On Inequality by Harry Frankfurt (2015)

inequalitySomeone who insists that he be treated equally is calculating his demands on the basis of what other people have rather than on 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.” 88-9

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Frankfurt argues that equality in and of itself is not morally important and should not be expressly pursued as an end by society or individuals.  He argues that it is more important to treat people respectfully than equally, by ensuring sufficiency (making sure needs are met so no one lives in want) and considering individuality (according importance to different needs, tastes, skills, etc. when distributing resources).

When people speak about inequality as a social problem, they generally are talking about income and employment opportunities.  But here, Frankfurt isn’t concerned with economic policy per se, but how people think about equality and value it morally.  The discussion is also relevant to broader, non-economic concerns and the ways that people may try to “keep up with the Joneses” to their own detriment.

Frankfurt acknowledges that increasing equality may be an effective way to ensure that all people are living comfortably, but believes that this is an open, empirical question.  He argues that regardless of the answer, economic equality in and of itself should not be considered morally valuable.  The pursuit of equality as an end can lead people to betray other important values, ignore their own preferences, and disregard the pertinent inequalities that are inherent in the relationships between people and situations.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: ?

Recommend to Others: Only if you are interested in the subject

Reread Personally: No


3 “It seems to me, however, that our most fundamental challenge is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal.  It is, rather, the fact that too many of our people are poor.”

7 “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 concern whether some people had more money than others.”

8 “Also, the most feasible approach to reaching universal economic sufficiency might actually turn out to be, in fact, a pursuit of equality.”

36 “Under conditions of exigent scarcity, when there is not enough to meet everyone’s minimal requirements, the desirability of an egalitarian distribution may be quite out of the question.”

73 “What makes it an evil that certain people have bad lives is not that some other people have better lives.  The evil lies simply in the conspicuous fact that bad lives are bad lives.”

78 “Treating people with respect precludes assigning them special advantages or disadvantages, except on the basis of considerations that differentiate them relevantly from those to whom those advantages or disadvantages are not assigned.  Thus it entails impartiality and the avoidance of arbitrariness.  Those who are concerned with equality aim at outcomes that are in some pertinent way indistinguishable.  On the other hand, those who wish to treat people with respect aim at outcomes matched specifically to the peculiarities of the individual.”

87-88 “The classic articulation of this response is the limitlessly reckless cry to “let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”

That leads to such an unmeasured and perhaps even self-destructive demand for redress is plainly not a deliberate appraisal of the extent of the injustice that has been done, nor is it a careful estimate of what it might actually take to undo the injustice.  The demand issues in a less calculated manner for the unbearably deep suffering and dread that may be caused when people are treated unjustly—that is, when their personality is threatened by a denial of the importance that is required by respect.”

101 “It would be arbitrarily discriminating to give greater consideration to one person  than to another, without having a reasonable basis for discrimination between them; and it would similarly be arbitrary to give both the same consideration, when there is a reasonable basis for treating them differently.  To avoid arbitrariness, we must treat likes alike and unlikes differently.”

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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