Op-Ed

Inequality isn't immoral

There has recently been quite a bit of discussion concerning the growth of economic inequality. The size of the gap between the economic resources of those who have more money and those who have less has been increasing rapidly. This development is regarded by many people as deplorable.

In a recent State of the Union address, for example, President Obama declared income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.”

Many people believe that economic equality has, in itself, considerable moral value. They urge that efforts to approach the egalitarian ideal should therefore be accorded a significant priority. In my opinion, this is a mistake. Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance, and economic inequality is not, in itself, morally objectionable.

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Quite often, advocacy of egalitarianism is based less on an argument than on a purported moral intuition: Economic inequality just seems wrong. It strikes many people as altogether apparent that, taken simply in its own right, the possession by some of more money than others is morally offensive.

I suspect, however, that people who profess to have this intuition are actually not responding to inequality but to another feature of the situations they are observing. What they find morally objectionable is not that some individuals have less money than others — a relative quantitative discrepancy. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little — an absolute quantitative deficiency. It is the fact that they are poor.

Mere differences in the amounts of money people have are not in themselves distressing. We tend to be quite unmoved, after all, by inequalities between those who are merely well-to-do and those who are extremely rich.

If we believe of some person that her life is fulfilling, that she is content with her economic situation and that she is not troubled by any resentments or sorrows that more money could assuage, we are not ordinarily much interested — at least, from a moral point of view — in a comparison of the amount of money she has with the amounts possessed by others. The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty.

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Familiar discrepancies between the principles egalitarians profess, and the way in which egalitarians commonly conduct their own lives, seem to confirm my argument.

I won't harp on the fact that some egalitarians hypocritically accept high incomes and special opportunities for which, according to the moral theories they recommend, there is no adequate justification. What's significant, to me is that many egalitarians (including many academic proponents of the doctrine) are not truly concerned about whether they are as rich as are other people. They often believe that they have roughly enough money for what is important to them, and they are therefore not terribly preoccupied with the fact that some people are more affluent. Many egalitarians would consider it rather shabby or even reprehensible to care, with respect to their own lives, about economic comparisons of that sort. And, notwithstanding the implications of the doctrine to which they adhere, they would be appalled if their children grew up with such concerns.

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It is often argued as an objection to economic egalitarianism that there is a dangerous conflict between equality and liberty. The argument rests on the assumption that if people are left to themselves, there will inevitably be a tendency for inequalities of income and wealth to develop. From this assumption, it is inferred that an egalitarian distribution of money can be achieved only at the cost of repressing liberties that are indispensable to the development of that undesired tendency.

Whatever may be the merit of this argument concerning the relationship between equality and liberty, economic egalitarianism engenders another conflict, one of more fundamental significance: It encourages people to care about how much money other people have, which distracts them from calculating their monetary requirements in the light of their personal circumstances. But, surely, the amount of money available to others has nothing directly to do with what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself. In this way, the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.

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The fact that economic equality is not in its own right a morally compelling ideal is in no way, of course, a reason for regarding it as being, in all contexts, an inappropriate goal. Those with greater wealth enjoy significant, and often objectionable, advantages over those with less; the rich can throw around more weight than the poor in affecting the character of our nation and in determining the trajectory of our political life. Commitment to an egalitarian economic policy might, then, be indispensable for promoting the attainment of various desirable social and political ends.

Our most fundamental challenge, however, is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is that too many Americans are poor. Inequality of incomes might be eliminated, after all, just by arranging that all incomes be equally below the poverty line. Needless to say, that way of achieving equality of incomes — by making everyone equally poor — has very little to be said for it. From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is important is that each should have enough. 

What does it mean, though, for a person to have enough? It means, more or less , that he is content — or that it is reasonable for him to be content — with having no more money than he actually has. And to say this is, in turn, to say that the person does not (or cannot reasonably) regard whatever is distressing or unsatisfying in his life as being due to his having too little money.

When someone is wondering whether to be satisfied with the resources at his disposal, what is it that's genuinely important for him to take into account? The assessments he wishes to make are personal; they have to do with the specific quality of his own life. What he must do is to make these assessments on the basis of a realistic estimate of how closely the course of his life suits his individual capacities, meets his particular needs, fulfills his best potentialities and provides him with what he cares about.

With respect to none of these considerations, it seems to me, is it essential for him to measure his circumstances against the circumstances of anyone else. No doubt, such comparisons may be illuminating; they may enable a person to understand his own situation more clearly. Even so, they are at best helpful. They do not get to the heart of the matter.

The widespread conviction that equality itself has some basic value as an independently important moral ideal is not only mistaken, it is an impediment to the identification of what is truly of fundamental moral and social worth.

Harry G. Frankfurt is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. This essay is excerpted from his most recent book, "On Inequality."

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