Frankfurt, Henry. on Inequality

By Anderson, Timothy | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Frankfurt, Henry. on Inequality


Anderson, Timothy, The Review of Metaphysics


FRANKFURT, Henry. On Inequality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015. xi + 102 pp. Cloth, $14.95--This is a small book consisting of two essays written in a relatively informal style. Each essay is broken into short chapters, which are further broken into numbered sections. Evidently, Frankfurt's purpose is not to exhaust the topic of inequality, nor even to address the current state of academic debate on the subject: originally published in 1987 and 1997, respectively, the two essays comprising the volume appear much in their original form. Rather, as with his predecessor volumes, On Bullshit and On Truth, what Frankfurt presents here is a set of meditations for the layman, resting content with intuitive definitions, terse argument, and, with one notable exception, minimal reference to other works.

Frankfurt's overriding concern in the book is, first, to show the shortcomings and hazards of viewing equality as an end in itself and, second, to suggest that the moral out rage commonly directed at instances of gross inequality in fact arises from a failure of respect for persons. Now, any treatment of equality needs to identify the tertium comparationis--equality, but in regard to what? In his first essay Frankfurt concentrates on economic equality; in the second essay he broadens the discussion to include any form of equality, including that of resources, welfare, opportunity, respect, rights, consideration, concern, "and so on." In both cases, he adamantly maintains that, whatever value equality has in organizing society, this value is not intrinsic but derived from real goods that ought to be our proper concern.

In the first essay Frankfurt seeks to show that we ought not to be concerned with equality as much as with sufficiency. After all, if everyone were equally poor, what would this equality avail us? Moreover, when the sight material inequality upsets us, is this because one has more than the other, or that the other simply doesn't have enough to pursue substantive goods? Equality might well be a condition fraternity, as some egalitarians contend, and it might also be necessary to reign in the tendency of the very wealthy to game the system to their further advantage. But in neither case is equality an end in itself, and in fact constant referral to the situation of others can be "morally disorienting." Whether one has enough ultimately does not depend on what the neighbors have.

The centerpiece of the first essay is Frankfurt's rebuttal of British economist Abba Lerner's principle of diminishing marginal utility, which Frankfurt takes to be an argument for the intrinsic value of equality. According to Lerner's principle, for each individual the utility, or satisfaction, of every additional dollar received is less than the utility of the previous dollar. …

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