on inequality*

Michael Sean Quinn**

            The title of this blog-essay is also the title of a book by Harry G. Frankfurt, one of the most interesting and readable social and ethics philosopher of the later Twentieth Century and the Early Twenty-First Century.  (I have used the type set for the title of his book; there are not capital letters in the title.*)  This book is not explicitly about lawyers or lawyering. However, there are kinds of egalitarianism other than economic. It might be classified by the beginning category of “X-inequality” and  “X-egalitarianism.” At least impliedly Frankfurt discusses “respect inequality” and “respect egalitarianism.” This, and ideas like it, are very important to lawyers.  (Of course, many lawyers do care about eco-egalitarianism aka egalitarianism. They might be called “Bernie Sanders Type Lawyers.” I confess to having a good deal of sympathy for this point of view, although I also confess that I have not really lived it.”

            Frankfurt’s most famous book—mind anything, an abstruse treatise for academics, although it contains profundities–is entitled ON BULLSHIT, and it is anything but. He has also written a book entitled ON TRUTH, and it is, with wisdom, exactly about that. (I have discussed both of the other two elsewhere in  blog-essays for lawyers.) All three of these books have the attractive virtue of being short. ON BULLSHIT was a #1 best seller on the New York Times list for a while, and I conjecture also on that of the Wall Street Journal, at least—and perhaps principally—because of its dashing title.

            This book is about egalitarianism and its vices. In fact, Frankfurt goes further than that, and demotes its magisterial status considerably.   It is not true that equality if intrinsically valuable. At most it is sometimes extrinsically valuable, under some circumstances.  It is probably not good for individuals and societies; in fact it does harm. Besides, he at least implies, it is probably impossible.  It distracts individuals from properly valuing themselves and their lives. In addition it “diverts the attention of intellectuals from the quite fundamental philosophical problems of understanding” and really considering in detail more important problems, such as really intrinsic valuables and the reasons why people might adopt forms of life which do not hinge on, e.g., simply getting more.

             In its stead Frankfurt proposes the “doctrine of sufficiency,” that is “the doctrine that what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough.” Two places Frankfurt applies this idea is in dealing with poverty or in dealing with a society that is so class dominated that the upper class clearly have more than enough and at least some components of a lower class (or of some lower classes) do not have enough. 

                        (Notice that egalitarianism would call for all to be equal, while the doctrine of sufficiency would seek something quite different.  It seems to me that Frankfurt argues that egalitarianism can be used as a device for getting people to attend to immoral over-abundance divided along class lines.  There is a problem with this view, of course, since it would allegedly the legitimacy of political lying. I say a bit more about Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency toward the end of the blog-essay.)

            Naturally egalitarianism is usually discussed in terms of money and equal distribution, and he Frankfurt uses this category as one for teaching and argument. Here’s what he says at one point. “Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable.” 

            Moreover, egalitarianism may not maximize aggregate utility, as some economists and some philosophers oriented to economic, free-market thinking think. In addition, what makes people unhappy usually has nothing to do with inequality, and general equality is neither necessary or sufficient for making people happy.  Besides, it is in the nature of some people not to have any ambition to seek more, and this can be true for several reasons. Some of these are politically incorrect to mention, e.g., laziness, dullness, or diffidence.  Notice, however, that Frankfurt is not suggesting that all people near the bottom, or only slightly above, are any of these things. Vastly wealthy people can be just this way too.

             Frankfurt also proposes that absence of respect is of far more social significant that inequality, although the two are often conflated.   

            In any case, as is fitting, begin with philosophy. To say that a state of affairs is intrinsically good is to say that it is good in and of itself; it is good as such; it is good not because it produces (or causes) other good states of affairs, but is simply good. “Good,” as they say, “period.”  Happiness, pleasure (of at least some sorts) and blessedness are often thought of this way.

             A state of affairs is extrinsically or instrumentally good if it does or tends to cause other instrumentally good states of affairs or that which is intrinsically good. An appropriate level of work, rationality, self-knowledge of some sorts, and various configurations, e.g., democracy, are thought of this way.         

             Some states of affairs are both intrinsically good and extrinsically (or instrumentally) good at the same time. Happiness, pleasure, and faith of various sorts are often described like this.

            In any case, egalitarianism is not an acceptable doctrine of intrinsic goodness, says Frankfurt, contrary to what many people think, or—at least—say. It is easy to see why. What if equality led to the impoverishment of everyone? Would egalitarianism be a good thing in that case? Or what if egalitarianism, for example, to food stuffs, would lead to the death of a whole group, where as if there were unequal distribution a fraction of the group could live.

            Moreover—and this is one of the author’s most profound points—egalitarianism would deter a person from looking at himself, and and looking for what he finds meaningful.  Frankfurt is not an Ayn Randian Egotist, however. He is simply pointing out that a good life requires—or close to requires—self-reflection and sense of what will be a good life for oneself.  Egalitarianism discourages—and nearly prohibits this, while it does not induce one to look closely at others.  The doctrine requires attention to all and to none at the same time.  It is hence alienating between each person and others who are important to him/her, e.g., family.

            Frankfurt does not mention the following in this book, but elsewhere he has argued that the foundations of a satisfactory theory of value is what one cares about and determining real caring is too look at what a person loves.  In effect, Professor Frankfurt is silently emphasizing that point in this book. Obviously, this principle applies to lawyers. One wonders if it does not imply that a lawyer can be happy in the law (THE LAW and not just the business of lawyering) only if he loves to the law to a considerable sense.  The next and related questions is: What does it take to love a legal system, and how much love must there be. 
            As already mentioned, being respected is often an intrinsic value. But notice that being respected has nothing to do with egalitarianism, though under some circumstances, people should be respected equally.  Most importantly, egalitarianism has nothing to do with particular persons; issues of respect, in contrast, have much to do with “focus and intent.” Respect is not owed to everyone; the obligation and appropriateness of respect depends on an individual, though individuals who are the same in relevant ways must be treated with equal respect, as a matter of moral principle.  No doubt the reader is wondering how all this is connected to “respect-egalitarianism.” I shall leave that to the reader.

            Because respect depends on individuals and their characteristics, an acceptable theory about owing respect justifies the importance of impartiality, while egalitarianism does the opposite. The reasons is that a requirement of showing and distributing respect depends upon rationality and having valid reasons (and therefore rational procedure), while egalitarianism does not.

            In considering the last of respect in a political context it is helpful to think about how being ignored impacts a person. As Frankfurt puts it, being ignored can be “profoundly disturbing.” Being ignored can trigger a strong protective response, not to mention retaliation of various sorts.

            Interestingly, this last point is arguably to be found in the “Donald Trump Orientation” of various people, and groups of people, in the 2016 election. Of course, this is not a point Frankfurt makes, since his book was published in 2015.

            (Alas, Frankfurt is not really clear about how, from an economic-political system point of view, what counts as “enough” could be determined.  It seems obvious—to me, at least—that if individuals were making that decision for themselves there would be immense dangers of something like fraud, of self-deception, a virtually automatic “sin” of financial gluttony (at least in American culture. On the other hand, if what-counts-as-enough were to be determined by objective standards used for everyone, individualism would suffer a huge blow, controversies about the measurement system would be unending, and fascism would be around the corner, perhaps a block or two or way.  In the end Frankfurt is an ethical relativism according to which each person must make individualized decisions for himself about what is intrinsically valuable, although that decision would have to be made within a broad framework—that of “enough-ness.”  This is an attractive idea, of course, much better than egalitarianism, which is, if possible at all, destructive of individualism in its own way. Then again, . . . .)

            For a brief summary from a more conservative regarding the relationships amongst egalitarianism, the doctrine of sufficiency, and liberty, see a review by Daniel Shuchman, “Beggar Thy Neighbor,” Wall Street Journal A11 (October 9, 2015).

*Why might an author put the title of his book all in lower case lettering? Think e.e. cummings. Perhaps the author intends to invoke the idea of a revolt or dissention from an established audience.  Frankfurt was for many years a professor of philosophy at Princeton, whose university press published this book. Teaching philosophy at that university, and those like it, e.g., Harvard, Yale, NYU, Columbia, almost guarantees that Frankfurt’s intellectual environment is what might be called “liberal intellectualism,” “progressivism,” or “New York Review liberalism.” Frankfurt’s view is clearly inconsistent with a doctrine popular in those circles. Nevertheless, Frankfurt is at home in those groupings. Before teaching at Princeton, he taught at both Yale and Rockefeller and was president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

**Michael Sean Quinn

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Originally posted on 05/06/2016 @ 9:28 pm

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc. (530)

One of Texas's leading insurance scholars, Michael Sean Quinn is a past chair of the Insurance Section of the State Bar of Texas and has a broad legal practice.

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