Why do we disagree about the causes of and solutions to social inequality? What explains our different viewpoints on Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, income inequality, and immigration?
Penn State professors John Iceland and Eric Silver, co-authors of the new book “Why We Disagree About Inequality,” join the Democracy Works podcast this week to discuss what they believe to be the root of these disagreements — the conflict between social order and social justice.
In the book, Iceland and Silver define social justice as an emphasis on the concern for the well-being of others, particularly the weak and vulnerable. Conversely, they say social order focuses on a concern for the flourishing of individuals and maintenance of individual liberty.
Silver, professor of sociology and criminology and recipient of a 2023 Open Inquiry award from Heterodox Academy, said the difference between these perspectives is a source of political disagreement and impedes the ability to find areas of consensus.
“When these perspectives diverge, each side ends up talking past each other failing to recognize that they have some significant overlap in their concerns and each side possesses some wisdom that the other lacks,” Silver said.
While the tension between social order and social justice feels especially heightened in contemporary American politics, Iceland said it’s prevalent throughout history and doesn’t always map neatly onto political parties.
“This balancing act between social justice and social order is a constant tension through history and something we see in other societies,” said Iceland, a distinguished professor of sociology and demography. “Sometimes we have a little more social order, and we could use a lot more social justice. And other times perhaps it's the opposite.”
A key to achieving that balance, Iceland and Silver said, is to promote viewpoint diversity in education, media and other knowledge-producing institutions.
“When I teach my own classes on social problems, I like to have students at least consider different viewpoints because it helps develop their critical thinking skills,” Iceland said. “And of course, they might come to whatever conclusion they come to … but I don't like hand feeding them that something is necessarily the truth when it could be an issue that is contested to some extent.”
Iceland and Silver’s book, “Why We Disagree About Inequality: Social Justice vs. Social Order,” is published by Polity Books. The Democracy Works podcast is a collaboration between the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and WPSU. Listen at democracyworkspodcast.com or in any podcast app.