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Economic Inequality Is Not Immoral

Harry G. Frankfurt is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. His books include "On Bullshit" and "The Reasons of Love."
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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.

(This article is excerpted from "On Inequality," a forthcoming book from Princeton University Press.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Harry G. Frankfurt at fraharg@princeton.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net