However, I believe it is morally offensive when money or resources are wasted by the wealthy that have too much, while some people do not have enough. It is one thing to say that marginal amounts of inequality aren’t a case for moral distress, but when a wealthy person is being greedy or wasteful of their utility, then it is cause for moral concern. Take for example a person who has an entire table of food that will spoil if not consumed on that day and who cannot consume it all themselves. I think they should have a moral obligation to share it with someone who has no food on their table instead of throwing part of it in the trash for no one to enjoy.

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  3. I really like how he concisely encapsulated the issue:
    “What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable in circumstances of economic inequality is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.”
    This ties into the threshold we spoke of in class. Nobody wants pure equality because we are all in some aspect self-interested (and skeptical of how hard others work), but I think we a morally opposed the inequality that is so augmented, it causes some people to have untimely deaths.
    People also respond differently to different stimuli (Baber made the case of ice cream in class). So even if you were to give every identical circumstances, the reactions/levels of well-being/happiness/utility would inevitably vary. But I don’t think you should try to guarantee those equal circumstances to begin with… People live different lives (one of my aunts lives in a trailer and the other in a multi-million dollar home)– and a lot of us like that! That’s why The Giver and Anthem are considered dystopian. However, I think you need to get people at a threshold for life—not just survival. Beyond that though, life is what you make it. You can choose to be grateful for the things you have, even the challenges, or you can choose to be discontent, but as far as my duty and moral obligation to other humans, I should get you to the threshold of living—finding happiness is on you.

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  4. It seems our society demands that we need material goods to be happy. I find it very egocentric that those with resources must assume that those without are less happy or fulfilled. In my travels around the world, my core beliefs have been shaken time and again when I realize that many of the people I’d initially consider impoverished seem to have a truly happier soul. That happiness seems to be derived from a strong sense of family, culture, and ceremonies–not from material wealth. This understanding has been difficult for me to grasp, because I cannot find happiness in America without some level of wealth; yet, I would give anything to find again the child-like sense of happiness and my place in the world as many other so called “impoverished” have shared with me.

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