Socialism and Equality

Socialism and Equality

. . . there is now, with the existence of a large amount of sociological research on inequality of opportunity and inequality of result, and with the resurgence of interest among moral philosophers in inequality, as manifested in John Rawls’s work, the possibility of serious examination of social ideals and social reality in this area.

—James S. Coleman

Professor Coleman’s remarks raise three questions. First, what are the “social ideals” of equality? What forms of inequality are undesirable and what forms of equality desirable, and on what grounds? Second, what are the “social realities” of inequality? What is the upshot of all the research into inequality in contemporary societies? And third, what bearing does the answer to the second question have on that to the first? How does social reality affect social ideals? What is desirable, in the light of the actual, and what appears possible? The relevance of these questions to the subject of this essay needs no explanation. The ideal of equality has always been central to the socialist tradition: thus Professor Taylor specifies “greater equality in the conditions of life” as the first goal of “any socialist in a Western country today.” In assessing the contemporary viability of the socialist idea, then, the three questions raised above demand to be faced: first, why is “greater equality in the conditions of life” desirable ? Second, how unequal are such conditions in contemporary industrial societies, capitalist and state socialist, and what explains these inequalities? And third, are these inequalities ineradicable, or eradicable only at an unacceptable cost?

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