Societies like the UK are getting more unequal, empirical research shows. Income and wealth inequalities are increasing, and many people agree that rising income and wealth inequalities constitute an injustice. But what makes them unjust?
John Rawls, one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century, thought that income and wealth inequalities are unjust if they are a result of unjust social, economic, and political institutions. He thus did not think that all income and wealth inequalities are unjust - there are benefits from having free markets, and market outcomes are often unequal. But income and wealth inequalities are unjust if they reflect inequality of opportunities on the labour market, for example, due to race or gender, or if they reflect economic institutions that allow those who are already doing well to benefit at the expense of those who are not doing well.
Rawls’ ideas have been hugely influential in contemporary political philosophy. In this module, we will both take a closer look at his theory of justice and at the controversy that followed. Some, for example, argued that it matters in and of itself if people are equally well-off, or at least have opportunities to be equally well-off. Others argued that inequalities that result from interactions on markets are not unjust – they are the result of choices people make and for which they are responsible. Yet others argued that Rawls wrongly prioritised economic injustice and that other forms of injustice, such as those resulting from disability, for example, are more serious. And, last but not least, some argued that the main focus should be on global justice, not on justice within a society like the UK.
This module is dedicated to the problem of social justice – an issue that receives much attention in the media today – and you will study how philosophers have thought about this problem. You will develop an understanding of the most important debates on social justice and, through that, acquire a good grasp of some key issues in contemporary political philosophy.