John Rawls' Distributive Justice

notes on "The Rigorous Compassion of John Rawls" by Thomas Nagel, Atlantic Monthly 10.25.99


The Individual's Situation:


Random Luck places us in the political, social and economic situation into which we are born, but human choice created the structures which defined those situations.


Each person's prospects and opportunities in life are strongly influenced by the position into which he is born through no choice of his own: by his place in a political, social, and economic structure defined by the basic institutions of his society. This introduces a tremendous amount of luck into human life, but it is luck determined by institutions that are to some extent under human control. Being born the child of slaves or the child of slave-owners, the child of unskilled laborers or the child of wealthy entrepreneurs, is in a sense a matter of pure luck, but the institutions of slavery or capitalism are human creations. And so we can ask ourselves, as members of a society (and ultimately of a world order), whether the conditions for life governing good and bad luck that our institutions create are morally acceptable.


The Original Position:


Rawls imagines a situation which asks what self-interested people would agree to as the standard for evaluation of the basic structure of society, if they knew nothing about where they would end up in the social order. (The combination of self-interest and ignorance requires them to consider the interests of everyone.) Rawls concludes that they would give priority to protecting themselves against the worst possibilities, and that this would result in the choice of his two principles rather than a utilitarian standard that would maximize average expectations, perhaps at the cost of allowing a bigger spread from the least fortunate to the most fortunate.


The Difference Principle:


Rawls's conception of a just society is one of exceptional solidarity, in which the more fortunate are entitled to gain from the system only to the extent that this gain benefits the less fortunate. There is nothing intrinsically fair about the fact that people with scarce productive skills can command higher salaries than unskilled laborers who are a dime a dozen. His view is diametrically opposed to the common idea that people have a moral entitlement to what they can earn in a free market (and so redistributive taxation is taking away from them what is rightfully theirs). Inequalities can be justified under such a system, but they cannot be justified because the advantages to the better-off outweigh the disadvantages to the worse-off: they have to be optimal for the worst off.


"the restrictions which would so arise might be thought of as those a person would keep in mind if he were designing a practice in which his enemy were to assign him his place."


While people retain some control over their lives through the choices that they make against the background of social structure, the influence of the structure itself dominates Rawls's moral conception. Our social structure offers people very different possibilities, depending on their sex, their race, their religion, the class of their parents, and their ability or inability to acquire skills that command desirable rewards. People are not responsible for these facts about themselves, and Rawls's ideal of justice would minimize the disadvantage to members of a society caused by factors that are not their fault.


The Difference Principle is in stark opposition to another conception, superficially similar, that might also claim the title of fairness: namely, that the requirements of social justice are those that a person would keep in mind if he were designing a practice in which his place was going to be assigned to him at random, so that he had an equal chance, so to speak, of being anybody.


The most controversial implication of Rawls's outlook is that differences in ability, to the extent that they have genetic sources, do not in themselves justify differences in reward. We may need differential rewards for the talented and the productive, to provide incentives on which the system runs, but that is their only justification. They may be justified, that is, because the less gifted would be worse off under a more leveling type of regime, since productivity and efficiency would drop.


"We see then that the difference principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be."


"Thus the more advantaged representative man cannot say that he deserves and therefore has a right to a scheme of cooperation in which he is permitted to acquire benefits in ways that do not contribute to the welfare of others."


By giving strict priority to improving the situation of the least fortunate, Rawls opts for a radically egalitarian standard of social justice. This puts him, in politics, sharply to the left of center. At the same time, however, his insistence in the first principle on equal basic liberties that may not be infringed even for the purpose of promoting socioeconomic equality marks him clearly as belonging to the liberal tradition


The Utilitarian Response:


The utilitarian answer and its modern version, cost-benefit analysis: we should add up the pluses and the minuses and try to choose policies that produce the maximum amount of total benefit, aggregated from the advantages and the disadvantages to all persons affected. This method, Rawls has famously said, does not take seriously the distinction between persons.

In place of the indeterminate requirement that socioeconomic inequalities should be to everyone's advantage, he proposes that they are acceptable only if they cannot be eliminated without making the worst-off class even worse off. "The basic structure is perfectly just," he writes, "when the prospects of the least fortunate are as great as they can be."


The Problem of the State:


Deep inequalities built into a social and economic structure that is sustained by the power of the state present the greatest potential for unfairness


Pluralism with Regard to Religious Values


Pluralism with regard to ultimate values is inevitable-- religious disagreement being historically the most important form-- and that the attempt to impose a single comprehensive value system on a society inevitably results in oppression. He believes that justice requires fairness not only in the distribution of material and social advantages, but also toward different conceptions of the good. So the contractors in the Original Position are deprived of information about their full conception of the good life, and they must choose principles in light of the possibility that they might be anything from religious ascetics to atheistic libertines.