Philosophers—even social and political philosophers—are not known for grappling with research and empirical data from the "hard" social sciences. But some problems seem to demand just such an engagement: inequality, we argue, is one such problem. Rising economic inequality in advanced industrialized states—its causes and consequences—is a problem much studied by social epidemiologists, urban studies scholars, economists, sociologists, and political scientists. Some aspects of this rising inequality, such as the concentration of wealth to an unprecedented degree, have also captured the attention of the mainstream media: income and wealth inequality have reached historic highs in the United States—where the top 1 percent owns nearly 50 percent of the wealth—as well as Canada, where the top quintile now controls 70 percent of the wealth and earns 44 percent of all employment income. The possible consequences of social and economic inequality on public health, economic growth, mobility, levels of social trust, educational and employment opportunities, and crime rates are among the questions explored by social scientists studying inequality.1
Perhaps surprisingly, philosophers have not had much to say about this trend toward greater levels of inequality in wealth and income, nor about its possible impact on society or individual well-being. Normative reflection on economic [End Page 1] inequality by moral and political philosophers has instead generally focused on broader, more foundational questions: Which aspects or forms of equality are most important for a just, decent society, and which are comparatively insignificant? Are equal respect and political equality compatible with a high degree of social and economic inequality? Should an ideal of equality focus on improving the condition of the worse off, or instead aim to equalize the material conditions of all? And on what grounds might a society strive to reduce inequality, and at what costs to citizens' social, economic, and political freedoms?2 The pattern of rising inequality in rich countries is of course mirrored by rising economic inequality worldwide: the gap between rich and poor regions of the world is, by and large, widening. The consequences of this inequality, and the particular normative challenges and demands it raises, are distinctive, and lie at the heart of discussions of global (in)justice.3
These two broad approaches to the problem of growing inequality—that of the philosopher, and that of the social scientist—have for the most part not intersected. As a consequence, a conversation about economic inequality that looks squarely at empirical trends regarding inequality at the same time as posing critical philosophical and normative questions would seem to be long overdue. It was this thought that motivated this special issue of Philosophical Topics.
There are at least two reasons, we suggest, why philosophers and political theorists writing on equality and inequality ought to engage social scientific research on inequality. First, much philosophical writing about inequality relies upon certain assumptions about the causes of concrete social and economic inequalities, yet fails to make these assumptions explicit. Some philosophical positions, such as luck egalitarianism, make much of the difference between inequality that is due to choice and that which results from unchosen circumstances;4 only the latter, which are considered unfair, ought to be rectified. Yet there is considerable research in social psychology and labor economics that suggests that individuals' choices are not easily separable from their social and economic circumstances.
In the present volume, several papers speak to the vexed issue of the intersection of choice and circumstances, and how it should shape our normative understanding of this relationship—and inequality more generally. In "Egalitarianism and Perceptions of Inequality," Derrick Darby and Nyla Branscombe draw on American social psychology research showing that the extent to which people perceive income inequalities as a result of choices as opposed to structural obstacles and hierarchies is highly influenced by their own group-based affiliation—specifically, their race or social class. Whether you are black or white in America shapes how you perceive the causes of inequalities in income and wealth, and so the fairness—or injustice—of those inequalities. As Darby and Branscombe argue, if our ability to draw sharp and accurate distinctions between choice and circumstances is cast into...