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Summary of Why We Disagree About Inequality: Social Justice vs. Social Order

On May 1, 2023 a white Marine Corps veteran named Daniel Penny choked Jordan Neely, a black homeless street performer, to death on a New York subway train. According to eyewitness accounts, Neely had shouted that he was fed up, that he didn’t care if he went to prison, and that he was ready to die, after which Penny put Neely in a headlock and held him in that position for 15 minutes. The city’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

In the days that followed, different reactions to the death emerged. Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Jordan Neely was murdered. But bc Jordan was houseless and crying for food in a time when the city is raising rents and stripping services to militarize itself while many in power demonize the poor, the murderer gets protected w/ passive headlines + no charges. It’s disgusting.”

In contrast, Inez Stepman, a policy analyst and writer, tweeted, “Ofc subway threats guy had *40* prior arrests + active warrant. Jordan Neely never should’ve been on on that subway car. His death is not on a brave Marine who acted in his & others’ defense but on the craven weasels who prefer to chase activist plaudits than restore law & order.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Stepman were reacting to the same events, but their reactions were rooted in different moral and philosophical perspectives. Ocasio-Cortez’s reaction reflects a social justice perspective that is concerned primarily with the plight of vulnerable people. Stepman’s reaction reflects a social order perspective that is primarily concerned with social stability and cohesion.

Why We Disagree About Inequality is about how these competing moral and philosophical perspectives help explain differences in opinion about social inequality. We argue that the root cause of disagreements over social issues is not party affiliation but rather a divide in people’s moral and philosophical beliefs about what constitutes a good and just society and how best to achieve it.

The aim of the book is to describe the two perspectives and put them on equal moral footing to explain one “side” to the other. In doing so, we hope to foster more fruitful conversations and problem-solving. We believe that complex social problems cannot be addressed without a shared understanding of their causes and consequences. And to achieve this understanding, people — including policy makers and the public — must learn to recognize and become conversant in the moral and philosophical language of their ideological adversaries.

We highlight how proponents of social order and social justice have vastly different ways of thinking about fairness and equality; freedom, choice, and responsibility; individual and group-based morality; and social change. For instance, a person with a social justice perspective tends to understand fairness in terms of outcomes, while a person with a social order perspective tends to understand fairness in terms of processes. Although equality is important to both, advocates of each perspective look for it in different places. The person with a social order perspective tends to favor a selection process for jobs, schools, sports positions, and the like where all aspirants are treated equally, regardless of their personal characteristics. The person with a social order perspective considers this approach fair, even if it results in unequal outcomes across groups defined by race or gender. Meanwhile, a person with a social justice perspective tends to feel that a process that yields unequal outcomes across groups is inherently unfair and must be altered to achieve more equal — and thus fairer — results.

We apply the social justice–social order framework to disagreements about a wide range of social problems, including gender inequality, racial inequality, income inequality, and immigration policy.

Implications for Social Scientific Research

Opposing sides on any issue often point to empirical studies that support their arguments. This means that social scientific research plays a unique role in our understanding of inequality. But while social scientific research is unrivaled in its ability to help us understand the world around us — such as the extent of demographic change over time or how much poverty there is in a society — it has only limited power to pinpoint causal relationships between phenomena. Few natural experiments exist in the social world that allow us to hold all variables constant except for the explanatory one of interest — the analytic approach that most powerfully demonstrates causality.

The inherent, and unavoidable, ambiguity in empirical work thus leaves considerable room for our moral and philosophical worldviews to shape how we think about complex social problems. Our worldviews are linked to motivated reasoning, the human tendency to interpret data in a way that confirms our view of how the world works. Motivated reasoning helps explain why we struggle to get on the same page regarding the causes of inequality, despite, for instance, having access to the same empirical studies.

The challenge of interpreting social science research becomes even more pronounced when the research is being done disproportionately by people with one ideological orientation or another. Because academic research grows and evolves based on a system of peer review, it can become distorted when the people doing and reviewing the research share the same ideological orientation.

Earlier we talked about the importance of putting both perspectives on equal moral footing. The implications of failing to do this can be profound. To take a single example, the social justice perspective is currently ascendant in the social sciences, perhaps because most social scientists are on the left side of the political spectrum. This means that the orienting concern driving much social science research is the reduction of inequality — with less attention paid to understanding or safeguarding the social order. Not only does this put social scientists out of step with the American polity, but it can reduce the trust people have in academic research.

The upshot is that understanding the difference between social justice and social order orientations — both in practical terms and in their moral roots — is essential for clear and open thinking, learning, and communication across divides.

Why We Disagree About Inequality: Social Justice vs. Social Order, John Iceland, Eric Silver, and Ilana Redstone (Polity Press, 2023)

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