The idea that we shouldn’t be concerned about inequality is bullshit

Posted: 31 August 2015 in Uncategorized
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BN-CJ625_edp041_P_20140415125258

Harry G. Frankfurt (the author of, among other books, On Bullshit) attempts to argue that we aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be, concerned about inequality.

I suspect that people who profess to have this intuition are actually not responding to the inequality they perceive but to another feature of the situation they are observing. What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable in circumstances of economic inequality is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.

Branko Milanovic correctly reminds Frankfurt that all our needs are social needs. Thus, there’s no way of distinguishing between “authentic” and “inauthentic” needs and thus no way of being concerned about poverty without worry about inequality.

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.

Indeed.

That’s one dimension of the problem: all our needs are social needs. (And as Jack Amariglio and I argued back in Postmodern Moments, the modernist Marxian argument that “planning can succeed where markets could not in discerning all of the needs underlying the plan and in calculating all of the effects of instituting it” is “unhelpful and ultimately damaging in distinguishing between capitalism and socialism.”)

But there’s another dimension of the problem: the existence of inequality is bad for everyone within society, the rich and middle class as well as the poor (the argument made by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson), and it is literally a killing field (because, as Göran Therborn has argued, millions of people die premature deaths because of it).

Taken together—the idea that all needs are social needs and that inequality kills individuals and society as a whole—we really do need to be concerned about the grotesque (and rising) levels of inequality in the world today.

To argue otherwise is bullshit.

Comments
  1. mjlovas says:

    This strikes me as all very much along the right lines. I seem to recall that somewhere Milan Kundera once described the thought that someone else loves us as a way to avoid noticing our actually miserable self, and Graham Greene noted that the whole of idea that someone else loves us had heaps of egoism in it. I have the nagging feeling that much more needs to be said along these lines, but thanks for the post. It makes me want to think more about what’s going on here…………It also makes me think that some of the idealized analyses of love that I’ve read lately in Philosophers of Emotion just look past this very real phenomenon……The Capitalism warped variety of Love is non-ideal and unstable, and then it begins to look as if (to follow a philosophically popular analogy) actual instances of hearts (as in the pump, not the romantic object) were being produced with defects that caused suffering and premature death……

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