April 14, 2016

The badness and the wrongness of inequality

 On inequality

Two ideas from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt: (1) from a moral point of view, economic equality does not really matter very much, and (2) there is a misunderstanding of the relationship between treating people equally and treating them with respect.

Both ideas are covered in an new book. Some selected statements:
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.
Some philosophers believe that an equal distribution of certain valuable resources, just by virtue of being egalitarian, is a significant moral good. Others maintain that what actually is of moral importance is not that the resources be distributed equally but that everyone enjoy the same level of welfare. All of these philosophers agree that there is some type of equality that is morally valuable in itself, quite apart from whatever utility it may possess in supporting efforts to achieve other morally desirable goals.
It is easy to confuse being treated with the sort of respect in question 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. The most fundamental difference between equality and respect has to do with focus and intent. With regard to any interesting parameter—whether it pertains to resources, welfare, opportunity, rights,  consideration, concern, or whatever—equality is merely a matterof each person’s having the same as others. Respect is more personal. Treating a person with respect means, in the sense that is germane here, dealing with him exclusively on the basis of those aspects of his particular character or circumstances that are actually relevant to the issue at hand.
Demands for equality have a very different meaning in our lives than do demands for respect. Someone who insists that he be treated equally is calculating his demands on the basis of what other people have rather than on the basis of what will accord with the realities of his own condition and will most suitably provide for his own interests and needs. In his desire for equality, there is no affirmation by a person of himself. On the contrary, a concern for simply being equal to others leads people to define their goals in terms that are set by considerations other than the specific requirements of their own distinctive nature and of their own circumstances. It tends to distract them from recognizing their most authentic ambitions, which are those that derive from the character of their own lives, and not those that are imposed on them by the conditions in which others happen to live.
I found the reference while reading The New Rambler. You'll find there the critical view. Strongly recommended for those interested in this topic and specially those that reject demagogy on using this term.