PS 506 Is Inequality Good?

Is economic inequality good? In contemporary America, it seems odd to phrase a question about any kind of inequality this way, as the answer seems obvious: no! How could inequality seem appropriate in a democratic society fully committed (at least in word if not in deed) to equality, especially when extreme economic inequality and some types of racial and social inequality seem to so powerfully and perversely affect our political life? Yet our contemporary economic system is characterized by both some types of inequality and the recognition and expansion of certain rights or liberties (whether political or economic). Indeed, countries like the U.S., in which there has been an increasing economic inequality in recent years, are also those in which political liberties for women and some minorities has continued to be expanded. The recent Supreme Court decision this summer in Oberdgefell v. Hodges is one notable example.

In order to better understand the conditions, if any, under which economic inequality has been justified in political theory over the last few centuries – that is, the conditions under which economic inequality could be considered “good” – we will investigate the following questions, among others, in this class:  

  1. What do we mean by “good”? Is this a material or immaterial good? Is it a political, economic, or social one?
  2. What do we mean by “wealth”? In what does wealth consist?
  3. Good for whom? Is this inequality good for the individual person, or for society as a whole?
  4. Who judges? Who decides whether this inequality is good or not?