David asked:

I have a question about the implications of John Rawls’ two ‘principles of justice’ namely:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

My question concerns the second part of principle 2. Suppose there is a social or economic inequality which, if allowed, would reduce the wellbeing of the worst off 1 per cent of society by (say) 1 per cent, but would increase the wellbeing of everyone else by (say) 10 per cent. Suppose this inequality has not much to do with the principle 1. Would it be disallowed under Rawls’ theory?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The questioner here is focussing upon Rawls’ ‘difference principle’ which may be understood quite simply as a mechanism whereby any moves to benefit society must principally benefit the disadvantaged sectors of society. In A Theory of Justice (1999 Belknap Press) Rawls states that:

“An inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity” (p.  266).

Taken at face value, we should really consider the least advantaged to hold a veto over society. For any planned move, if least advantaged’s position does not improve, then the move should not go ahead.

Hence, the suggestion here would almost certainly be disallowed in any form of Rawlsian governance. The suggestion is seemingly grafting a form of utilitarianism onto the second principle whereby the whole stock of goods in a society increases and the average holding would increase. Rawlsian philosophising moved away from the existing utilitarian distributions of goods.

That said, actually measuring how the least advantaged’s position has improved may provide some practical problems and Rawls himself suggested at least two measures: In illustrating the difference principle via the ‘distribution of income’ (pp. 67-68), should it be gauged in terms of monetary improvement? Or should it be measured over  longer timescale where the ‘appropriate expectation in applying the difference principle is that of the long-term prospects of the least favored extending over future generations’ (p. 252).

An interesting essay by Christopher Heath Wellman entitled ‘Justice’, that differentiates between differing types of distributions in society, including Rawls and Utilitarianism, may be found in The Blackwell Guide to Social and Political Philosophy.