Rawls and justifiable inequality

Isaiah asked:

When discussing Rawls, do you believe that some inequality is justifiable in order to maximise the well-being of the worst off?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Life is full of inequality and whether one accepts this, wishes to eradicate this, or wishes to mitigate this, will depend upon one’s personal viewpoint. Rawls wished to lessen the inequality of societies and his stance is now explained.

If we accept that the worst off are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, as Rawls did, then many would feel obliged to tackle this problem. Rawls’ feelings upon the matter are explained in great detail in his book entitled A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999: 57-73): in particular, Rawls considered distributions of material wealth based upon talent to be unreasonable and he justified this position by describing how talent is distributed by a ‘natural lottery’ and how ‘this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective’ (Rawls 1999: 64).

In tackling the problem, Rawls offered his difference principle, which may be viewed as a device that allows the most favoured groups to benefit from their talents provided any social and economic inequalities are ‘to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged’ (Rawls 1999: 266). Rawls effectively helps the worst off by harnessing persons’ collective desires to better themselves and maintains a profit motive within society in order to do this.

As already noted, individuals will have very differing views as to whether this is the correct approach to take and many other schools of political philosophy are highly critical of Rawls and a few of their views are now aired. Libertarians would number amongst the critics, and Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia felt that Rawls erroneously viewed the ‘natural abilities’ of the individual as a ‘collective asset’ (Nozick 1974: 228-9). Libertarians may wish to increase the level of the profit motive in order to benefit society; based on the rationale that more goods will be available to society if the talented can exercise their talents fully. Whilst at the other end of the political spectrum, many communitarians would favour a system where the least talented are incorporated within working life: as opposed to being assured an improvement in their well-being due to their disadvantage. Here, cooperation is far more important than competition and communitarians would believe that a happier society should arise.

Furthermore, some commentators would see internal faults within the difference principle. Many alleged faults of Rawls’ work are described in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (Kymlicka 2002: 70-75). In particular, one criticism that is influenced by his work would indicate that the difference principle could result in a grossly unfair arrangement for the hardest workers. To explain, if enough people in a society prefer the good of leisure time to the good of money, then they will not work too hard, and it will fall disproportionately upon society’s hardest workers to improve the lot of the worst off.

In this light, gaining a single person’s opinion as to the validity of Rawlsian thinking will possibly not give the best judgement on his work. It should be noted that it will be decided by a society as a whole, and not by individuals, whether they wish to live via Rawlsian principles. In fact, the reader may like to view the following video clip produced by The School of Life that explains Rawls’ motives and influences: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-JQ17X6VNg . It is interesting that the video asserts that the application of Rawlsian principles would produce societies similar to those of Denmark and Switzerland, and if the video is right and you also admire these countries, then you would probably feel that Rawls’ thinking is justifiable.

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