Harry Frankfurt on Inequality

I read Harry Frankfurt’s essay on inequality (published as a small book by Princeton University Press, 2015) over the weekend.  Frankfurt’s position is simple: “Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable.  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.  If everyone had enough money, it would be of no special or deliberate concern whether some people had more money than others.  I shall call this alternative to egalitarianism the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’—that is, the doctrine that what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough” (7).

Economic inequality is morally objectionable only when the fact of its existence leads to the production of other moral harms.  But it is not intrinsically (a key word for Frankfurt) morally objectionable in itself.  “That economic equality is not a good in itself leaves open the possibility, obviously, that it may be instrumentally valuable as a necessary condition for the attainment of goods that do generally possess intrinsic value. . . . [T]he widespread error of believing that there are powerful moral reasons for caring about economic equality for its own sake is far from innocuous.  As a matter of fact, this belief tends to do significant harm” (8-9).

Frankfurt’s efforts to specify the harm done are not very convincing, involving tortured arguments about marginal utility and implausible suppositions about scarcity.  By failing to deal in any concrete cases, he offers broad arguments that fall apart (it seems to me) when applied to things like access to clean air and clean water (think of the Flint water crisis) or to health care and education (where provision of equal access and quality to all is a commitment to the equal worth of every life, a principle that seems to me intrinsic.)  It gets even worse at the end of the book, in the second essay, “Equality and Respect.”  Frankfurt writes: “I categorically reject the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance” (65).  His argument rests on a bit of a shell game, since he substitutes “respect” for “equality”, and then acknowledges that there are certain rights we deem morally due to all because of our “respect” for their “common humanity.”  But he is against “equality” because he thinks we also accord respect (and even certain rights) differentially.  We need to take the differences between people into account when those differences are (in his words) “relevant.”  What he fails to see is that “equality” names the moral principle that, in (again) particular cases, no differences can or should be relevant (in spite of the fact that various agents will try to assert and act on the relevance of differences).  The most obvious case is “equality before the law.”  It is very hard to see how “equality before the law” is not an intrinsic moral principle.  It functions as a principle irrespective of outcomes—and its functioning as a principle is demonstrated precisely by the fact that it is meant to trump any other possible way of organizing how the law functions.  It is good in and of itself; we could even say that “equality before the law” constitutes the good, the legitimacy, of law—and it preforms this constitutive function because it is the intrinsic principle law is meant to instantiate.

But let’s go back to economic inequality.  There Frankfurt is on much stronger ground.  I don’t think he makes a good case that concern over economic inequality causes harm.  But as what I have been calling a “welfare minimalist” (what he calls “the doctrine of sufficiency”), he echoes the comment of my colleague that questions of inequality are irrelevant if everyone has enough.  As Frankfurt puts it: “The doctrines of egalitarianism and of sufficiency are logically independent: considerations that support the one cannot be presumed to provide support for the other” (43).  “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” (43).

There are practical questions here of a Marxist variety: namely, is it possible for there to be substantial inequality without the concomitant impoverishment of some proportion of the population?  Oddly enough, Frankfurt briefly talks about the inflationary effects of making the poor better off, but never considers the inflationary effects of their being vast concentrations of wealth (in housing costs, for example).  Mostly, however, Frankfurt shies far away from practical issues.

On his chosen level of abstraction, he makes one very good and one very provocative point.  The good point is that concerns about inequality help us not at all with the tough question of establishing standards of sufficiency.  If the first task before us is triage, then what is needed is to provide everyone with enough.  It seems true to me that triage is the current priority—and that we have barely begun to address the question of what would suffice.  Talk of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) is hopelessly abstract without a consideration of what that income would enable its recipient to buy—and of what we, as a society, deem essential for every individual to be able to procure.  There is work to be done on the “minimalist” side, although I do think Martha Nussbaum’s list of minimal requirements (in her book on the capabilities approach from Harvard UP) is a good start.

The provocative point comes from Frankfurt’s stringent requirement that a moral principle, au fond, should be “intrinsic.”  The trouble with inequality as a standard is that it is “relative,” not “absolute” (41-42).  It is not tied to my needs per se, but to a comparison between what I have and what someone else has.  The result, Frankfurt believes, is that the self is alienated from its own life.  “[A] preoccupation with the alleged inherent value of economic equality tends to divert a person’s attention away from trying to discover—within his experience of himself and of his life conditions—what he himself really cares about, what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him. . . . It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order effectively to pursue his own most authentic needs, interest, and ambitions. . . . 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” (11-12).

Comparisons are odious.  Making them leads us into the hell of heteronomy—and away from the Kantian heights of autonomy and the existential heaven of authenticity.  But snark is not really the appropriate response here.  There seem to me interesting abstract and practical questions involved.  The abstract question is about the very possibility (and desirability) of autonomy/authenticity.  Can I really form desires and projects that are independent of my society?  In first century Rome, I could not have dreamed of becoming a baseball player or a computer scientist.  Does that mean that my desire to become one or the other in 2019 is inauthentic?  More directly, it is highly likely that my career aspirations are shaped by various positive reinforcements, various signals that I got from others that my talents lay in a particular direction.  Does that make my choice inauthentic?  More abstractly, what is the good of authenticity?  What is at stake in making decisions for myself, based on a notion of my own needs and ambitions? Usually, the claim is that freedom rests on autonomy.  Certainly both Kant and the existentialists believed that.  But what if freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, if it indicates a state of alienation from others so extreme that it is worthless—a thought that both Kierkegaard and Sartre explored.

I am, as anyone who has read anything by me likely knows, a proponent of autonomy, but not a fanatic about it.  That people should have the freedom to make various decisions for themselves is a bottom-line moral and political good in my book.  But I am not wedded to any kind of absolutist view of autonomy, which may explain why appeals to “authenticity” leave me cold.  On the authenticity front, I am inclined to think, we are all compromised from the get go.  We are intersubjectively formed and constituted; our interactions with others (hell, think about how we acquire language) embed “the other” within us from the start.  It’s a hopeless task to try and sort out which desires are authentically ours and which come from our society, from the others we have interacted with, etc. etc.  To have the freedom to act on one’s desires is a desirable autonomy in my view; to try to parse the “authenticity” of those desires in terms of some standard of their being “intrinsic” to my self and not “externally” generated seems to me one path to madness.

Even more concretely, Frankfurt’s link of the “intrinsic” to the “authentic” raises the question of whether any judgments (about anything at all) are possible without comparison.  His notion seems to be that an “absolute” and “intrinsic” standard allows me to judge something without having to engage in any comparison between that something and some other thing.  I guess Kant’s categorical imperative is meant to function that way.  You have the standard—and then you can judge if this action meets that standard.  But does judgment really ever unfold that way?  By the time Kant gets to the Critique of Judgment, he thinks we need to proceed by way of examples—which he sees as various instantiations of “the beautiful” (since “the beautiful” in and of itself is too vague, too ethereal, a standard to function as a “determinative” for judgment).  And, in more practical matters, it would seem judgment very, very often involves weighing a range of possibilities—and comparing them to see which is the most desirable (according to a variety of considerations such as feasibility, costs, outcomes etc.) A “pure” judgment–innocent of all comparison–seems a rare beast indeed.

Because he operates at his insistently high level of abstraction, Frankfurt approaches his “authenticity” issue as a question of satisfaction with one’s life.  Basically, he is interested in this phenomenon: I am satisfied with my life even though I fully realize that others have much more money than me.  One measure of my satisfaction is that I would not go very far out of my way to acquire more money.  Hence the fact of economic inequality barely impinges on my sense that I have “enough” for my needs and desires.  This is a slightly different case from saying that my concept of my needs and desires has been formed apart from any comparison between my lot and the lot of others.  Here, instead, the point is that, even when comparing my lot to that of those better off than me, I do not conclude that my lot is bad.  I am satisfied.

For Frankfurt, my satisfaction shows that I have no fundamental moral objection to economic inequality.  Provided I have “enough” I am not particularly morally outraged that others have even more.  I am not moved to act to change that inequality.

It seems to me that two possibilities arise here.  The first is that I do find the existence of large fortunes morally outrageous. I don’t act because I don’t see a clear avenue of effective action to change that situation, although I do consistently vote for the political parties who are trying to combat economic inequality.  But Frankfurt’s point is that my satisfaction shows I don’t find economic inequality “intrinsically” wrong.  I am most likely moved to object to it by seeing what harms have been done to others in order to accumulate such a large fortune—or I point to the wasted resources that are hoarded by the rich and could be used to help the poor.  Frankfurt, in other words, may be right that economic inequality is not “intrinsically” wrong, but only wrong in terms of the harms that it produces.  I think I would take the position that economic inequality is a “leading indicator” of various ills (like poverty, exploitation, increasing precarity, the undermining of democratic governance, etc.)—and that the burden of proof lies in showing that such inequality is harmless.  If this focus on produced harms means economic inequality is not an “intrinsic” value, so be it.

The other interesting consideration Frankfurt’s discussion brings to the fore is the absence of envy.  Conservatives, of course, are fond of reducing all concerns about economic inequality to envy.  And the mystery to be considered here (and to which Frankfurt points) is how, if I am aware that others have more than me, I am not consumed with envy, resentment, or a sense of abiding injustice (i.e. it’s not fair that he has more than me).  Certainly some people’s lives are blighted by exactly those feelings.  But others are content, are satisfied, in the way Frankfurt describes.  The comparison has no bite for them.  The difference is noted but not particularly resented—or, if resented, still doesn’t reside at the center of the judgment of their own life.  Maybe some kind of primitive narcissism is at work here, some sense that I really like being me and don’t really want to trade in “me” in order to be some other chap.  The deep repudiation of self required by envy may just be beyond the reach of 80% of us.  Just how prevalent is self-hatred?  How many would really desire to change their lot with another?

Pure speculation of course.  But the point is not some fantasy about authenticity, about living in a world where I don’t shape my desires or self-judgments at least partially by comparing myself to others.  Rather, the fact of our constantly doing such comparing is here acknowledged—and the question is how we live contentedly even as we also recognize that we fall short of others in all kinds of ways.  He has better health, a more successful career, a sunnier disposition, more money, more friends, more acclaim.  How can I be content when I see all that he possesses that I do not?  That’s the mystery.  And I don’t think Frankfurt solves it–and I cannot explain it either.  His little book makes the mystery’s existence vivid for me.

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