The Philosophy and Politics of (In)Equality

Intermediate—Spring

Visiting America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed a deep, historically unprecedented form of social equality—one in which every person assumed they could occupy any station or position of privilege. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a movement in the opposite direction: a phenomenal reversal of the “great compression” of income inequality produced by the New Deal political economy. In its place, a rapid and profound growth in social inequality in America and other “up or out” societies accompanied by striking declines in social mobility. One aim of this course is to examine the social and political forces that have produced this remarkable and accelerating growth in disparities of social fate. The focus, however, will not be on proximate factors responsible for recent trends but on the social theory of inequality; i.e., attempts to understand how deeply stratified forms of social order work and what forces and practices stabilize and legitimate the transmission of deep inequalities over time. Topics to be covered here include class, race, status, gender, and professional stratification, while methodological perspectives will vary from sociology and economics to history, psychology, and public health. A further striking feature of the political present is the near total absence of effective political or social movements dedicated to redressing extreme concentrations of wealth, shrinking opportunities for social mobility, and the increasing economic vulnerability of the vast majority of Americans. In exploring this issue, we will shift attention to political philosophy and, specifically, the subject of distributive justice. We will search for standards of critique of contemporary inequality, standards that might serve social movements or political parties that aimed for a return to a less unequal social world.