How fair is Rawls Difference Principle?

Rawls identifies the difference principle as social and economic inequalities, attached to the condition that these inequalities ‘are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society’ (Rawls, 2001, 43). Contextualised within the framework of the two principles of justice as follows;

  • First principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
  • Second principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

(Rawls, 1972:60)

The difference principle, in accordance with Rawls principles of justice, should be understood to only apply to major social institutions as outlined: political constitution, principle economic and social arrangements, legal protection, competitive markets, private property rights, means of production and the monogamous family (Rawls, 1972:6) Major institutions define men’s rights and duties and influence their life prospects; what they can expect to be and how well they can hope to do. (Rawls, 1972:7) Cohen reminds us that ‘the demands placed by justice on the government do not belong on the backs of individuals; as such: individuals discharge those demands collectively, through the government which seeks to represent them’ (Cohen, 2000:2)

Wolff interprets Brian Barry’s notion of fairness as ‘what can be agreed in by equally well-placed parties’ (Wolff, 1998:37)

To address the issue of fairness in relation to the difference principle it is vital that ‘fair’ is provided a definition. Fair, not explicitly defined by Rawls, and attracts subjective associations. Broome, 1990, assets that ‘fair’, when attributed to distribution of goods, is connected to ideas of utility, teleology, claim, desert, need and side constraints such as ‘rights’, all of which should be ‘satisfied in proportion to their strength’ (Broome, 1990:95). This understanding of ‘fair’ provides a definition commonly ascribed when considering individuals. Fair, when considering the difference principle should consider fairness of distribution when distribution is between the state and the individual or between the state and the major institutions as identified by Rawls in ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1972). Fair, from this alternative locus, can be conceived as an exchange or desert following an individual’s social

Within the work, A Theory of Justice, Rawls clearly identifies that the difference principle exists within the framework of the theory of justice when stating on p.108 that ‘in discussions so far I have considered the principles which apply to institutions, or more exactly, to the basic structure of society’ (Rawls, 1972:108)…… Rawls goes on to explicitly state that ‘fairness is a ‘principle that applies to individuals’ (Rawls, 1972:111)

Scheffler reminds us that we should not assume ’that the principles of justice that are appropriate for the basic structure can also serve to regulate individual conduct in general (Scheffler, 2006:103).

Rawls doesn’t offer a definition of fair, other than to state that ‘one may think of justice as fairness and rightness as fairness’ (Rawls, 1972:111)….I shall try to use this principle to account for all requirements that are obligations as distinct from natural duties. This principle holds that a person is required to do his part as defined by the rules of an institution when two conditions are met: first, the institution is just (or fair), that is it satisfies the two principles of justice; and second, one has voluntarily accepted the benefits of the arrangement or taken advantage of the opportunities it offers of further one’s interest (Rawls, 1972:111-2)

The two principles of justice define what is a fair share in the case of institutions belonging to the basic structure… now by definition the requirements specified by the principle of fairness are the obligations. All obligations arise in this way. It is important, however, to note that the principle of fairness has two parts, the first which states that the institutions or practices in question must be just…… by the principle of fairness it is not possible to be bound by unjust institutions (Rawls, 1972:112) Rawls believes that is a ‘mistake to argue against justice as fairness and contract theories generally that they have the consequence that citizens are under an obligation to unjust regimes which coerce their consent or win their tacit acquiescence in more refined ways (Rawls, 1972:112)….characteristic features of obligations….acts may be the giving of express or tacit undertakings, such as promises and agreements but they need not be, as in the case of accepting benefits. Further, the content of obligation is always defined by an institution or practice the rules of which specify that it is that one is required to do. And finally, obligations are normally owed to definite individuals, namely those who are cooperating together to maintain the arrangement in question (Rawls, 1972:113) Rawls believes that no political obligations apply to individuals ‘strictly speaking’ (Rawls, 1972:114) Fairness can be linked to the social contract (XXXX) through understanding the relationship between the individual and the state this brings. The relationship Individual = Taxation and obeying rules — state = offers protection from internal and external threats in enable maximisation of individual potential —- this contract implicitly states that both sides will behave fairly by adhering to the agreed terms. This fairness is exercised by the state through protection of those perceived as the least advantaged.

Hampsher-Monk interprets Hobbs as first establishing the social contract, and the link between rule and protection, going further to state that ’for Hobbes it derives from the same reciprocal relationship between obedience and protection which underlies political obedience’ (Hampsher-Monk, 1992:37) The principle of fairness, which accounts for all our voluntarily incurred obligations and the principle governing the natural duty of justice. This duty, rawls says, requires us to support and to comply with just institutions that exist and apply to use (Rawls, 1972:115)

This essay will argue that the difference principle is predominately fair when applied to major institutions, as Rawls intended, while using adherence to the social contractual to define fair in relational terms. Firstly, the essay will consider the benefits to the greater good which result from the inequality permitted. This will be followed by exploration of egalitarian claims that any permitted inequality is negative; before addressing libertarian interpretations of fairness.

Para 1 400 benefits of the greater good resulting from permitted inequality

Egalitarians require consistency - which incorporates the reason the egalitarians would give in support of their belief in equality. Inequality is unjust (Cohen, 2000:11) It is not always a matter of justice, inequality destroys community (Cohen, 2000:11)

Egalitarian redistribution is required not by justice, or to overcome division, but because it is desirable that every person has a good life, or that as many as possible do (Cohen, 2000:12)

Comprehensive state egalitarian redistribution is required to promote that good: whole society must be behind it to create the system (Cohen, 2000:12)

Distinguish between egalitarian principles which locate value in equality property so called, which is a relation between what different people get, and which is strictly indifferent to how much they get, and egalitarian principles , like Rawls’s difference principle, which affirm not, strictly speaking, equality itself, but a policy of rendering the worst sort of people as well off as possible. We can call the first sort ‘relational egalitarians’ and the second ‘prioritarians’, since they assign priority to improving the condition of the worst off (Cohen, 2000:15-6). It seems likely, however, that those who are endowed with talents which are much in demand will receive less in a society governed by Rawls difference principle, than they would of allowed to press for all they could get on a free market. Thus in a Rawlsian society these people will be asked to accept less than they might otherwise have had, and there is a clear sense in which they will be asked to accept these smaller shares for the sake of others. What then can be said to these people?? (Scanlon,1975:198)…….. Rawls response is considered incomplete by Scanlon, when Rawls states ‘the well-being of the better endowed, no less than that of the other members of society, depends on the existence of social cooperation, and that they can ask for the willing cooperation of everyone only if the terms of the scheme are reasonable….the difference principle Rawls holds…. ‘the basis of this conception lies not in a particular bias in favour of the less advantages but the idea that economic institutions are reciprocal arrangements for mutual advantage in which the parties cooperate on a footing of equality’ (Scanlon, 1975:199)

Scanlon states that ere is a system of inequalities which is just only if we can say to each person on the society that ‘eliminating the advantages of those who have more than you would not enable us to improve the lot of any or all of the people in your position. Thus it is unavoidable that a certain number of people will have expectations no greater than yours, and no fairness is involved in your being one of these people. The requirement is that this can be said to every member of society, and not just the worst off group (Scanlon, 1975:197)

Identifying the worst off can be achieved by including everyone whose income is no greater than the average income of persons in the lowest relevant social position, or alternatively everyone with less than half the median income and wealth in society (Rawls, 1972:98)

“the difference principle marks the limits of acceptable inequality” (Scanlon, 1975:200)

Scanlon finds the central thesis underlying the difference principle is the idea that the basic institutions of society are a cooperative enterprise in which the citizens stand as equal partners (Scanlon, 1975:204)

Cohen doubts that collective responsibility for distributive justice can be passed to the people ‘if an obligation to enforce equality comes from a right to rule, why should that obligation lie on the people as a whole who might not after all assert that right (Cohen, 2000:19)

Even if the power inequality really is the fundamental injustice, it hardly follows that the unequal distribution of income that derives from it is also unjust (Cohen, 2000:19)

Wolff suggests that justice should be considered as relative to contribution providing the basic notion of fair return (opposed to impartiality or reciprocity (Wolff, 1998:38)…. Justice as impartiality and justice as reciprocity are quite distinct – the main distinction being, that while reciprocity distributes according to contribution, impartiality investigates the question of what enables individuals to make a contribution. Justice as reciprocity, in contrast to justice as impartiality share with justice as mutual advantage the feature that those with nothing to contribute, such as the handicapped, are excluded from the concerns of justice (Wolff, 1998,39)

Para 2 400 exploration of egalitarian claim that any inequality is negative

Rawls himself identifies the difference principle as a ‘strongly egalitarian concept ion in the sense that unless there is a distribution that makes both people better off, an equal distribution is to be prefered’ (Rawls, 1972:76)

Nozick speaks of Thomas Scanlon who states that ‘there is no plausible principle which is distinct from the difference principle and intermeditatie between it and strict equality’.. how can it be that no plausible egalitarian principle short of absolute equality would exclude great inequalities in order to achieve a slight benefit for the worst off representative man? For the egalitarian, inequality is a cost, a minus-factor. The strict egalitarian doesn’t allow any inequality at all, treating the cost of inequality as infinite. The difference principle allows any amount of this cost provided there is some benefit to the woest-off group, however small. This doesn’t treat inequality as aa significant cost—an inequality is justified only if its benefits outweigh its costs (Nozick, 1974:210) Para 3 400 libertarian interpretations of fairness Nozick states that ‘the complete principle of distributive justice would say simply that a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution’ (Nozick, 1974:151)

The principle of fairness, holds that when a number of persons engage in a just, mutually advantageous, cooperative venture according to rules and thus restrain their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission. Acceptance of benefits (even when this is not a giving of express of tacit under-taking to cooperate) is enough, according to this principle, to bind one. If one adds to the principle of fairness the claim that the others to whom the obligations arising under this principle (including the obligation to limit one’s own actions), then groups of people in a state of nature who agree to a procedure to pick these to engage in certain acts will have legitimate rights to prohibit ‘free riders’ (Nozick, 1974:90)

Nozick states that ‘at the very least one wants to build into the principle of fairness the condition that the benefits to a person from the actions of the others are greater than the costs to him of doing his share…. (Nozick, 199-74:94) Rawls procedure is designed to establish all facts about justice; there is no independent notion of entitlement, not provided by his theory…..but we do not need any particular theory …..rawls does not consider historical-entitlement …since no glimmer of entitlement theory is built into the structure of the situation of persons in the original position there is no way there principles can be selected (Nozick , 1974:203-4)

Rawls principles of justice are actually process principles rather than end statements of distributive justice. They specify an on-going process, without fixing how it is to turn out, without providing some external patterned criterion it must meet… the difference principle fixes how the on-going process is to turn out and provides an external patterned criterion it must meet – any process is rejected which fails to meet the test of the criterion. The mere fact that a principle regulates an on-going institutional process does not make it a process principle (Nozick, 1974:208)

Contract arguments embody the assumption that anything that emerges from a certain process is just (Nozick, 1974:208) The difference principle is organic. If the least well-off group and their holdings are delete from a situation , there is no guarantee that the resulting situation and distribution will maximise the position of the new least well off group. Perhaps the new bottom group could have more if the top group had even less – although no way to transfer for the top group to the previous bottom (Nozick, 1974:209)

Since inequalities in economic position often have led to inequalities in political power, may not greater economic advantage and a more extensive state as a means of achieving it, be needed and justified in order to avoid the political inequalities with which economic inequalities are often correlated? Economically well-off persons desire greater political power, in a nominal state, because they can use this power to give themselves differential economic benefits. Where the locus of power exists, it is not surprising that people attempt to use it for their own ends. The illegitimate use of a state be economic interests for their own ends is based upon a pre-existing illegitimate power of the state to enrich some persons at the expense of others XXXXXXXXX (Nozick, 1974:272)

A state preserves and protects a process that works out with people having different holdings would be sufficient to condemn it as non-neutral only if there were no independent justification for the rules and prohibitions it enforces…. The person who claims that the minimal state is non-neutral cannot sidestep the issue of whether its structures and the content if its rules is independently justifiable (Nozick, 1974:273)

In conclusion, much of the criticism levied against the fairness of the difference principle is founded upon the application of the principle to individuals as opposed to institutions this can be dismissed as it was not the intention laid out by Rawls, despite these

The concept of fairness, when applied within the context of institutions is based upon societies and individuals By being a citizen of the state there exists an implicit contract in which the relationship between the individual and state is one which legitimises the taxation in exchange for protection which includes

  • Fairness
  • Claim, desert, utility, right = individual – emotional involvement /subjective
  • Social contract – objective
  • Society opposed to individuals lack the emotional attachment which creates a clear concept of fairness


  • Broome, J (1990) ‘Fairness’, Proceeding of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 91, pp.87-101.
  • Barry, B (1973) ‘John Rawls and the Priority of Liberty’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 2:3, pp. 274-290.
  • Cohen, G.A (2000) ‘If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re so Rich?’, The Journal of Ethics, Vol.4 Rights, Equality, and Liberty Universidad Torcuato Di Tella Law and Philosophy *Lectures 1995-1997 (Jan-Mar 2000), pp.1-26.
  • Hampsher-Monk, I (1992) A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Thinkers from Hobbs to Marx, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.
  • Nozick, R (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.
  • Rawls, J (1972) A Theory of Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Rawls, (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Scanlon, T. M (1975) ‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice’, Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Daniels, N (ed.), Chapter 8, pp.169-205, Stanford, Stanford University Press.
  • Scheffler, S (2006) ‘Is the Basic Structure Basic?’, The Egalitarian Conscience: Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen, Sypnowich, C (ed.), Chapter 6, pp.102-129, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Wolf, J (1998) ‘Rational, Fair and Reasonable’, Impartiality, Neutrality and Justice: Re-reading Brian Barry’s Justice as Impartiality, Kelly, P (ed.), Chapter 3, pp.35-43, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.


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