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On Harry G. Frankfurt's Book ON INEQUALITY (Review Essay)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 22, 2015: I want to start with the distinction between the realm of theory and the realm of practice.

In theory, the realm of theory is open to anybody who wants to engage in theory. By definition, philosophy professors tend to prefer to engage in theory. But Senator George McGovern was the last American presidential candidate with a graduate degree in philosophy. People with graduate degrees in philosophy are not over-represented in American politics because politics involves the realm of practice.

In ancient Athens, Aristotle was a philosopher, but he also wrote a famous treatise about civic rhetoric. By definition, civic orators in Aristotle's day in Athens centered their attention on the realm of practice. According to Aristotle, civic orators use three basic appeals in their civic oratory: (1) logos, (2) pathos, and (3) ethos. These three appeals may also come into play in philosophical discourse in the realm of theory.

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Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus in philosophy at Princeton University, has published the short new book ON INEQUALITY (Princeton University Press, 2015). In it, he argues that, in theory, inequality should not concern us. Instead, we should be concerned about poverty and about eliminating poverty so that, in theory as well as in practice, everyone has enough. But, in theory, how much is enough?

Occasionally ideas have consequences. So perhaps Frankfort's theory that inequality should not concern us will have an impact on American culture today.

But what about the part of his argument about eliminating poverty?

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Our venerable theory guy cannot be expected to be practical and suggest practical ways in which we might eliminate poverty. In the final analysis, it's up to the politicians in American culture to figure out ways in which to eliminate poverty.

But, hey, didn't President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society eliminate poverty? It certainly aspired to do so.

No, it didn't.

As a result, I guess we're going to have to go back to the drawing board, as they say, and figure out new ways in which we can eliminate poverty.

However, in the practical realm of Americans politics today, eliminating poverty is probably a non-starter because of the negative memories of Johnson's Great Society.

But in the practical realm of American politics today, it is practical to generate resentment about the super-rich, and the term "inequality" is a handy way to make this pathos-appeal.

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In theory, enough resentment about the wealth of the super-rich could lead to more equitable taxation of the super-rich. But this theoretically desirable eventuality has not yet emerged.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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