Social inequality

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Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons.


  • That unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good.
    • Aristotle, Politics, 1325b, in Basic Works of Aristotle (2001), p. 1282
  • Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits. Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l'utilité commune.
  • Can humans exist without some people ruling and others being ruled? The founders of political science did not think so. "I put for a general inclination of mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death," declared Thomas Hobbes. Because of this innate lust for power, Hobbes thought that life before (or after) the state was a "war of every man against every man"—"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Was Hobbes right? Do humans have an unquenchable desire for power that, in the absence of a strong ruler, inevitably leads to a war of all against all? To judge from surviving examples of bands and villages, for the greater part of prehistory our kind got along quite well without so much as a paramount chief, let alone the all-powerful English leviathan King and Mortal God, whom Hobbes believed was needed for maintaining law and order among his fractious countrymen.
    • Anthropologist Marvin Harris, Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going (1989)
  • Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.
    • Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010), Ch. 1 : The Way We Live Now
  • Of all the competing and only partially reconcilable ends that we might seek, the reduction of inequality must come first. Under conditions of endemic inequality, all other desirable goals become hard to achieve. Whether in Delhi or Detroit, the poor and the permanently underprivileged cannot expect justice. They cannot secure medical treatment and their lives are accordingly reduced in length and potential. They cannot get a good education, and without that they cannot hope for even minimally secure employment—much less participation in the culture and civilization of their society.
    In this sense, unequal access to resources of every sort—from rights to water—is the starting point of any truly progressive critique of the world. But inequality is not just a technical problem. It illustrates and exacerbates the loss of social cohesion—the sense of living in a series of gated communities whose chief purpose is to keep out other people (less fortunate than ourselves) and confine our advantages to ourselves and our families: the pathology of the age and the greatest threat to the health of any democracy.
    • Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010), Ch. 5 : What Is to Be Done?
  • Some people object more to the inequalities at come from the socioeconomic class a person is born into, than to the inequalities resulting from differences in talent or ability. They don't like the effects of one person being born rich and another in a slum, but feel that a person deserves what he can earn with his own efforts—so that there's nothing unfair about one person earning a lot and another very little because the first has a marketable talent or capacity for learning sophisticated skills while the second can only do unskilled labor.
    I myself think that inequalities resulting from either of these causes are unfair, and that it is clearly unjust when a socioeconomic system results in some people living under significant material and social disadvantages through no fault of their own, if this could be prevented through a system of redistributive taxation and social welfare programs. But to make up your own mind about the issue, you have to consider both what causes of inequality you find unfair, and what remedies you find legitimate.
    • Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, (1987), Ch. 8. Justice.

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