We tend to be quite unmoved by inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich; our awareness that the former are substantially worse off than the latter does not disturb us morally at all’ (Frankfurt) Does this show the absurdity of equality as an ideal?
The question posed is interesting on a philosophical as well as on a political level. It touches upon political issues such as deciding on the level of income tax for different income groups, and social issues such as whether it is acceptable to maintain certain economic and social inequalities in society.
I have approached the question in the following way; first it shall be explored what kind of inequalities Frankfurt is referring to and, what it shall be defined what kind of equality the essay will deal with. Then, I shall examine whether Frankfurt’s statement is actually plausible. I shall then commence to answer the question whether the ideal of equality is absurd. After that I shall examine where our instinctive tendency towards being more morally disturbed by the economic disparities between the poor and the rich than between the well-to-do and the rich comes from, if there is one.
Although Frankfurt’s idea is phrased clearly, several aspects of his statement require some degree of explanation. What ‘inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich’ is he referring to?
Clearly, economic inequalities apply to his statement. One should note, however, that there can also be social disparities between the ‘well-to-do’ and the ‘rich’. With more economic means it is in certain societies easier, for instance, to participate politically. Despite their economic ‘comfort’, the ‘well-to-do’ and the ‘rich’ don’t necessarily share a social class, which may create disadvantages or perceived disadvantages for the former.
Another point that needs clarification is the ‘equality’ referred to in the phrase ‘Does this show the absurdity of equality as an ideal?’ Although Frankfurt seems to understand ‘inequalities’ as financial inequalities in his statement, the ‘equality’ referred to in the question seems to cover rather more than that.
Due to the complexity of the subject matter, much of our discussion on equality is vague and theoretical. Political philosophers have both clarified and complicated matters by dividing equality into all sorts of groups. One can talk about natural, social, or economic equality, but also about ‘distributive’, ‘proportional’, ‘formal’, ‘simple’ or ‘moral’ equality. Furthermore, political concepts as ‘equality before the law’, ‘equality of opportunity’ or ‘equal rights’ blur our sight.
I shall take it the inequalities referred to in the quote are economic inequalities. However, the ‘equality’ in the phrase ‘Does this show the absurdity of equality’ does not refer solely to economic disparity. Therefore, when I use the term ‘equality’ in this essay I shall always try to clarify which type of equality is meant.
It must be noted Frankfurt’s statement is a generalization that seems rhetorical, imprecise and unscientific. Rhetorical because it implies the reader in an unsolicited we; imprecise because it leaves the nature of ‘equality’ and ‘inequalities’ unspecified; unscientific because it treats people’s opinions about these as given facts, whereas a lot of qualitative and quantitative research results are available, but not used, to underpin his discourse.
Is it true that ‘we tend to be quite unmoved by inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich’, and that ‘our awareness that the former are substantially worse off than the latter does not disturb us morally at all’?
Even though there may be an instinctive tendency towards caring for the situation of the worst-off in society, surely it cannot be all persons neglect the economic and social disparities between the well-to-do and the rich.
Certain ideologies, as communism for instance, advocate the minimization of all social disparities; those between the poor and the rich as well as those between the well-to-do and the rich.
Furthermore, individuals that are well-to-do can well be unsatisfied by their economic assets or social position on a practical as well as on a moral level, and perceive the disparities between them and those with more assets or more social ‘power’ as unjust. Proof for this is for instance, that those who feature in lists of ‘the 100 richest’ in magazines such as the Swiss Forbes or the Dutch Quote are by no means unmoved by which position they occupy on the ‘chart’ and whether they are behind, or ahead of others. Although these charts show not the differences between the ‘well-to-do’ and the rich, but rather those between ‘the rich and the richer’, the attention such charts catch leaves us to question whether individuals should really be unmoved between the disparities between them and their neighbours.
Another category of people who are ‘morally disturbed’ by the inequalities between the rich and the well-to-do, are the political philosophers categorized as ‘pure egalitarians’. Consider Derek Parfit’s example of utility, for instance. In his essay ‘Equality and Priority (1997), he wonders which levels of wealth in imaginary societies are preferable:
1) Everyone at 150
2) Half at 199 Half at 200
3) Half at 101 Half at 200
While Utilitarians would choose for option 2 because it has the highest possible level of welfare, and while Pluralist Egalitarians would choose for option 2 because it balances both utility and equality, Pure Egalitarians would choose for option 1 because it contains no economic inequality.
Parfit then illustrates the Pure Egalitarian view further by imagining what he calls ‘The Divided World’. He divides the world population into two halves that are unaware of each other’s existence and considers another possible state of affairs:
1) Half at 100 Half at 200
2) Everyone at 145
Even though in the first case people are on average better off, Pure Egalitarians will find option 2 preferable because the badness of the inequality of option 1 ‘morally outweighs’ its extra benefits. As the inequality of option 1 does not have any bad effects (the 2 halves of the world are unaware of each other’s existence), Pure Egalitarians think inequality is intrinsically bad. They thus make no distinction between the disparities between the well-to-do and the rich, and those between the poor and the richer. Frankfurt’s claim that ‘we tend to be quite unmoved by inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich’ does thus not hold in respect to the view of pure egalitarians.
Moving on to the question of ideals (‘does this show the absurdity of equality as an ideal?’), no great philosophical arguments are needed to refute the idea that because of the contradiction Frankfurt makes us aware of, the ideal of equality is absurd.
Let us consider the example of women’s political rights. When during the French Revolution, women started to demand to be entitled to the rights stated in the ‘Declaration of the rights of man’, their claim was dismissed as absurd by many. The same was true for women’s demand to be granted the right to vote. Does the fact that women’s ideals were counter argued in clever ways mean their ideal was absurd?
Clearly, ideals need not be flawless or indisputable. The example of women’s suffrage shows that simply being able to provide counter arguments against ideals does not make them absurd.
Ideals can increase or decrease in popularity over the years, they can disappear for some time and then re-emerge. However, such a tendency does not alter the importance or intrinsic value of an ideal.
Ideals are not often ‘mainstream’ ideas but discussable, alternative paths of reflection on ideas that are not easy to achieve. If this were not the case, would an ideal not lose its significance?
Having established not all persons are necessarily unmoved by the inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich, and that the ideal of equality is not absurd solely because we can argue against our consistency in applying it, it cannot be denied we seem to be more morally disturbed by the economic disparities between the poor and the well-to-do or the rich, than between the well-to-do and the rich. It shall now be examined where this tendency comes from.
A first explanation for this is that however important one may find social or economic equality as an ideal, it is not the only value that should be taken into account when looking at inequalities. Temkin (1993) states for example that ‘Equality is not all that matters. But it matters some.’
In Parfit’s example above, for instance, the pluralist view is that not only equality, but also utility should be taken into account. When faced with the question of what is better, all at the economic level of 50 or some at 190 and some at 200, the pluralist will choose for the latter. Unlike the Egalitarian or the Utilitarian, the pluralist takes into account other values besides equality.
This is also the reason some philosophers are against the Leveling down principle; the idea that those with more favorable positions in society should ‘give up’ some of their advantages in order to favour greater equality. Although the pure egalitarian will be in favour Leveling Down, others, such as Utilitarians, may claim that as the effect of ‘leveling down’ is negative to some, it is questionable whether it generates better circumstances.
Another reason why some may be moved by the economic disparities between the well-to-do and the rich to a lesser extent than by the disparities between the poor and the rich is that economic equality is not the only key to what Frankfurt calls a ‘life of value and choice’ (Frankfurt:149).
While it is crucial to have the economic power to fulfill one’s basic needs, and while the failure to do so makes it close to impossible to lead a life of value, the urgency of economic equality seems to diminish steadily once a society manages to create a generally higher level of welfare.
Indeed, Rawls describes this tendency and refers to it as the Difference Principle: he emphasizes the importance of offering the greatest possible advantage to the least advantaged members of society (Rawls 1993, 1971).
Parfit’s priority view (1997) accordingly calls for focus on improving the situation of society’s weaker and poorer members and indeed all the more urgently the worse off they are, even if they can be less helped than others in the process.
Frankfurt’s claim that ‘the former are substantially worse off than the latter’ is thus disputable as not only the possession of economic assets is the key to a life of value.
Perhaps it is thus, that talking about the morality of economic inequality emphasizes the wrong through contrast, but is mistakenly understood to be the wrong itself. It can be argued, that not the inequality in itself but rather the sufferance which poverty entails, such as hunger, lack of sanitation, lack of water and homelessness, that evokes our compassion and morally disturbs us.
While people generally realize all sorts of social, natural, political, cultural and financial differences exist, it is perhaps not until these inequalities are harmful that they become morally disturbing and obtain our attention.
Are we distancing ourselves from the real concern by talking about equality in a misguided way? Is it not true that fundamental moral ideals other than equality stand behind our aspiring for equality?
What is really at stake in helping those worse off and improving their lot is humanitarian concern, a desire to alleviate the suffering that poverty can bring. Such concern is not centred on the difference between those economically better off and those worse off as such, but on improving the situation of persons in bad circumstances. It may be that the strength of the motivation for more equality lies in the urgency of the claims of the worse off, not in the extent of the inequality.
If such a thought were generally true (pure egalitarians would object to it) it would explain why we tend not to be so morally disturbed by the inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich. The word ‘inequality’ is thus misguidedly used to indicate the suffering poverty can bring. As this suffering disappears the moment one has ‘enough’, this explains why we tend to be rather ‘undisturbed’ by the inequality between the well-off and the rich.
If it is thus true that the urgency for economic equality diminishes as people climb up along the economic ladder because poverty related ‘suffering’ diminishes, the problem seems not to be ‘inequality’ but having ‘too little’ in economic terms; not having enough.
As Frankfurt (1987) states: ”What is important from the moral point of view is not that everyone should have the same, but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others’
And again: ‘It is whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others.’ (Frankfurt 1997). ‘The fundamental error of egalitarianism lies in supposing that it is morally important whether one person has less than another person regardless of how much either of them has.’ (Frankfurt 1987).
A question this conclusion on what some call the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’ rises, is whether above a certain level of economic satisfaction, perhaps even the poverty level, the urgency of obtaining social equality also diminishes. Does the doctrine of sufficiency only exist in relation to economic matters?
Furthermore, does the explanation of why we are ‘relatively unmoved’ by the differences between the well-to-do and the rich provided by the doctrine of sufficiency also justify why some can afford take holidays that last for two weeks and others holidays that last for months? The ideological urgency about economic disparity seems to decrease as the practical urgency diminishes. Once ‘real life’ problems are improved or solved, the ideological ones get less attention, so it seems.
Another problem related to the doctrine of sufficiency is: who determines whether one has ‘enough’ and how is such a thing determined?
As all individuals have different desires and needs, all will be entitled to different means under the doctrine of sufficiency. Does the need of an individual for medical care also entitle him to it under the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’? And if it does, then does it also entitle individuals with a burn-out to a holiday for instance? What does ‘sufficient’ mean in practice; how much does society owe to needy individuals? How can it allocate its resources in the light of scarcity?
To come back to the question of ideology once more, if the urgency of striving for economic equality diminishes above a certain level of welfare, does this really not show the ideal of equality is absurd? I have argued that ideals still hold if they can be counter argued, that even if they can be criticized this does not mean they are absurd.
In addition, what the ‘doctrine of sufficiency shows is perhaps that the urgency in obtaining economic equality diminishes beyond a certain point, but not that the ideal disappears altogether. Also, although economic equality is related to social equality, social equality is a separate issue which urgency seems to be consistent when looking at the continuous work of human rights organizations and such.
It must be noted however, that the ideal of economic equality is misguidedly supported by some who mistake economic inequality for the undeserved suffering and distress poverty can bring. Their altruistically motivated concern is mistakenly translated into a concern for economic equality, while others who stand behind the ideal for equality do not only wish to help those in objective need, but have a desire to create more economic equality in all layers of society.
In conclusion, somewhat in contrast with Frankfurt’s claim, it must be noted that there are those who are ‘moved’ by inequalities between the well-to-do and the rich; those who genuinely believe in social and economic equality at all levels. However, there may indeed be an instinctive tendency towards being more morally disturbed by the disparities between the poor and the rich than between the well-to-do and the rich.
Although we have seen that the urgency of achieving economic equality seems to diminish the higher the level of welfare gets, this does not mean we can dismiss the ideal of equality as ‘absurd’. There are those who genuinely believe in social and economic equality at all levels and furthermore, an ideal does not have to be ‘flawless’ or unalterable to be valid.
Rather than absurd, what the above shows us is that the ideal of equality is a complex ideal that is often referred to in the wrong context. ‘Inequality’, the word is sometimes used misguidedly to indicate the suffering poverty entails. This can be explained for ‘equality’ is an ideal with a vast and complicated subject matter that raises a lot of questions and is often discussed in vague terms. As a lot of confusion still exists on the subject it is indeed a matter open to further philosophical, as well as ideological and political progress.