Academic journal article Philosophy Today

An Ethics of Inheritance

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

An Ethics of Inheritance

Article excerpt

Inherited wealth is generally quite unequally distributed: it is nearly as unequally distributed as wealth (generally considered) and a great deal more unequally distributed than income. Inheritance is probably the main factor of wealth concentration among the richest part of the population, and of its intergenerational reproduction.1 In the United States, inheritance is primarily responsible for the fortunes of no less than sixty-seven percent of those who qualify as "ultrarich." In countries like France, inherited wealth accounts for a large part of all wealth possessed (generally estimated at around 40%) and represents the largest descending monetary transfer: three times as much as wealth received in the form of an inter vivos gift, for example.2 In general, transfers of property by means of inheritances and gifts also play a very important role in the processes that determine the distribution of income and wealth. Therefore the problem of distribution of wealth lies, for an important part, in the accumulation of wealth, especially through inheritance.

Nevertheless, inheritance taxation remains a problematic issue. This taxation engenders a feeling of spoliation that impedes any attempt at reform. While inheritance is the main origin of the intergenerational reproduction of inequalities, no government will attempt to reform inheritance taxes-except in order to reduce them. The figures above however justify an inheritance tax reform and, moreover, require treatment of the inheritance tax issue not only as an economical question but also as an ethical one. In this way, the bequest issue appeals for an "ethics of inheritance." In fact, the values of freedom and equality (linked to the issue of inequality generated by inherited wealth), the interpretation of equality, and the status of the family are among the main factors that influence the way one looks at inheritance. Furthermore, the unequal distribution of inherited wealth and bequests is a crucial vector of the inequality of opportunities. In fact, if one was born with a nice estate, one's opportunities are far greater, ceteris paribus, than those of the poor who were provided with barely enough for subsistence in childhood. For these reasons, the question of inheritance and inheritance tax is not one that can be tackled only by purely "economic" arguments.

The current debate, which opposes defenders of a reform of the right to inherit (Rawls, Haslett) and defenders of a limitation of the right to bequest (Nozick), recalls older proposals to reform the inheritance system. My aim in this essay will be to demonstrate that insofar as inheritance is not only an economical or fiscal issue, ethical arguments should be used to assess these propositions. In this investigation, the concern for a reduction of inequality of opportunities will play a crucial role since inheritance is the main vector of intergenerational reproduction of wealth concentration. In other words, my point will be to identify the inheritance reform most able to promote equality of opportunities. To guide this investigation, I will first analyze the main ethical claim defending the right to bequest: bequest is motivated by altruism. Then I will discuss some objections often raised against reform of inheritance tax. Finally I will demonstrate why a reform of the right to inherit (i.e., to receive) bequests is more relevant and practicable, considered from an ethical point of view, than a reform of the right to bequest.

Is Bequest Altruistic?

Some authors, such as Philippe van Parijs, suggest that the prohibition of bequest, advocated by Roemer, "amounts in fact to making egoism as the only legitimate motivation of action."3 This is why political attempts to reform the inheritance tax often raise a feeling of spoliation. This feeling is motivated by the conviction that state should not intervene in private issues and by a longstanding idea that bequest is essentially an altruistic attitude, which expresses the desire to help one's own children at a particular moment of their life and which reflects filial feelings. …

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