Philosophical Perspectives on Different Kinds of Inequalities

Stefan Gosepath

In the social lifeworld we face many inequalities. Most of them we regard as irrelevant or, at least, not troublesome. On the contrary, our recognition of the uniqueness, individuality and diversity of persons implies the recognition of certain distinguishing, i.e., unequal, features of individuals. At the same time, valuing uniqueness, individuality and diversity is regarded as legitimate only if it goes hand in hand with respect for the basic, underlying equal dignity of all humans. Thus, modern societies are characterized by a certain tension between the ways in which we value equality and inequality. In our pursuit of uniqueness, individuality and diversity, we value certain inequalities and accord grand liberties to persons so that they are able to develop differently, thereby expanding the social differences between them. At the same time, we object to other kinds of inequalities, argue for more equality and strive for more inclusive membership in a society of equals. Above all, the concept of

S. Gosepath (*)

Free University Berlin, Berlin, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2016 65

M. Wulfgramm et al. (eds.), Welfare State Transformations and Inequality in OECD Countries, Transformations of the State,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51184-3_4

equality reminds us of our common humanity. We morally object to those inequalities that we regard as unjust in themselves or productive of injustices. Those inequalities and their adverse social effects have to be remedied. Justice demands it. If circumstances can be rightly judged to be unjust, all persons have the responsibility and moral duty, both individually and collectively, to transform the relevant circumstances or distributive schemes into those that would satisfy the demands of justice.

Modern states have various means at their disposal to remedy social injustices. One of the most powerful tools is the modern welfare state. This article explores which forms of inequality the modern state in general—and the welfare state in particular—seek, and ought to seek, to amend or transform.

Social equality is obtained when each member of the community enjoys an equal standing with everybody else that overrides their unequal status in particular dimensions. The problem, however, lies in determining precisely those respects in which people must be ‘equal’ in order for them to be truly equal, that is, equal in a moral sense, as opposed to those dimensions (e.g., talents) in which people may be legitimately different or unequal. The interesting question, therefore, is which kinds of inequalities compromise our morally required equal standing and which kinds do not?

There is controversy concerning the precise notion of (in)equality, the material requirements (principles of equality) and the normative significance of (different types) of social (in)equalities, and why—if at all—and how those inequalities are to be avoided in a welfare state. Each of these issues will be discussed in this chapter.

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