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Egalitarians, sufficientarians, and mathematicians: a critical notice of Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

David Rondel*
Department of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno, NV, USA


This critical notice provides an overview of Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality and assesses whether Frankfurt is right to argue that equality is merely formal and empty. I counter-argue that egalitarianism, properly tweaked and circumscribed, can be defended against Frankfurt’s repudiation. After surveying the main arguments in Frankfurt’s book, I argue that whatever plausibility the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’ defended by Frankfurt may have, it does not strike a fatal blow against egalitarianism. There is nothing in egalitarianism that forbids acceptance of the moral platitude expressed in sufficientarianism's positive thesis, (viz., it is morally important that everyone have enough). Nor is there anything in egalitarianism as such that makes it impossible to recognize the banal truth that there are many important things besides equality, and that many dimensions of human affairs are improperly appraised from a relational or comparative point of view. The fact that a relational or comparative point of view is sometimes out of place, however, surely does not mean that it always is. I conclude with the suggestion that egalitarianism is most compelling when it is understood as a normative conception of social relations (rather than, as Frankfurt seems to assume throughout his book, a thesis about the equal distribution of something) and thus presides over precisely those aspects of human affairs for which that relational or comparative point of view is germane.

Critical Notice
Copyright © Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2016

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