Waldron and Frankfurt on Equality and Respect

Earlier in the summer I read Harry Frankfurt’s short paper, Equality and Respect, where he argues against the intrinsic moral importance of equality. Waldron actually spends a couple of pages in One Another’s Equals responding to Frankfurt’s claims (which were republished in his recent 2015 book, Inequality). I will take this opportunity to go over the interaction between their arguments about equality.

Frankfurt’s first argument is that the resources and rights a person is entitled to do not depend on the entitlements of others. He writes:

Enjoying the rights that it is appropriate for a person to enjoy, and being treated with appropriate respect and consideration and concern, have nothing essentially to do with the respect and consideration and concern that other people are shown or with the rights that other people happen to enjoy. Every person should be accorded the rights, the respect, the consideration, and the concern to which he is entitled by virtue of what he is and of what he has done. The extent of his entitlement to them does not depend upon whether or not other people are entitled to them as well. (7)

I have already summarized one of Waldron’s responses to the redundancy argument (which you can access here). Waldron offers another reply, that Frankfurt’s claim cannot take into account cases of “comparative justice.” In cases of comparative justice, we are more sure that X and Y are entitled to equal shares, than to the exact quantity or cardinal value of those shares. Waldron gives the example of political rights, where both X and Y are entitled to some say in who rules them. We can say that X and Y are entitled to the greatest amount of say possible consistent with the constraint that both are entitled to equal say. Without the egalitarian constraint, Waldron observes, “we will be all at sea in our calculations” (73). Waldron offers criminal sentencing as another example of comparative justice; we are more sure that two felons with similar records and offense should receive equal-ish sentences, but a lot less sure of what those sentences should be. In these cases of comparative justice, it is non-redundant to say that each person is owed equal entitlements.

Frankfurt’s second argument is that equality has no independent moral significance apart from the normative demands of respect. Frankfurt claims that what some think of as the independent moral significance of equality is nothing more than the impartiality required of respect. He cites an example offered by Isaiah Berlin of dividing a cake among 10 people about whom you have no information. Both Frankfurt and Berlin agree that you should divide the cake into 10 equal slices, but for different reasons. Berlin believes that there is a presumption in favor of egalitarian goals. For Frankfurt, however,  equality is not a presumption, but rather a derivative of the demands of respect; because you possess the same amount of relevant information about all 10 people – that is, none whatsoever – the impartiality requirement of respect requires that you privilege no one.

If you do have some relevant information (e.g. one of the 10 people is vegan but the cake is smothered in buttercream frosting), then you may have to treat some differently from others, and according to Frankfurt, the demands of respect diverge from egalitarian ideals. In my last post (here) I explained how basic equality, or equal concern, does not always require equal treatment – or material equality (the size of the cake slices). Indeed in this case, it is exactly because we consider everyone’s interests equally that we change our cake division to take into account relevant information like veganism. There is something misleading about Frankfurt’s claim that here the demands of equality and respect diverge. He would be right if equality demanded that everyone should always have the same amount of everything. But if by equality we mean basic moral equality – that each person counts for the same – then the demands of equality and respect should never diverge. Indeed, I take Frankfurt’s ultimate point to be that there is nothing significant about basic moral equality that cannot already be captured by the requirement of impartiality attached to respect. This claim – that basic equality is derived from respect – seems right, and I think Waldron’s own analysis would force him to agree.

Frankfurt concludes that while the pursuit of equality may have substantial instrumental value, it is certainly not valuable in itself. He cautions:

…a concern for being equal to others tends to alienate people from themselves. It leads them to define their goals in terms that are set by considerations other than the specific requirements of their own personal nature and of their own circumstances. It tends to distract them from recognizing that their most authentic ambitions are those that derive from the character of their own lives and not those that are imposed upon them by the condition in which others happen to live. (13)

Yet, I think it is exactly because egalitarian pursuits have significant instrumental utility that it is not unwarranted nor alienating to be concerned about one’s relation to others. Indeed, it is exactly because someone feels alienated from the political process or cooperative scheme, instinctually feels there is some basic unfairness that exists, or feels that they have been morally wronged, that they are concerned that what they have significantly differs from what others have. We should be receptive to these concerns – not because inequality is an intrinsic harm – but because inequality is a useful indicator for many forms of social illness.


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