From #MeToo to mask-wearing, Americans seem to have disagreed about nearly everything these last several years. Penn State sociology professors John Iceland and Eric Silver want to help us understand why. In their new book, Why We Disagree About Inequality, Iceland, Silver, and co-author Ilana Redstone illustrate how they believe two opposing moral frameworks—one of social justice, the other of social order—provide a constant tension between those competing perspectives that they say is both necessary and misunderstood.

We recently sat down with Iceland and Silver to discuss how the book came to be and what they hope it will achieve.


PS: Tell us a bit about your research backgrounds and how the idea for this book came about.

JOHN ICELAND: I’m a sociologist and demographer, so a lot of my research looks at issues of inequality. But I became very interested in issues of polarization, people disagreeing about these issues, and what drives some of these differences. This is where our interests overlap quite a bit.

ERIC SILVER: My interests are in people’s moral beliefs and intuitions and how that shapes their attitudes towards everything. John and I had been in the same department for years but hadn’t really gotten to know each other until we both happened to step down from leadership roles about the same time, and we started having lunch together. John had been toying with the idea for this book, and then we came up with the overlay of social order and social justice as a succinct way of analyzing what’s happening in the world.

ICELAND: It was a fun process. We’d take walks and talk about these issues: “Hey, I read this. You should read it.” Some of the people we talk about in the first chapter—Arnold Kling, Thomas Sowell, Jonathan Haidt—were inspirations for this. Scholars had analyzed the polarization phenomenon using similar ideas that were not so easy to grasp. Haidt had talked about individual-focused morality and group-focused morality. Sowell had talked about constrained and unconstrained visions. It’s very awkward language. No one had used these labels before—social order, social justice. It’s very intuitive, and it can really help us understand disagreements.


PS: Can you walk us through the differences between these clashing worldviews, as you see them?

ICELAND: Social justice is primarily concerned with the plight of vulnerable individuals and freeing them from oppression. And social order balances that concern with social cohesion and social stability. So they both want a good and just and strong society, but their moral concerns look at how to achieve the best for most people in somewhat different places.

SILVER: From a social justice perspective, you’re basically filtering things as a conflict between oppressors and oppressed, and your heart is with the oppressed. Whereas on the social order side, your moral intuition is more about the need to maintain stability and order in society. You look at Black Lives Matter protests, and you understand that there are issues that need to be addressed, but you may not like riots [or] disrespect toward police. These things feel very destabilizing, and a person with a social order orientation tunes into that.


PS: Social justice proponents might hear that and say, Well, that’s the perspective of people who are likely very comfortable with the status quo. Of course you don’t want chaos, because the current order ...

SILVER: You’re benefiting from it.

PS: Right.

SILVER: Yeah. That would be from a social justice perspective, yes. It’s not necessarily true. There are many people in the United States who, for example, are working class and are attracted to political candidates who talk a lot about order. You could easily say, How can that be? They don’t benefit from those people being in power. So people can be very concerned with social disorder and not be in power.


PS: But power can be based on the agency or safety one has because of, say, the majority religion that’s in power, or the majority skin color that’s in power. One could argue that working-class people who align with the social order worldview see “social order” as absolutely keeping them in power in certain ways.

SILVER: True. But to make that argument you’ve got to bend the definition of “power” quite a bit. Poor and working-class folks are much more likely to live in neighborhoods where crime is a problem, for example. So when they vote for candidates who promise “law and order,” it may not be because they sense they will maintain or gain power. They may just want to feel safer and may view social order as a good way to get there. They may want to protect the status quo not because they stand to gain any real power from it, but because they fear that if they don’t, things could get worse for them.

ICELAND: One of the things that we also talk about is, you could see how social order tends to be more conservative, social justice more liberal or progressive, but they’re not synonymous with political parties. These are really drawn from moral intuitions, which lead people to favor what they believe produces the best kind of society.

SILVER: And they’ll flip. So when conservatives are in power, liberals are all about change, and link social justice to social change. But when liberals are in power, like perhaps today, then you have conservatives wanting change and wanting to disempower and disrupt. The “liberal” and “conservative” labels are not the same as social order and social justice. These are moral intuitions that are separate [from politics]. But once we politicize them [and] adopt the labels, we quickly forget how much we’re all concerned with social justice and social order. One of my favorite lines in the book is that “winning the argument is not the same thing as solving the problem.”

ICELAND: I think with polarization, people think the people on the other side are bad people. So those with a social justice worldview often think that people who come from a social order worldview are making bad-faith arguments or they’re selfish. Social order people are probably more likely to see people from the social justice side as well-meaning, but they would maybe apply the term “naïve” or “idealistic.” So they might point to places where they tried communism, which in many ways was trying to achieve equity along class lines, and say, It might be well-meaning, but it ends in disaster.

SILVER: This book is trying to point out the moral concerns on both sides. Once you see that the people on the other side are morally motivated, and that you might even share some of their concerns, our hope is that that can turn the temperature down a little bit on the kinds of disagreements that tend to happen when you ignore that. My other favorite line in the book is “each side possesses a wisdom the other lacks.”


PS: What do you think is the wisdom in each?

SILVER: On the social justice side, the wisdom is that we have to care for the vulnerable, that every society has injustice and people who suffer, and we have to keep that front and center. The social order side says, However good we want to be, we’re not going to accomplish anything if society is overrun with chaos. We have to maintain order in order to do good. I think most people see both and are more in the center. But the most vocal tend to be the most partisan, the most polar, and their messages are not nearly as nuanced as they should be. They lack the wisdom of the other side.


graphic comparing social justice and social order tenets


PS: You use this framework to analyze why Americans today disagree about four very specific issues: racial inequality, income inequality, gender inequality, and immigration. Why did you choose those?

ICELAND:  I think this framework could be extended to issues like criminal justice, but we wanted to make it more manageable and focus on issues we have more expertise in.


PS: Can you walk us through one of those issues? Immigration, for instance.

ICELAND: The perspectives typically have different views of fairness; freedom, choice, and responsibility; individual and group-based morality; and social change. Those from the social justice perspective see fairness as occurring when we have equality for different groups. So they favor increasing immigration and providing immigrants with more benefits. Those from the social order perspective see fairness in terms of equally applied rules and equal treatment of different people. They are especially concerned with illegal immigration, as undocumented immigrants are breaking the rules.

With regard to freedom, choice, and responsibility, social justice focuses on freedom from oppression. They want policies that help all immigrants, even undocumented ones, to reach their full potential. Social order, though, sees freedom, choice, and responsibility as the ability of people to pursue opportunities under a given set of rules. So they argue that noncitizens, and especially undocumented immigrants, are not entitled to the same rights and benefits as U.S. citizens.

When it comes to individual and group-based morality, social justice wants to care for weak and vulnerable individuals, so they support policies that are generous to all immigrants. Social order emphasizes the importance of social stability and cohesion of groups. They are concerned about the potential negative economic effect of immigration, as well as the assimilation of new immigrants.

When it comes to change, social justice favors far-reaching change that improves the lives of the less fortunate, so they favor increasing immigration and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Social order is fearful of the unintended consequences of rapid change. They don’t like policies that provide generous benefits to immigrants or amnesty for the undocumented, as this might result in new economic costs and lead to sharper social divisions.


PS: Did anything shift for you personally in terms of your perspectives or worldview in writing the book?

SILVER: I’ve come to appreciate social justice thinking more than when I started off, just by really looking at what the concerns are. It’s hard to do this kind of work and not find your own edges that need to be smoothed. One of the things it left me really believing is that we need more debate. I listen to podcasts, and I tend to go to ones that have opinions that I agree with. But the ones that I get the most out of, although they’re not as emotionally satisfying, is when somebody I like to hear debates with somebody who’s equally smart who’s got a different point of view. I end up leaving that experience less sure of myself, but feeling smarter. I also feel more compassionate toward the other side, more understanding.


PS: Was it difficult to find balanced studies and research data that illustrate both perspectives?

ICELAND: There is a decent amount of research that goes on in academia and at think tanks; some are more progressive, some more conservative. You’ll still find good empirical studies just stating facts. Oftentimes, it’s the way people interpret what they’re seeing. When you’re looking at racial inequality, for example, you’ll see well-known disparities between, on the one hand, Blacks and Latinos, and whites and Asians on the other, and it leads you toward, Hey, what are the oppressive forces at work here? And there are some. But then there are other facts that sometimes complicate things. If we’re living in a white supremacist society, why are Asians doing much better than everyone else? Why do we see variation in outcomes among Latino groups, like Chileans doing better than Mexicans? It makes you think that there likely are other factors at work—not to say that oppressive forces aren’t important, but there are clearly other things that help explain these kinds of patterns. But people tend to focus on the different kinds of facts that they pull out. In the book we talk about confirmation bias being a troubling issue.

SILVER: That’s what the book demonstrates in each of the chapters: That you can take the same census data, the same patterns, and if you have a social justice worldview, you’re going to say there’s gender inequality because there’s a glass ceiling, and women are held back and socialized to not strive, etcetera. If you have a social order worldview, you’re going to say women have different priorities than men and make different choices, and because of that, they end up prioritizing home and family over rising to the top of institutions as much as possible. Same data. There’s just nothing in the descriptive data that’s going to tell you which is right.


PS: How did you create checks and balances to counter your own worldviews in the framing and writing of this?

SILVER: That’s tricky. The challenge we put to ourselves is, can we articulate each side so that people on that side could recognize themselves and not think, “Oh, you just created some kind of straw man.” We check each other when we’re doing that kind of work.


PS: But isn’t that what you want? You write about the media’s role in fostering viewpoint diversity and trust in the news, and you suggest that before publication, journalists from different ideological perspectives should review one another’s work.

SILVER: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what we benefited from. [When you do that] two things can happen: They could either say “you’re getting my side wrong,” or “you’re not being as critical of the other side as I think you should be.” Right? And we got both kinds of comments when we asked people close to us to read parts of the book before it was published.


PS: You say there are more social scientists who orient their work and their perspectives from the social justice view than the social order view. Why do you think that is, and what do you see as the implications?

SILVER: I think the best explanation I’ve seen is, a lot of the elite colleges and universities tilt liberal, and a lot of the people who end up being the trendsetters in media and academia come from those kinds of settings. Some of it is probably temperamental, but I think it has to do with learning frameworks that privilege this oppressor-oppressed lens as the main way of understanding the world. And I think that has produced a lot of people who are now in a lot of places of influence.

ICELAND: I do wonder if sometimes the people who lead some of these institutions want to have a sense that they could reshape society in a better way. It’s a good impulse. I think that lends itself to a social justice point of view. Social order tends to be more skeptical, that we should have maybe a little more humility, that we should rely on the wisdom of the ages a little more and proceed slowly and with caution.

SILVER: There’s probably some good old-fashioned discrimination going on, too. It’s harder to be a conservative academic.

ICELAND: As sociologists, we’re doing something pretty out there. Even suggesting that you can put a social order and a social justice framework on an equal moral footing is itself a bit blasphemous. The move made in this book is unusual for our discipline and for probably most social scientists.

SILVER: I think a lot of social scientists look at inequality as if there’s a problem, right? Things aren’t equal. Whereas from a social order side, you’d ask, Why would you ever expect things to be equal? People are bringing different talents and motivations and abilities to their endeavors. If the system is judging them fairly, you should expect inequality.

ICELAND: This is where the tension between the two is helpful. Social justice checks the social order people from saying, Eh, things are the way they are; this hierarchy has always been. Just leave it that way. Sometimes you do have too much social order, hierarchies that are perpetuated over time by the powerful. And sometimes you might have too much social justice, in the sense that society starts devolving into some kind of chaos, maybe in the quest for some idealistic vision. So there’s wisdom in having a constant tension between each.


PS: In that sense, is it working? There’s a lot of checking going on. Are we getting anywhere collectively?

ICELAND: Where we could be way better is in the exchange of ideas. Polarization by definition signals a breakdown in the productive collaboration of folks on different sides. I think that’s one of the ideas that we’re trying to bring forward: It’s not enough to just have different ideas out there, if each side’s giving the other the silent treatment.


PS: Getting people to make that leap is tricky, particularly because both worldviews see so much at stake.

ICELAND: One of our hopes is that if you humanize the different points of view by showing that they have moral concerns that you might share, there’s a bridge that’s possible to be built. I’m not sure how else to get people to communicate, if not through empathy, and I don’t know how you get to empathy without seeing yourself in the other in some way.


PS: You also write about the need to cultivate critical thinking skills in the education system. I wondered if you’ve noticed a shift in that skill set over the years?

SILVER: One thing that I say out loud to students is that critical thinking is about more than criticizing other people’s thinking. That’s the easy part. The hard part is becoming aware of and critiquing your own point of view. The question becomes how to do that. I think the way that we most teach it is by embodying it. That’s the real challenge as a teacher, to talk about the different perspectives in a way that anybody who held any of the perspectives would go, Oh, he gets it.

ICELAND: That modeling part is also modeling how to disagree with each other; it isn’t an existential fight. We need to be able to talk to one another. And so I think that’s one thing that maybe some students aren’t used to, that sense that you don’t have to think the same things. You can talk about them. You might end up still disagreeing, but usually the person you’re talking to is not motivated by ill intentions or evil.

SILVER: I tell students that some of you will feel uncomfortable as we do it. That’s not a glitch; that’s actually a design feature when you look at problems from different moral perspectives. Some of you will be good at it. For others, it will be a new experience. One of the techniques we use is to just preface whatever you’re going to say with, “One could argue that …” It’s a way of trying to defuse the worry that they’re going to pay some kind of social cost for speaking an idea.

ICELAND: That’s the approach we’ve taken in the book itself, is “One can argue that …” and then we have these points.


illustration of two people standing on either side of deep crack in the ground, both looking up at an white-dotted outline of a bridge, by James Steinberg


PS: I was reading the book at a coffee shop downtown, and a woman came up to me and said, “Is that book as interesting as the title? Can it help? We need something.” I think that opinion is starting to rise up. People are sick of the nastiness and name-calling.

ICELAND: It feels like things were at a fever pitch over several years for a variety of reasons. I think now, people are not looking for that as much. I think they’re maybe exhausted, to some extent. And we’re just hoping to get a conversation going so we can talk about important issues productively.


PS: Eric, your class on morality, Knowing Right From Wrong, draws 700-plus students each semester. Why do you think it’s become so popular?

SILVER: I was surprised there was so much interest in the topic, though I do think the title is a draw. I’m amazed at how much students want to think about their own moral codes, how much they want to hear about other people’s way of looking at things. We talk about everything from philosophy to neuroscience to group dynamics, and how they all influence morality. Their assignment for this week is to say whether they think viewpoint diversity should be considered as equal to other kinds of diversity—gender, race, class. In other words, should it be protected in the workplace?


PS: With no constraints?

SILVER: Well, with no ability to be discriminated against. So if you’re conservative in a liberal environment, should you be as protected as you are if you were a woman in an all-male environment? Students really like not only answering the question, but also hearing each other’s answers.

ICELAND: Part of the challenge is thinking about, are there any limiting principles? Do we draw lines at some point?


PS: Right—when is something hate speech, and who deems it that?

ICELAND: Yeah. And people will, I’m sure, draw lines in very different places.