By MICHAEL MITCHELL
Review of On Inequality, by Harry G. Frankfurt
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015
What’s so wrong about inequality?
Often, the answer seems obvious. Compare the lives of the poor to the lives of the rich, and the question might seem absurd. But is what’s wrong that the gap between them is so wide, or that the poor have so little?
If we’re inclined to claim it’s the former, fair enough. Typically, however, we offer reasons inequality is bad. These aren’t necessarily reasons inequality is wrong – at least, not inherently wrong. To reach that conclusion, we need more of an argument.
This distinction between the badness of inequality and the wrongness of inequality – and the related demand that supporters of equality make their case – matters. The consequences of inequality we typically worry about are contingent. Inequality does not, in and of itself, entail these things. What’s more, we often confront choices that appear to present tradeoffs between inequality and something desirable. Some economists, for example, have argued there is an inevitable tradeoff between inequality and economic growth; the more of the latter we want, the less of the former we get. Even if this relationship doesn’t always hold, how should we decide what to do when it does? To decide how to face these tradeoffs, we need to know whether they are merely about competing sets of consequences with commensurable pros and cons or about a threat to a moral value we would be wrong to imperil. We need to know whether inequality is wrong, or merely bad sometimes.
In his latest book, On Inequality, Harry G. Frankfurt – Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Princeton and New York Times best-selling author of On Bullshit – combines and refreshes two old papers to offer a thoughtful and provocative argument that inequality is not intrinsically morally wrong. In doing so, he has defied egalitarians to explain exactly why they value equality. His lucid analysis and careful arguments present a serious challenge. Nevertheless, the book leaves egalitarians significant reasons to value equality.
On Inequality has two parts. In the first, Frankfurt says that he aims to refute “economic egalitarianism,” “the doctrine that it is desirable for everyone to have the same amounts of income and of wealth.” (6) Let me make two notes about that definition right away. First, this is not how proponents of egalitarianism typically formulate their view. Second, if this is really Frankfurt’s target, economic egalitarians only have to show that economic equality is instrumentally desirable in order to prove their point. Frankfurt, however, does not dispute that. So it would be more accurate to say, as he does later, that the question is whether economic equality is intrinsically morally valuable.
Frankfurt’s approach is chiefly negative: He examines the arguments that economic equality is intrinsically morally valuable and tries to show that each fails. In this, he is (for the most part) unsettlingly successful.
We might contend that economic equality matters because it is a prerequisite for other forms of morally valuable equality. Consider, for example, that in a society in which money can buy political influence, economic inequality may imperil political equality. In response, Frankfurt points out that this is only an argument for the instrumental value of economic equality. It doesn’t show that economic equality is valuable in itself. He’s right, and the same consideration applies to any other appeal to the consequences of economic equality.
We might also argue that economic equality is morally valuable because it maximizes aggregate utility. Proponents of this view appeal to the principle of diminishing marginal utility: Since the more you have of a good, the less utility you gain from the next additional unit of that good, the extra dollar that goes to someone who has more does less good than if it went to someone who has less.
Under some conditions this is a plausible suggestion, but as Frankfurt demonstrates, it isn’t a necessary truth, nor even a particularly likely one. Unlike other goods, money is an instrument of exchange. Even if the goods money can buy face diminishing marginal utility, it doesn’t follow that money itself does. Moreover, it seems unlikely that every individual has the same utility function for money, but this assumption is vital to the plausibility of the aggregate utility claim. I could go on, but Frankfurt’s rebuttal is so thorough that if the argument appealed to you, you should probably read this yourself. Indeed, Frankfurt’s concerns offer good reasons to doubt utilitarianism could ever vindicate economic egalitarianism.
Taking another approach, we might defend equality by claiming that each is entitled to an equal share of the benefits of social cooperation (prima facie, at least). Inequality is wrong because it involves some taking more than what they are legitimately entitled to. This approach has a certain intuitive appeal. I think it captures much of what political advocates of equality are typically trying to say – for example, when denouncing the fact that the wealthiest have received a disproportionately large share of the growth of income and wealth over the last four decades. However, Frankfurt wants to say that this is not an argument for the intrinsic moral value of equality. It is only an argument against a certain kind of distributive injustice.
Frankfurt’s arguments are strong, but they may leave us cold. As he admits, sometimes “economic inequality just seems wrong.” (41) This is especially true when we reflect on the lives of the worst off. Today, chance condemns some to radically worse lives than others solely in virtue of where they are born. We might wonder, as philosopher Thomas Nagel has, "How could it not be an evil that some people's life prospects at birth are radically inferior to others?"
Frankfurt’s answer to this question is deceptively simple: Inequality is not an evil at all if the prospects of the worst off are good enough for them. Most of what seems like morally objectionable inequality is actually morally objectionable insufficiency. What’s wrong is not that the poor have so little, but that they don’t have enough.
How much is enough? Sufficiency requires more than mere subsistence, but not so much that more money couldn’t make you happier. If you have enough, your life is “richly fulfilling” and you are “genuinely content” with your economic situation (42). Your life may not be perfect, but its defects aren’t the sort that could be fixed by money (48).
Naturally, Frankfurt thinks we should aim to maximize sufficiency. That might sound great, but we shouldn’t rush to make sufficiency our ultimate public goal. As Amartya Sen has noted, our preferences often adapt to our experiences and opportunities. Sometimes, we lower our hopes to match our expectations, contenting ourselves with less because we think it’s all we can get or all that we’re worthy of. Other times – under the lure of advertising or amidst a life of obscene wealth – we refuse to content ourselves with what is truly enough, even excellent. Frankfurt doesn’t deny that preferences adapt, but he doubts this is a significant problem for this theory. If someone wants less than they could otherwise reasonably desire, what counts as “sufficient” for her is now less than it otherwise would be. But if contentment is so malleable, so adaptable to conditions of deprivation and of excess, why should we think it is intrinsically morally valuable, let alone a suitable master goal for distributive justice?
There is a deeper problem for sufficiency as a rival to equality: Sufficiency is relative. What counts as sufficient depends on what others have. Objectionable insufficiency is, in all but the special case of subsistence poverty, inextricable from inequality.
Much of what Frankfurt writes about sufficiency belies this suggestion. He often implies that what counts as sufficient for you can be determined by reflecting only on what you need, regardless of what everyone else has. That’s plausible, too, if we have something like what Ci Jiwei calls “subsistence poverty” in mind. This is the sort of absolute poverty in which you don’t have enough to sustain your biological functions. What counts as enough to live in this sense really doesn’t depend on what others have, but on what your body requires to keep going.
However, Frankfurt is explicit that sufficiency requires more than mere subsistence, so he admits that what counts as enough for you depends on what others have. “[A] calculation of how much money would be enough for a person cannot intelligently be made,” he acknowledges, “if that person is likely to be engaged in a pertinent variety of competition, without consideration of how much money is likely available to those with whom the person may be required to compete.” (13)
Frankfurt seems to think this is not a fatal problem for his account. Perhaps there is a threshold similar to the one relevant to subsistence poverty. If you have enough to compete, or to be a member of society in good standing, it is morally unobjectionable that others have more.
But this is to misunderstand at least one of the phenomena involved here – what Ci calls “status poverty.” Status poverty is not a threshold phenomenon; it’s intrinsically relative. In societies in which money is an instrument of exchange for goods and status – a governing assumption Frankfurt certainly does not contest – “the lower one’s economic position . . . the greater one’s social exclusion will be. In such societies the economically worst-off will make up the status poor, whatever their absolute level of income.” As long as status is in part a function of wealth, status insufficiency is status inequality.
This is a serious problem if sufficiency is supposed to offer something equality can’t. Sufficiency is not identifiable by examining each person, one at a time; to know whether what you have is enough for you, we need to know what others have. Sufficiency is not intrinsically morally valuable, either; its value is relative to the moral value of happiness.
In short, Frankfurt hasn’t shown that we can replace the ideal of equality with the ideal of sufficiency.
In the second part of On Inequality, Frankfurt extends his argument to all other forms of equality. Political equality, equality of respect, equal consideration – none are intrinsically morally valuable. If we should endorse principles of equal respect, we should because we each bear the relevant bases for that respect, not because there is something intrinsically wrong with according some less respect than others. When someone has not been given the rights or goods to which she is entitled, what is wrong is not that that person has less than others, but that she has not been given her due.
Some of the doubts I raised about Frankfurt’s case against economic equality matter bear here too. It is far from obvious that the value of political equality is better explained by the value of political sufficiency, at the very least because it is far from clear what it would mean to have “sufficient” rights, or sufficient treatment under the law, without regard to how one’s rights or treatment compare to those of others.
Frankfurt seems to have conflated what some call “comparative” and “non-comparative” justice. Sometimes it is wrong to treat me some way because of certain facts about me, but other times it is wrong precisely because everyone else is treated another way. If it is wrong that I am permitted to donate $2699 to a candidate for office when everyone else is permitted to donate $2700, surely this is because I have been barred from contributing the same amount as everyone else, not because there is something about me in virtue of which I am truly and pre-institutionally entitled to give candidates exactly $2700 per election cycle. To know that I have been wronged, we need to compare what has been done to me with what is done to other people.
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 (68). 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.
That is exactly how egalitarians like John Rawls and others in the contemporary social contract tradition have defended the moral value of equality. In their view, as developed in Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, justice requires a form of political and economic equality. The structure of a just society is defined by two principles of justice: individuals are entitled to the greatest set of rights and liberties that could be equally granted to all, and to an equal share of “primary social goods” – wealth, education, healthcare, and whatever else anyone could reasonably be thought to need to live a good life – except where some inequality of these goods would be to the benefit of those who are worst off.
In addition to this substantive role, equality is also embedded in the procedure that generates the two principles. The two principles of justice are the principles because they are those all reasonable people would agree to under fair bargaining conditions in advance of knowing their place in society. This procedure fits because we must justify the institutions under which we live to each other as equals, as fellow aspirants to good lives seeking a just society. Moral equality, as the demand that the basic structure of society be justified to each and every one of its members, is at the heart of the Rawlsian theory. In this procedural role, the moral value of equality may well be independent of other values.
Frankfurt does frame a case he thinks undermines the second principle of justice, but even if he is right, the Rawlsian case for political equality remains untouched – as does the value of equality as a feature of procedural justice. For our purposes, the point is this: Egalitarians may defend the moral value of equality by appealing to procedural justice.
Elsewhere in On Inequality, Frankfurt suggests that he wants a defense of equality that appeals neither to any other values nor to any of its effects.
Derek Parfit has formulated one test of what we think about this. Imagine two independent communities – so independent that neither is aware that the other exists and they have no effects on one another. One is vastly richer than the other. If inequality is intrinsically wrong, without regard to its effects, it should be better, morally, if the two communities had the same amount of wealth. Since this is a question about substantive equality between disconnected societies, rather than equality within one, the Rawlsian approach does not apply.
It’s not obvious why equality matters here. Perhaps an equal distribution of wealth at the same average level would be better than the unequal alternative. But some egalitarians would not defend that claim. Since the case features inequality that merely happens to be the case, rather than inequality that has been created by any social arrangements, it might not raise a moral question at all.
If our judgments about this sort of case clash, it is not clear how we should resolve them.
The most resurrected libel against egalitarians is that their demands are nothing more than expressions of envy dolled up for a night on the philosophical town. Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that morality as we know it emerged from a similar translation of resentment into philosophy, is one of the many who have voiced this sort of view. Conservative Washington Post columnist George F. Will reads Frankfurt as another. In a confused attempt to pin Frankfurt’s charges on Bernie Sanders, Will writes that Sanders should read Frankfurt’s book, accept that equality is not morally significant, and stop “stoking the discontent of those who are comfortable but envious.” All this talk about equality is doing no one any good, and only hurts the envious anyway. (Will, in a tone at once prophetic and curmudgeonly, buttresses this point by helpfully adding that envy “is the only one of the seven deadly sins that does not give the sinner even momentary pleasure.”)
Frankfurt’s actual argument is more sophisticated than this tired charge. In fact, his final argument against the moral value of equality may be his most interesting. Our concern with equality, Frankfurt claims, is not just misguided – a kind of naïve but largely costless error – but harmful. In our pursuit of a moral mirage, we abandon the path we ought to be walking – not only for establishing the right sort of society, but also for living our own lives well. Without even invoking the word "envy," Frankfurt turns the primordial charge against egalitarianism on its head. Whereas conservatives have long claimed that egalitarianism emerges from envy, according to Frankfurt, it is envy (and alienation) that emerges from egalitarianism.
Frankfurt is right that there could be such a thing as too much focus on equality. Whatever we think about the moral value of equality, our attention to it has costs. The popularity of various forms of egalitarianism in academia, he suggests, has distracted philosophers, economists, and political scientists from reflecting on what it takes to have enough (15). More research into sufficiency might help us evaluate which distributive problems most urgently demand amelioration.
But Frankfurt worries our evaluation of equality does us more serious harm than that. As he tells it, moralized concern with what one has relative to others is a source and symptom of alienation, a harmful separation from one's own standing within one's own life. He asserts, for example, that “the amount of money available to various others has nothing directly to do with what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself.” (11)
This seems mistaken. We live our lives among others. Although much of what we “most sensibly and appropriately” seek for ourselves does not depend on what others have and seek, quite a bit does. As Adam Smith famously noted, we need certain clothes to appear in public without shame. In cases like this – remember Ci Jiwei’s “status poverty” – disapprobation we appropriately seek to avoid is inextricable from what others have. Such cases permeate human life. Our standing and inclusion as full members of the community often depends on how what we have compares to what others have.
Frankfurt might object that when we stake our own self-regard on the way we are regarded by others, we suffer from alienation. That is sometimes true, but here it misses the point: because we live in society, the opportunities we have to lead decent and worthy lives are partially formed by how others regard us. We often “sensibly and appropriately” seek social goods like friendship, respect, and solidarity. Inequality threatens these goods. If we are anything but Stoics, Frankfurt’s call for a turning inward demands a radical renunciation of what we care about.
If Frankfurt is now tempted to say that these are only reasons to care about the consequences of equality and inequality, rather than their intrinsic moral value, he would be right. But these are exactly the sort of considerations that matter in addressing his claim that the consequences of our aspirations to equality are harmful.
A few weeks after the publication of On Inequality, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a piece in which he tried to offer empirical support for Frankfurt’s concerns. Some studies suggest that children are willing to accept inequality as long as they think it is fair. In one study, “when asked to create a perfect society, respondents chose one in which those in the top fifth have about three times more wealth than those in the bottom fifth.” What people really want is fairness, not equality, he says.
Why, then, do so many people seem to value equality? Envy. And this envy is distracting them from what they should really care about while making them sympathetic to harmful proposals, like making the well-off worse for the sake of reducing inequality. “[I]f people take the time to reflect,” Bloom claims, “they’ll realize that inequality isn’t really what’s bothering them.”
These studies raise interesting questions. I am eager to know why respondents chose the wealth distribution they did, to draw out the values at play in that assessment. But it’s hard to see what they tell us about how much we value equality or why, let alone about how much we should value it. The ideal society study illustrates this point neatly: surely we don’t think that the participants’ responses mean that humans have some urgent longing for a society whose top fifth is three times as wealthy as its bottom fifth. This result does not reveal anything deeply significant (psychologically or morally) about the fairness of certain distributions of wealth. If these studies can yield any relevant conclusions at all, we need to interrogate the social knowledge and normative claims these respondents are putting to work. At that point, we are doing philosophy.
Whatever we think about these claims as psychology, they are not arguments against equality as a moral value. To say that egalitarian ideals can distract people from accurately evaluating what they really need is only to say that those individuals who are liable to be so distracted should be more careful about what they worry about. It is not to say, yet, that they have no legitimate claim to equality. To say – even to confirm, which Bloom’s sources have not – that egalitarians are motivated by envy is not yet to offer a reason to reject their claims. My claim that you have no right to the expensive car in your driveway might be motivated by envy, but if you stole the car it will also be accurate, and if I know you did, I may be justified – even obligated – to call you out. And this example makes another important point that Frankfurt and Bloom overlook. Sometimes, we really do make a distributive arrangement better by taking from the best off: when they have come by what they have unjustly.
Economic equality is not intrinsically morally valuable. In On Inequality, Harry Frankfurt has convincingly defended this point. For that reason alone, it is an excellent book worthy of serious attention. Readers will leave it confronted with new questions about their views.
Nevertheless, On Inequality does not achieve all that some – including Frankfurt himself – think it does. The book leaves significant forms of egalitarianism unscathed. It leaves most public discourse about inequality intact too. This is more surprising, since the book opens by rejecting President Obama’s claim that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” Yet President Obama seems to think its moral wrongness comes from its consequences and from its relationship to justice – reasons this book does not contest. Obama, Rawls, and even Bernie Sanders, unlikely bedfellows, are united by a conviction that justice demands certain forms of equality.
And if, as Rawls wrote, justice is the first virtue of social institutions – that sometimes mysterious property whose absence is reason enough to insist they change – then this is reason enough for us to value equality. We do so not from envy or alienation, but from proper regard for ourselves and one another. As we seek to live good lives, we rightly look beyond the fences that divide our lives from those of others, that we may see when we must join them in the hard and necessary work of making our world more just by making it more equal.
MICHAEL MITCHELL is a graduate student in philosophy at Tufts University. His writing has appeared in Haaretz, the Harvard International Review, and other publications.