In a recent article published here (which is a prequel to his book), Professor Harry G. Frankfurt takes a philosophic position against our concern with inequality. According to him, our intuition does tell us that we should be worried about inequality, but that intuition is misleading for an effective moral theory where we should be only concerned about our own well-being and “good life”, not in relationship to the others. He allows however that we should be concerned with incomes of those whose “resources are too little.”
I have already encountered similar opinions, among economists, and written about that (here), so it is with some reluctance that I have to cover the same ground again. But I must admit that this kind of argument is somewhat of a red flag to me so here I go again. For simplicity, I divide my argument into three parts.
We are social beings. It was stated by Adam Smith very nicely that our needs vary in function of what we consider to be socially acceptable. In a much quoted passage, Smith contrasts a man living in a relatively poor society who is content with a roughly-hewn shirt and another one, living in a richer society, who would be ashamed to be seen in public without a linen shirt. Smith was drawing on his own experience, having observed how what is socially acceptable, i.e., what are our “needs”, has changed in his own lifetime as England and Scotland had become richer.
Here is the quote:
“[Under necessities] I understand not only the commodities that are indispensable for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” (Book 5, Chapter 2)
Smith’s observation has far-reaching consequences. If our needs depend on what is socially acceptable, then they will clearly vary as between different societies. They will depend on the wealth of such societies or wealth of our peer groups. Consequently, our needs are (1) even in theory endless (because development has no material limit), and (2) they are thoroughly relative. We cannot distinguish between that part of the needs which is presumably due to ourselves, our “real” needs that, according to Professor Frankfurt, determine whether “[we] have good lives, and not how [our] lives compare with the lives of others” and the other part which is presumably due to the environment.
It is futile to try to distinguish between the two. We do not know what are our needs until we live in a society and observe the needs of others. So, pace Professor Frankfurt, we cannot just imagine that others do not exist as he enjoins us to do. All our needs are social.
But my friend Carla Yumatle, in a discussion on Twitter, has made a point against this interpretation (I paraphrase her): yes, all our needs may be social, but it does not mean that a moral theory, whose objective is to provide us with some moral guidance, needs to take this into account. Actually, it may deplore that we have such needs. Carla draws the distinction between Rousseau’s amour propre (which is basically vanity, or what used to be called “pride” or self-love in relationship to others) and amour de soi (which is concern with ourselves as such). The latter would be, if I understand her well, acceptable, according to Frankfurt, but the former (which obviously relies on our comparisons with others) would not.
Authenticity. But that too depends on a false dichotomy between amour de soi and amour propre. The two are indistinguishable. To show that they are different we have to prove somehow that only amour de soi is authentic, while amour propre is not. Or as Professor Frankfurt claims: “It [concern with inequality] leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly [sic!] requires in order to pursue his own most authentic needs, interests, and ambitions.”
But similarly to the previous argument, here too we cannot tell what are authentic and unauthentic needs. I really have no idea what are my authentic needs as compared to the needs that I develop from living in New York. If I lived in Belgrade (as I did) or Chennai (as I did not), I would have had entirely different needs. Does anyone doubt that? So what are my “authentic” needs?
Do I have an “authentic” need for an iPhone? No, I did not have an “authentic” need so long as iPhones did not exist. But now I do have an “authentic” need for an iPhone. However much we might like the fact that somebody decides not to own an iPhone when everybody else has it, we cannot claim that she is more authentic or somehow unconcerned with her relative position. She might decide not to have an iPhone because she does not like to talk on the phone or because she likes to be contrarian but there is nothing more authentic in rejecting to follow the crowd than in deciding to go with it. We might like those who reject crowd-behavior or even admire them, but they are not by any means more “authentic” than the rest.
Welfare function. Finally, an economic argument is that once we allow for our concern with the poor to enter our utility function, as Professor Frankfurt tells us to do, there is nothing to stop us from introducing in that same utility function our concern with incomes of those who are richer than ourselves.
Moreover, if Professor Frankfurt keeps on insisting that despite all we should be concerned only with incomes of the poor, neither Professor Frankfurt nor anybody else can tell us what is that income at which we should begin to worry about other human beings whose “resources are too little”. He cannot tell us what this “too little” is. Does he want us to be concerned only with incomes of those who live below 1 international dollar per day, or those below $5, or those below $15? If it is only those below the absolute poverty threshold ($1 per day per capita), then we should not be concerned with poverty in the US at all because nobody lives below that level. Is this okay with Professor Frankfurt?
But if Professor Frankfurt wants us to be concerned with poverty in the US, then he is introducing precisely the relative poverty measure, that is the poverty which varies with income level of a society where we live, a concept which he has banished before under the guise of not being “authentic”.
So, his reasoning brings him back to the beginning where he is unable to define needs as separate from the context where they are expressed. He is unable to do so because he is unable to distinguish between the so-called “authentic” needs and those that we develop simply by living in a society from the very moment when we are born. We cannot define what the "good life" is independently of the others.
So, his whole edifice crumbles.
So, his whole edifice crumbles.