Convenors: Monique Deveaux, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Guelph, and Patti Lenard, Graduate School of Public & International Affairs, University of Ottawa
Rising economic inequality in Canada and other advanced industrialized states is a phenomenon much discussed by the media in recent years: indeed, income and wealth inequality have reached historic highs in the U.S. — where the top 1% owns nearly 50% of the wealth — as well as Canada, where the top quintile now controls 70% of the wealth and earns 44% of all employment income. The precise impact of this rising inequality has become an important subject of study and intense debate among economists, sociologists, social epidemiologists, and urban studies scholars; chief among the possible consequences of inequality they explore are those on public health, economic growth, mobility, levels of social trust, educational opportunity, and crime rates.
Normative reflection on rising economic inequality by moral and political philosophers and theorists has, by contrast, 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? And on what grounds might a society strive to reduce inequality, and at what costs to citizens’ social, economic, and political freedoms?
These two broad responses by scholars to the problem of growing inequality 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. “Rethinking Inequality” aims to do just this: namely, to foster discussion and debate among social scientists, philosophers, political theorists, and public policy analysts about the phenomenon of rising inequality in industrialized countries like Canada and the possible social, ethical, and political consequences of — and remedies to — this trend. To satisfactorily address some of the most important questions about rising inequality in rich countries today, it is apparent that we require an understanding of both the social and economic data on inequality as well as the relevant normative concerns at stake. Among the questions the workshop will pose, and which clearly demonstrate the need for both empirical and normative analysis, are the following: Is citizens’ political equality — their political participation as well as influence — compromised by economic inequality? Does growing income inequality affect the key measures of citizens’ social equality, such as comparable health and education outcomes (or fair access to healthcare and education)? And how does economic inequality and growing poverty impact other elements of a just and flourishing society, such as the level of social trust and sense of community?