Many of us live in societies characterized by great inequalities of wealth, status, and power. Egalitarian political philosophers argue that this inequality is morally unjust. In this essay, we will explore Harry Frankfurt’s argument that equality, in and of itself, has no moral value and that, if we care about the worst off, we should focus on ensuring as many people have enough resources to meet their needs.
Why Does Harry Frankfurt Analyze (In)Equality?
The idea that inequality between people is unjust is common in both contemporary political philosophy and popular culture. Although anarcho-capitalists may disagree, most philosophers such as Ronald Dworkin, G.A. Cohen, and Elizabeth Anderson all argue that one of the main problems with our societies is inequality of some kind, be it inequality of resources, welfare, or status.
Popular movements such as the Occupy protests of 2008 also take aim at socio-economic inequality, arguing that the top 1% of earners have disproportionate amounts of resources. This, occupy protested argued, is unjust. If we want to make the world more just, we need to engage in widespread redistribution of wealth and income.
In his short book On Inequality, Harry Frankfurt takes aim at these views. He argues that, contrary to what is often assumed, equality itself has no intrinsic value. On Inequality brings together two of Frankfurt’s previously publishes essays: “Equality as a Moral Ideal” (1987) and “Equality and Respect” (1997). In this essay, we will explore Frankfurt’s argument that, instead of focusing on whether people have the same amount of resources as others, we should focus on whether people have enough.
Equality: Not as Valuable as It Seems
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On Inequality takes aim at economic egalitarianism, that is: “the doctrine that it is desirable for everyone to have the same amounts of income and of wealth (for short, money)” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 21). Frankfurt argues that strictly speaking, economic equality is not morally valuable. What matters from the moral point of view is not whether someone has more than another person, but whether people have enough. In other words, what matters is ensuring sufficiency, not equality.
Although the pursuit of greater equality may, in some instances, help us ensure that more people have enough, once we have achieved enough for everyone, we have no further reasons to pursue greater equality.
To illustrate this point, let us consider a hypothetical thought experiment. Imagine we lived in a world in which we had two groups of people: billionaires and millionaires. The billionaires in this world have multiple 100-foot yachts, a choice of expensive sports cars, including Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and luxury homes in New York, London, Paris, and Monaco. The millionaires in this world are orders of magnitude poorer. They only have one, much smaller, 30-foot yacht, only have access to one sports car, and only have penthouse apartments in one or two major cities.
Frankfurt suggests that, in this world, we have no reason to transfer money from the billionaires to the millionaires, even though the billionaires are significantly wealthier than their millionaire compatriots. The reason we needn’t tax the billionaires and redistribute to the millionaires in such a world is because both groups have enough.
Equality and Sufficiency
Now, compare this hypothetical world to our world. In our world, we have billionaires, millionaires, well-to-do middle classes, people who are just getting by, and others who are destitute. In this world, we do have the incentive to achieve greater equality between people. Importantly, however, this isn’t simply because the billionaires have more than the millionaires. It is because transferring money from the billionaires and millionaires to the worst off in society would help ensure that more people have enough wealth to live good lives.
Although it might look like equality is motivating this redistribution, equality is a red herring. In Frankfurt’s words:
“What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable, in the types of situations characteristically cited as instances of economic inequality, is not the fact that some of the individuals in those situations have less money than others but the fact that those with less have too little.’ (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 32). What makes it evil that some people have bad lives ‘is not that some other people have better lives. The evil lies simply in the unmistakable fact that bad lives are bad.”
(Frankfurt, 1997, p. 6)
Equality and Marginal Utility
Having made a preliminary case for why equality isn’t intrinsically valuable, Frankfurt focuses on directly tackling one of the core arguments egalitarians make in support of economic equality. One of the main arguments for an egalitarian distribution of wealth relies on the idea that giving people equal shares will create more overall utility.
This argument depends on two premises. First, it assumes that each extra unit of money is worth less than the unit before. That is, it assumes that money has diminishing marginal utility. Second, it assumes that all people’s utility functions are the same. “In other words, the utility provided by or derivable from an n-th dollar is the same for everyone, and it is less than the utility for anyone of dollar (n-1)” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 25)
Frankfurt thinks both of these premises are false. Let us start with the idea that everyone’s utility function is the same. Frankfurt argues that it is obvious that not everyone derives the same amount of enjoyment from things. For instance, “some people suffer from physical, mental, or emotional weaknesses or incapacitates that limit the satisfactions they are able to obtain.” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 25). More generally, we will all be familiar with the fact that some people simply seem to enjoy things more.
Having dismissed the idea that we all derive equal amounts of pleasure from resources, Frankfurt takes on the harder task of arguing that money and wealth don’t have diminishing marginal utility.
Although it is relatively clear that particular experiences (e.g., eating a burger) can become routine and unrewarding the more they are repeated, this doesn’t generally apply to money. Money, after all, is a medium of exchange. It can be used to purchase a variety of experiences. Even at high levels of income, “there may always remain for him, no matter how tired he has become of what he has been doing, untried goods to be bought and fresh new pleasures to be enjoyed.” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 26).
Moreover, in some instances, we might derive more pleasure from an experience the more we repeat it. This might be the case, for example, with collecting stamps or other activities the pleasure of which depends on the refinement of one’s taste or having knowledge about the activity. Consider, for example, going to the ballet. As I discovered a few years ago, the first ballet one sees might not be particularly pleasurable. The uninitiated audience member simply doesn’t understand what it all means, or why it is beautiful. the more one goes to the ballet, the more one learns about ballet. By the 100th ballet one attends, one is likely to have acquired the understanding to appreciate its beauty, and derive pleasure from it.
If, as Frankfurt argues, money doesn’t have diminishing marginal utility, equalizing people’s shares won’t necessarily lead to an increase in overall utility. Moreover, in some instances, Frankfurt argues that equalizing people’s shares might lead to minimizing overall utility. In support of this claim, Frankfurt offers the following example:
“Suppose that there is enough of a certain resource (e.g. food or medicine) to enable some but not all members of a population to survive. Let us say that the size of the population is ten, and that a person needs at least five units of the resource in question to live, and that forty units are available. If any members of the population are to survive, some must have more than others. An equal distribution, which gives each person four units, leads to the worst possible outcome, namely, everyone dies. surely in this case it would be morally grotesque to insist upon equality!”
(Frankfurt, 1987, p. 30)
The Importance of Having Enough: Frankfurt’s “Sufficientarian” Proposal
At this point, one might ask: but what does it mean to have enough? Frankfurt considers two answers. On one understanding of what it means to have enough, you have enough when any more would be too much, “a larger amount would make a person’s life unpleasant, or it would be harmful, or in some other way unwelcome.” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 37). This is the sense of the term we are appealing to when we say we have had enough to eat or drink. Any more would make us too full, or too drunk.
On a second understanding of the term, having enough means that “a certain standard has been met, with no implication that a larger quantity would be bad.” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 38). It is this second sense of the term that is of interest to sufficientarianism. People have enough wealth, on Frankfurt’s account, when they are content with the level of wealth they have. Although having more might be welcome, “a contented person regards having more money as inessential to his being satisfied with his life” (Frankfurt, 1987, p. 39).
Frankfurt, Harry. (1987) ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’ Ethics, vol. 98, No. 1, pp. 21-43
Frankfurt, Harry. (1997) ‘Equality and Respect’ Social Research, Vol. 64, pp. 3-15
Weithman, Paul. (2016) ‘Review of Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality’ Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, available at: https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/on-inequality/