Is Inheritance Morally Distinctive?


This paper examines a rarely-discussed argument for the right to bequeath wealth. This argument, popular among libertarians, asserts that opposition to the practice of inheritance is prone to over-generalize, such that opponents of inheritance cannot avoid condemning other uses of private property, like gift-giving. The argument is motivated by an interesting methodological claim, namely, that the morality of bequest ought to be evaluated from the perspective of the donor, and not evaluated in ways that invoke the effects of bequest on the distribution of wealth. This paper argues that this donor-centric approach ultimately favors restricting the right of bequest. Specifically, I maintain that bequest generally carries a lower opportunity cost than other uses of property. Accordingly, inheritance tax is less coercive than other taxes, and bequest is less obviously as generous an act as gift giving. While the arguments made here will encourage traditional opponents of inheritance (such as egalitarians), I also suggest why they might be welcomed by at least some types of libertarian.

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Correspondence to Daniel Halliday.

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Halliday, D. Is Inheritance Morally Distinctive?. Law and Philos 32, 619–644 (2013).

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