By: Dan Corjescu

It is quite possible that Bernie Sanders is on the verge of clinching the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. One of the more important reasons for his electoral success has been his insistence on economic equality, symbolized by his populist rhetoric targeted against “the 1%” or “the Billionaire Class”.

Millions have been energized by his message.

However, in 2015, the eminent moral philosopher, Harry Frankfurt wrote an interesting little book entitled “On Inequality” which fundamentally challenged Bernie’s pragmatically successful viewpoint.

Put simply, Frankfurt categorically rejected the moral presumption behind egalitarianism and instead offered what he called a “doctrine of sufficiency”.

What Frankfurt meant by this, according to him, is that, “it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough”.

In effect, Frankfurt believed that we should concentrate our political and social energies on those suffering from absolute poverty or extreme poverty rather than focus on relative (huge?) discrepancies between incomes.

Frankfurt may have been partially right about this, especially given certain conditions and psychological effects.

Even he admitted that, historically, belonging to the lower classes meant a life of grinding poverty and thus most definitely not having enough. But historical circumstances change and being in the lower classes in the America of 2020 and beyond might, in an absolute sense, mean something much different than, for example, being a lowly wage earner living in the slums of New York City in the late Nineteenth century.

At the same time, Frankfurt argued that concentrating on economic equality tends to be an alienating experience since it continuously directs our gaze upon the lives of others, causing us to neglect our own authentic needs, preoccupations, values, and personal situations. What is of paramount importance here is “whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others.”

This summarizes Frankfurt’s clever argument.

We now turn our attention to other philosophers who, if given the chance, might be expected to strongly object to the contention that economic equality is “morally irrelevant”.

Firstly, Plato’s conception of the soul as being divided into three parts: the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited may help us to begin to see some of the problems attached to Frankfurt’s line of reasoning.

It is the third part of the soul, the spirited part (thymos in Greek), that concerns us most here.

Thymos can also be translated or interpreted as “self-regard”, as it famously was by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History (1992) upon which much of what follows is based.

The part of humanity’s nature that is self-regarding (thymos) demands the appropriate social and political estimation of itself. It demands to be publicly seen as it sees itself privately. One’s self-worth demands to be recognized. Any discrepancy between its own estimation of itself and the way others see it leads to dismay, anger, and the desire for retribution.

If thymos is indeed a crucial feature of the human personality, it can then be easily seen that a situation where some people literally earn an astronomical salary compared to oneself could give rise to a legitimate sense of inadequacy, insignificance, and moral injustice. For the question then naturally arises, are those who earn so much more than me worth that much more than me? Are the billions under the command of a Trump, Bloomberg, or Bill Gates a fair reflection of these men’s social, political, and economic value or has something, somewhere gone drastically awry?

Thus, it may well be that a person “has enough” and has no need of the “same” as another. But that is not the real question under debate. The real question is Frankfurt’s assertion that economic equality has no “moral significance”. Under our Platonic view of the situation, it very much does matter, because it challenges and upsets the self-regarding views of many, if not all, of the citizens of the polis or whatever political community one happens to find oneself in.

Under this view, massive amounts of personal wealth need to be convincingly justified. Some offer the mechanical explanation of the simple working out of supply and demand, others proffer various theories based on “superior” abilities, while others resign themselves to an inevitable capitalistic bell curve that must be accepted in order for the whole to thrive in a system necessarily founded on personal incentive which is itself based on the profit motive.

Yet all these rationalizations seem empty to those who toil at the bottom or even at the middle of the economic pyramid.

Inordinate wealth calls for inordinate reasons for its existence. Otherwise, citizens will correctly question both the usefulness and the rightness of its existence. One does not necessarily have to wish for the “same” when questioning great social and economic imbalances. The very legitimacy and fairness of the political/social system is at stake.

This brings us to another Greek philosopher: Aristotle.

Aristotle famously said that a polity whose members were neither too rich, nor too poor was the best polity. Characteristically, Aristotle extolled the virtue of the middle for political arrangements, which in his experience (and the modern experience as well) guaranteed the most stability, individual well-being, and long-term social harmony. Aristotle’s insight has, of course, proved more than perspicacious. Today, it is a truism that a fully functioning democracy requires a vibrant and large middle class. Its shrinkage threatens the cohesiveness of the democratic social contract.

It is in this Aristotelian sense too that the citizens of any polity must care about the number, outward type, and inner nature of its wealthy. For the exceptionally wealthy, as Aristotle also noted, have a dangerous taste for command and a distaste for being ruled. They are potential enemies of the democracy or, at least, of any well governed society that seeks the greatest happiness for its individual members.

And finally, it is this question of the greatest happiness of the greatest number of members of the political community which touches upon the moral importance of radical economic equality or, at least, the mitigation of extreme discrepancies in wealth. For can any polity long remain free, content, and morally cogent if there are extreme differences in wealth among them that seem to have no fundamental relationship to the general welfare of the community?


Dan Corjescu teaches Political Philosophy and Globalization at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany

Image: Bernie Sanders – Caricature by DonkeyHotey. Caricature adapted from a Creative Commons licensed photo from Gage Skidmore’s Flickr photostream