'On Inequality' argues that instead of the same, we should all have enough

Moral philosopher Harry Frankfurter asks us to contemplate the 'doctrine of sufficiency' when it comes to money.

On Inequality By Harry G. Frankfurt Princeton University Press 120 pp.

“Economic gluttony presents a ridiculous and disgusting spectacle.” It felt good just to type that. The comment comes courtesy of Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, from his latest pocketbook pleasure, On Inequality.

Frankfurt has been an important contributor to moral philosophy for decades, scouring love, caring, practical reasoning, the conduct of life’s progress for meaning. His most popular work is the essay-turned-67-page booklet "On Bulls—t."

"On Bulls—t" isn’t a wry, sparkly salute to spuriousness – not that Frankfurt can’t be wry and sparkly – but a philosophical bushwhacking into the dark heart of bull, via Ludwig Wittgenstein and Max Black, though mostly through Frankfurt’s own reflections. When he arrives at the heart of the matter, he finds more than just a tedious atmospheric disturbance of hot air, but something disturbing: the bull slinger “is grounded neither in a belief that [some proposition] is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bulls—t.”

Truth-values are of no interest to the bullsh---er. “He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it all. By virtue of this, bulls—t is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Professional bullers, the serious, insolent jabberer – not mindless boobs, but insidious purveyors of carefully wrought tinkerings with reality – are bottom feeders (and I mean no offense to our friends the crustaceans and catfish) without a shred of integrity or fellow feeling.

That was not what I expected from this book. I dully figured bull would occupy purgatory, truth find paradise, and lies the inferno. So the book provoked surprise, and a detonation of thinking. Even more than thinking, Frankfurt wants you to ponder, to carefully weigh a matter.

He now turns his attention to the topic of inequality. As pulling the rug out from under you is a special talent of Frankfurt’s, he starts with this: “Insofar as economic inequality is undesirable, however, this is not because it is as such morally objectionable. As such, it is not morally objectionable.”

At face value, this is a ticklish proposition. Maybe thorny and provocative. “In my opinion ... economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable.” Feel the burn.

Read on. Words are important to Frankfurt. What matters when it comes to inequality – for, after all, who cares about the economic inequality (social and political inequality will be addressed later) of someone earning $20 million as opposed to someone taking home $32 million; nor is it rational for all incomes to be equally so low that everyone is wanting – that is “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.” Once again that specter is haunting Europe, and every other continent: to each according to their needs.

Plain fact is, with a nod to Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, “too many of our people are poor.” Frankfurt asks us to contemplate the “doctrine of sufficiency”: when it comes to money, what is of moral importance is that everyone should have enough. To obsess over economic equality distracts from our ability to be satisfied – to  have enough, to meet our needs – by recognizing the quantity and quality of our “own most distinctive interests.... Instead, it is guided just by the quantity of money that other people happen to have.” What, we ask ourselves, is sensible and appropriate to seek, what is truly required for authentic needs and interests? Keeping up with the Joneses, whining about Jones’s salary gap, always has been and always will be alienating.

Frankfurt understands that economic inequality brings with it the moral intuition that it just seems wrong, that it is offensive. Dividing the pie has never been easy, especially when it comes to scarcity, but digging deeper Frankfurt finds the abomination: the “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.”

What is “enough”? Enough is a measure of satisfaction and contentment. It is the state of being in which more money is inessential to satisfaction, where there is no resentment of circumstance, no anxiousness to improve it, not need to undertake initiatives to make it better, or, roundly, “that he is satisfied with the level of satisfaction he already has.” More roundly still, “enough” is “if a person is (or ought reasonably be) content with the amount of money he has, then insofar as he is or has reason to be unhappy with the way his life is going, he does not (or cannot reasonably) suppose that more (or, conceivably, less) money would enable him to become (or to have reason to be) significantly less unhappy with it.” You know “enough” when you feel it, and one with just barely enough hasn’t enough at all.

The moral concern of inequality is not formal but substantive, whether people have good lives, not how they compare with the Joneses. Radical inferiority is evil in and of itself. The gross social and political injustices that follow along the money trail find their moral repulsion “grounded in the more basic requirements of respect and of impartiality.” An individual feels the bite of disrespect as it fails to acknowledge the truth about him, it misses some part of his nature or situation, something is left unattended to, what he actually is has not been identified. “It is not biological survival that is challenged, of course, when his nature is denied. It is the reality of his existence for others, and hence the solidity of his own sense that he himself is real.” This is a critical wellspring of the suffering and dread of injustice and disrespect. 

If “our basic focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence,” writes Frankfurt, “that may well entail, of course, the reduction of inequality.” The antidemocratic effects of economic advantage must be dealt with “by legislation and regulation designed to protect these processes from distortion and abuse.” Frankfurt can be as practical as any other philosopher. Within the both slippery and brambly world of economic inequality, however, he has found more essential measures, inequalities spawned of other kinds: rights, consideration, concern. And respect – respect is the bottom line for everyone.

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