The Philosophy Cafe


"A Philosophical Look At Inequality"


January 18, 2012
8:30 PM ET


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7:30-9:30 pm, in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.


Topic of discussion for January:

How can philosophy help us examine issues of economic equality, inequality, liberty and fairness?  Can philosophy give us tools to move discussion forward when people disagree?  Come to the January Philosophy Café meeting to engage in a philosophical discussion about inequality.

  • Is inequality of wealth and income itself a bad thing?  Why or why not?  Is there a degree of inequality that is inherently unacceptable?
  • IF YOU COULD BE SURE that differences in earnings purely reflected differences in effort and productivity, would there be anything wrong with an unequal distribution of income? 
  • Is inequality in a wealthy country as much of a problem as inequality in a country where large segments of society cannot meet their basic needs?
  • What do the phrases "distribution of income" and "re-distribution of income" suggest to you?   Are there different words that can help reframe the debate?
  • What do the concepts “liberalism,” “libertarianism” and “liberty” have in common with respect to approaches to income and wealth? 
  • What is the difference between how philosophers and economists/social scientists approach questions of inequality?  Does philosophy offer approaches or tools that can help to move discussion forward when people disagree?
  • In the approaches described below, what are the underlying ideas about human nature, motivation, fairness, purpose, society and markets?  What other assumptions and philosophical approaches can we propose?


Two Approaches

1. Ayn Rand – Wealth and income inequality is just and also good for society

Ayn Rand proposed that progress is due almost entirely to a gifted elite and that it is unjust and shortsighted to limit their earnings.   She would suggest that it would be unjust because they actually created the wealth through their talent and skill. The wealth would simply not exist otherwise.   And it would be shortsighted because their earnings are most efficiently used when the earnings remain in their control of this talented group; the earnings represent the capital which ultimately creates the amenities the whole society enjoys.

2. Rousseau; Dewey – Society should address social and economic inequality

In “Discourses on the Origins of Inequality” (1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared social inequality to be the result of the movement of the human race away from the natural equality found in a harmonious state of nature.  His solution is the “social contract” in which the general will of the people addresses social and economic concerns. 

John Dewey suggested that freedom and individual liberty can be sustained only within a social structure that promotes the well-being of the whole; not solely the pursuit of self-interest. In “The Public and its Problems” (1927) Dewey wrote about the need for the public to take action to address social well-being and identified “externalities”in which private transactions harm the general public.


Recommeded Readings:

Readings on Rand, Rousseau and Dewey:


Statistics about the distribution of income and wealth:

Who Rules America:

Congressional Budget Office Report:

NY Times Visual:


Language and Frames of Thinking:

Frances Moore Lappe:

The Role of Government in the Economy; Poverty and Inequality:


Council for Economics Education: Role of Government and Market Failure:

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

General Info
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