Suppose a society with three classes of people. A are the very well-off, B are well-off, C are worst-off. The distribution of this classes is shown in the following triangle.

enter image description here

As you see, there is no enough space in B for the people in C, most of the people is condemned to be worst-off.

No matter how effort is spend in C, there is no room in B. The same for B, there is not enough room to be in A.

Going from an upper level to a lower level is very rare, almost impossible.

So, no matter how hard people in C work, there is no room in B for them.

How this can be just? In essence, the well being of a few depends on the ill-being of the majority. This is the kind of society we live.

Now, to consider a society like this:

enter image description here

There is plenty of room in B for people in C if they work hard. The same for B going to A. This society should be more just since if C people make the effort the would go to B, eventually, if all work hard there would be no inequality, all will go to A, but societies are not like this.

Do you know philosophers who explore this line of reasoning?


  • 1
    What is the logic behind the existence of the second system, where somehow over half of society could live like the rich? If things were distributed more evenly, likely everyone would move toward the mean. Obviously technology and efficient usage of materials and labour could improve efficiency, but it still makes little sense to say the lower classes could simply move toward an imaginary "open space" above.
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 15:18
  • 4
    There is nothing remotely like this in any society I know of. In Western societies, people move up and down class regularly, and the economies are usually expanding so the entire population is regularly moving up in absolute wealth. Excluding the homeless (which is a small population mostly caused by drugs and mental illness), the poorest people today live better than the richest people of a hundred years ago. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 17:48
  • 1
    What you describe is a Zero-sum game Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 18:19
  • 1
    You may find this SEP entry on Game Theory helpful. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:35
  • 6
    @DavidGudeman "Excluding the homeless (which is a small population mostly caused by drugs and mental illness)" this is simply false. See for example. Please avoid making such dangerous and unfounded assertions.
    – Johan
    Commented Mar 10 at 4:11

7 Answers 7


This is the kind of society we live.

It isn't, unless you live in a society with a caste system enforced by the threat of violence, rather than a society with ordinary wealth inequality and functioning contract law.

This question reflects a very common mistake: treating temporary descriptions of individuals as permanent characteristics of individuals.

Let's take wealth, for example.

There are 10 A's, 100 B's, and 1000 C's. The A's each have 3.3% of the total money, the B's each have 0.33% of the total money, and the C's each have 0.033% of the total money. Clearly, there cannot be 1110 A's, or even 370 A's, 370 B's, and 370 C's. We might guess that going from C to A is almost impossible. But let's examine what assumptions we need to make for that to be true.

  • A's don't die.
  • A's don't become B's.
  • A's and B's don't become C's.

These are all false. People die, people retire and disperse their wealth, people make investments, and some investments fail.

If you want to keep a single fact in mind which will blow up the mistaken intuition, just remember that most people who are currently attending a postgraduate program at Harvard are the poorest of the poor if you measure wealth or income. They have negative wealth (much debt, no assets) and negative income (their debt is increasing).

In reality, B's routinely become temporary C's, in hopes that they (benefiting from investments) or their children (benefiting from their investments in education or patronage systems) will become A's. C's routinely become B's, simply by virtue of staying in the workforce for few decades and accumulating skills and investments. A's routinely become B's and C's as they make investments. Usually they become A's again afterwards, but sometimes the investments fail and they stay B's and C's. Everybody dies, and when A's and B's die, they disperse their wealth.

If we want to know about the justice or the health of a wealth distribution, the raw facts of the current wealth distribution tells us almost nothing. Any healthy society has wealth and income inequality, if for no other reason than that babies don't pop out of birth canals with mid-level careers and full bank accounts. We can make some statements about fringe cases. For example, we can have an obligation to keep the poor from starving, and a fear of what happens when too much wealth is concentrated among too few people. But to know about justice and economic health, we need to know factors like economic mobility, wealth at a given age, how long it takes for concentrated wealth to disperse, etc.


No. The economy is not a zero-sum game. The zero-sum game only favours plutocrats and dictators. The answer is democracy and progressive taxation.


The problem is that this model is likely too simplistic.

First of all you might realize that your model is largely relative and qualitative. So you make some qualitative statements like "well-off" "less well-off" and "worst-off" and they reveal some relative hierarchy between the parts: A > B > C. But... what exactly does that mean?

Like are we talking "1 billion", "1 billion - $1" and "1 billion - $2" or are we talking about 1 billion, 1 million and 1 thousand? Both of these would be covered by "well-off", "less well-off" and "worst-off", but their implication for society would be completely different. I mean all of these values are entirely fictitious and they themselves would be meaningless without a cost of living in comparison, but you might already see the difference between a triangle that is almost a flat line in the first case and a rather steep pyramid in the second case.

Also why 3 groups? I mean it's often used for simplicity, but depending how steep the slope, the bottom and top of one group are so far apart that speaking of them as just one group doesn't quite cut it. Not to mention that a triangle is continuous so any dividing line is kinda arbitrary as the bottom part of one group is much closer to the top part of the lower one than to it's own top part. They it would make more sense to group those together but if you do that, you could make up infinitely many groups.

And as said while they all these things qualitatively describe an inequality, the quantitative side really matters. Like given a hard deck cost of living of, e.g. $2000 the last group would be already struggling financially and/or medically. Unable to sustain their financial existence without going into debt, unable to cover rent, food, health expenses, so each day brings them closer to death and bankruptcy and at a much faster pace than any of the other groups, which makes a huge difference.

But even if we assume a cost of living of 1 cent per day, so that even the $1000 people would be able to sustain a living for 277 years before getting into financial trouble (with no additional income). Even then the quantitative difference or at least the steepness of the curve can make a huge difference.

Edit:Also let's not forget about the issue with working. So even if the material conditions are there, someone has to put them into a form that they are consumable. So people need to invest that kind of work which is time taken from their days and lives and the power to tell people to do that, not having to do that or refusing to do that, is again power

Like on top of an absolute cost of living, meaning the covering of material necessities, you also have social necessities. Like at the very least you need to have time to socialize with other people, you need to make experiences to have something interesting to talk about, you need to keep up with the Zeitgeist or have the luxury of ignoring it and still be fine. And so on so depending on the pay wall cost of those you might still be below the de fact cost of living. I mean capitalism has made it a legit issue of bullying if you can't afford the right proper type of cloth and change your "style" on a whim. Meaning you can end up in a situation where you need things despite not needing them.

And these things can matter a whole lot. I mean humans are social animals and the more complex our machines, models and societies become the less likely it is possible to live "self-sustaining" but you are in need of other people. Like even simple products like nails often come with a supply chain of thousands if not millions of people, who collect, harvest, exploit materials, process them, design the form and function, manufacture them, move them from A to B, stock up on them, stand available to supply you with them and so on and on and on. So the idea of the isolated individual who does things all by themselves is just ridiculous we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants both in terms of what tools we use and also in terms of how we use them.

So whether you are "part of the team" and "allowed to wield the tools" or whether you are alone and on the other end of a tool, that can very well be a weapon matters ... like a lot.

Or just think about what it means when money relates to "stuff and favors" and stuff and favors have a fixed price but you have an unequal distribution of money. So suppose $50 = 1h of work. Then the guy with the billions could ask for favors to the tune of ten thousands lifetimes of people, while the person with the $1000 could even hire someone for a regular work week. So thing of the magnitude of projects that these people can tackle with their money. So this is not just a question of how well off they are, it's a question of power and influence in society.

Like if you are that rich people might cater specifically to you in order to gain a share of your wealth and if you show a favorable or disfavorable view on something, that can make or break the financing of and issue. If you want to go into politics you could have 10,000 people rep for you, while on the other hand a poor person without much money isn't worth customizing products for if they can't pay for them anyway, they aren't known and might not be able to make themselves known, whether they agree or disagree matters as much as anybody else but not more and so on. So relative poverty and rampant inequality can be an issue for democracy and the stability of society even if they are not life threatening (yet) to the individual in terms of material necessities.

But I mean it is possible that even in the richest countries where it is technically possible to cover for the material necessities of every citizens that the rich people or even times actually the middle class people throw the poor people under the bus in order to cater to the rich and be rewarded for their obedience.

Also you should think about what the "space" in your model actually refers to. Like you have 2 relevant parameters one is the total area of your box or triangle. Which is the total of the material and immaterial goods of your society and the other is the form in which you press it so whether it's a triangle a square a line and so on.

And where the form again has qualitative and quantitative features. Like you can have perfect equality if no one has anything, but that's a state of being that no one wants to be in. On the other hand at least for a short while people can be fine with inequality as long as their needs are met. Now as said in the long run that will deteriorate because inequality in one domain usually leads to inequality in other domains and leads to classes and castes and with disproportional levels of freedom and agency, social tensions arise which either need to be mitigated by changes to the inequality, by suppressing the dissent or by revolting against the system.

So in this regard you really need a qualitative axis because material equality is problematic in it's own right as for example having glasses or not having glasses (for your eyesight) for all people is both nonsense as there are people who need them and those who don't. Also any kind of progress involves prototyping which would at least temporarily result in having better or worse tech than the rest. Any kind of project and investment is likely to set up the leader or even the collective of people atop or below the rest of the people (depending on whether their enterprise succeeds or fails or whether they got additional funds from others and are now sitting on powerful machines and rich supply or not).

So unless you preach a philosophy of stagnation, which I'm not sure is even possible as even if you remain stagnant the world adapts to you and will change so that in turn you'd again be forced to adapt to that and so on, you'd always have at least some form of inequality and for some time.

Though again the qualitative side of that matters quite a lot. So how big is that inequality, for how long does it persist, is it voluntary or involuntary, is it negotiable, what means do you have to mitigate it, is it at least balanced with other inequalities, is that balancing sufficient, are there resets or is it allowed to snowball?

So this really is a more complex problem and while it's possible to draw these easy shapes they are not showing you the whole thing.

Like for sure as long as there is movement someone will be able to draw such a triangle and argue that if they kill the peak and redistribute they will be better off and they would. Though for how long. Like this would get into the domain of game theory and zero-sum-games (where you can only win something when someone else loses something). Though as said before there are 2 parameters one is the form or the distribution of stuff the other is the amount of stuff and ideally you'd have a form of equality and a size of "enough". And to achieve that is the socio-economic-political challenge of humanity and a solution is yet to be found.


You cannot have meaningful economic fairness without freedom

It's not as unrealistic as some suggest (e.g. Marx divided society into three classes: proletarian, bourgeois, and those between the two), and I don't think progressive taxation is a cure-all for problems of economic freedom and fairness in society, that it lacks a distinct nuance to claim that evening things out is sufficient for human flourishing.

Because the ideal of social mobility is not not quite right, a tiered system with more variation to its proportions, even social mobility without as much social/downward drift (which seemed to be the point of your graph?), isn't everything.

Ideal happiness is more anarchic, involves freedom (ask any honest bourgeois person), just without the yoke of capitalism.

  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Mar 12 at 21:58
  • @Community bit confused what you mean here. i think you should learn to use the right tags
    – user73019
    Commented Mar 13 at 0:17
  • @CLEMON No Marx argued that the mode of production would create exactly 2 classes proletariat and bourgeoisie, because the mass production would be faster and more efficient kicking any small and medium sized businesses out of the market or condemning them to marginalized niche existences that would be irrelevant and sooner or later get big or seize to exist. Hence the erosion of the "middle class" for him was more or an inevitable progression of capitalism. Until the ever growing and paupering proletariat would rise up.
    – haxor789
    Commented Mar 13 at 10:31
  • @CLEMON So the myth of the "middle class" and "from the homeless to the billionaire we are all middle class" is sort of a either an honest or dishonest attempt to either mitigate the worst illnesses of capitalism or save it's existence as a system of inequality by fooling the people about their actual position in the system.
    – haxor789
    Commented Mar 13 at 10:33
  • idk @haxor789 so petite bourgeois are bourgeois? maybe
    – user73019
    Commented Mar 13 at 12:31

My three cents.

Even if a certain society is stratified to such a degree in 3 classes A, B, C with no option of restructuring itself, still injustice and unhappiness of its people do not necessarily follow.

The reason is that who is at any given time in A, B or C can change (eg by taking turns) thus the merits and drawbacks, related to each class, can be fairly distributed among all.

Historical stratified societies (eg caste systems) consider this stratification as both natural and immutable in the sense that one cannot change the class one has been assigned to.

This, to the greatest extend, is maintained by manipulating people's perception of reality through ideological mechanisms in order to present that state of affairs as given, natural and immutable. In cases where ideology fails to keep dissent in check, brute force is used.

Brute force cannot be used and maintained for long and/or widely, so necessarily the status quo in these societies is mostly maintained by being able to enforce a dominant ideology which makes oppression seem natural and unavoidable.

Same reasoning of naturalness and immutability has been used by any social system in history which sought to maintain a certain status quo of exploitation of some human beings by other human beings.

When technique and conditions were able to produce surplus products then it became possible for society to be stratified in such ways since then some could take that surplus product, and the value it could represent, for themselves at the expense of others.

PS: Starting with Marx and Engels (and even before them), up to Gramsci and Althusser (and after them), a plethora of people studying sociology and political economy have grappled with these issues.


No, I don't know any philosopher who models alternative societies as three shapes containing people classed by wealth, with or without room for additional people.


"How this can be just?" - What makes you think that the creator intended this world to be just? Don't you think that if this world were 'just' we would still be living in the caves, or even worse, sitting in the trees? The main goal of this world (in my view) is to generate human energy, to force people to jump over their heads and achieve some progress. To this goal, justice can only be a byproduct, not the goal.

  • Overproducing and yet more than half population starving or not enjoying the benefits can be called "progress" only by twisting the meaning completely. Unless one "creates" god "in the image" of exploiters, there is no excuse for it.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Mar 13 at 11:01
  • @NikosM. - To enjoy something, you have to earn it (from the Matrix point of view). And if someone might think he works hard and deserves something good in life, you might be fooling yourself. As an example, nowadays in the US, if you cannot use your brains for living, you might not find a happy life. Is it fair? It is a totally irrelevant question. What the Matrix expects of someone has nothing to do with 'relevance'. Commented Mar 14 at 4:08

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