Ethics of Inheritance

A reform of inheritance tax could ensure a fairer distribution of opportunities in the society. An analysis of the philosopher Caroline Guibet Lafaye.

Inherited wealth is generally quite unequally distributed : it is nearly as unequally distributed as wealth (generally considered) and a great deal more unequally distributed than income. Inheritance is probably the main factor of wealth concentration among the richest part of the population, and of its intergenerational reproduction [1]. In the United States, inheritance is primarily responsible for the fortunes of no less than sixty-seven percent of men who qualifies as “ultrarich”. In countries like France, inherited wealth accounts for a large part of all wealth possessed (generally estimated at around 40%) and represents the largest descending monetary transfer : three times as much as wealth received in the form of inter vivos gift for example [2]. In
general, transfers of property by means of inheritances and gifts also play a very important role in the processes which determine the distribution of income and wealth. Therefore the problem of
distribution lies, for an important part, in the accumulation of wealth, especially through inheritance.

Nevertheless, inheritance taxation remains a problematic issue. This taxation engenders a feeling of spoliation which impedes any attempt at reform. While inheritance is the main origin of the intergenerational reproduction of inequalities, no government will attempt to reform
inheritance taxes – except in order to reduce them. The figures above however justify an inheritance tax reform and, moreover, require to treat of the inheritance tax issue not only as an economical question but also as an ethical one. In this way, the bequest issue appeals for an “ethic of inheritance”. In fact, the values of freedom and equality – linked to the issue of inequality generated by inherited wealth –, the interpretation of equality, and the status of the family are among the main factors that influence the way one looks at inheritance. Furthermore, the unequal distribution of inherited wealth and bequests is a crucial vector of the inequality of opportunities. In fact, if one was born with a nice estate, one’s opportunities are far greater, ceteris paribus, than those of the poor who was provided with barely for subsistence in his childhood. For these reasons, the question of inheritance and inheritance tax is not one which can be tackled
only by purely ‘economic’ arguments.

The current debate which opposes defenders of a reform of the right to inherit (Rawls, Haslett) and defenders of a limitation of the right to bequest (Nozick) brings about older propositions to reform inheritance system. Our aim will be to demonstrate that in so far as inheritance is not only an economical or fiscal issue, ethical arguments should be used to assess these propositions. In this investigation, the concern for a reduction of inequality of opportunities will play a crucial rule since inheritance is the main vector of intergenerational reproduction of wealth concentration. In other words, our point will be to identify the
inheritance reform the most able to promote equality of opportunities. To lead this investigation, we will firstly analyse the main ethical claim defending the right to bequest : bequest is motivated by altruism. Then we will discuss some objections often raised against reform of inheritance tax. Finally we will demonstrate why a reform of the right to inherit (i.e. to receive) bequests is more relevant and practicable, considered from an ethical point of view, than a reform of the right to

Please click below to read the full article of Caroline Guibet Lafaye, « Ethics of Inheritance », in Philosophy Today, Chicago, vol. 52, n°1/2008, p. 25-35.

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Ethics of Inheritance


[1Thus, more than half of American citizens who have died rich (the top 1%) have received a sizeable inheritance. The 10th edition of World Wealth Report underlines the stake of intergenerational transfers of wealth and inherited wealth : 90% of HNWI (High Net Worth Individuals) have between 1 and 5 million dollars ; this wealth is 19%
inherited wealth.

[2A. Masson and P. Pestieau (1997), “Bequests Motives and Models of Inheritance : A Survey of the Literature”, in G. Erreygers & T. Vandevelde (eds.), Is Inheritance Legitimate ? , Heidelberg, Springer, 1997, p. 57.

Source : Caroline Guibet Lafaye, « Ethics of Inheritance », in Philosophy Today, Chicago, vol. 52, n°1/2008, p. 25-35.

Photo : Dorian Bianco (Wikimedia Commons)


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