Rawls famously proposed the difference principle as a principle of distributive justice. 

The difference principle: social and economic inequalities are just if and only if they’re part of an arrangement that maximally benefits the worst-off members of society.

In other words, inequality between the richest and poorest is only just if it makes the poorest as well-off as they possibly can be, but not simply because it makes the richest even richer. If implemented, this would have dramatic implications. A billionaire could not justify getting another billion dollars simply by giving some money away to the poorest. They would have to ensure the poorest were as well-off as they possibly could be before helping themselves to more.

Why the difference principle?

Some background is necessary to explain the motivation for the difference principle. It is the second of Rawls’ two principles of justice, which also include:

(1) Equal liberties; and

(2a) Fair equality of opportunity (the difference principle is 2b).

Rawls argued it would be rational for parties reasoning from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, which deprived them of knowledge of what their lot in life would be, to accept these principles as the standards regulating society. Rawls is not just saying that these are good moral principles on which to base society. He is saying it would be rational – in the best interests – of each party to agree to these principles. 

Rawls could have included a different principle of distributive justice, for instance a sufficientarian principle, in his two principles of justice. So why the difference principle? Rawls provides three separate justifications. 

First, Rawls claims that a person wouldn’t care much about they would gain above the minimum level guaranteed by the difference principle.

Second, Rawls posits that the risks of accepting a distributive principle would simply too high for anyone to rationally accept. For instance, a utilitarian principle could in theory leave the worst-off person with nothing if this somehow maximised the aggregate amount.

The third justification needs a bit more explanation. Rawls invokes Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative. This holds that it is morally wrong to treat a person merely as a means to an end; they should always be treated as an end in themselves. Only the difference principle, Rawls claims, would treat persons as ends in themselves when distributing social and economic benefits. By contrast, other principles, like a utilitarian principle, would be ‘prepared to impose on those already less favoured still lower prospects of life for the sake of the higher expectations of others’. 

The problem with this justification is that it involves a moral consideration. Yet Rawls explicitly states that moral considerations are not available to parties in the original position – they are motivated only by rational self-interest. However, the justification could be reconciled with this feature of the original position if we accept that treating persons as ends and not mere means is essential to securing the social bases of self-respect. By self-respect, Rawls means a person’s feeling of self-esteem and confidence that their life’s plans are worth carrying out. Importantly, it would be in the rational self-interest of a person, whoever they are, to desire the social bases of self-respect.

Assuming this is correct, Rawls might appear to have provided solid – although indirect – grounds for why parties reasoning behind a veil of ignorance would choose the difference principle over others. If they chose another, they would risk weakening the social bases of self-respect. The person already worst-off in a distribution could be made even worse-off simply because this benefitted somebody already better-off. The worst-off person would thus be treated as a mere means, suggesting that they are not important at all and thereby undermining their self-respect. Significantly, this would be true even for a sufficientarian principle. Even if the worst-off person’s standard of living was already above a given level, they could still be treated as a mere means to the end of making somebody else better-off.

Why not (only) the difference principle?

I find all of Rawls’ justifications of the difference principle unconvincing. 

The first and second are implausible. It seems perfectly reasonable for a person to desire more than the minimum level guaranteed by the difference principle, so they could go on a nice holiday, buy luxury goods, etc. In addition, it does not seem irrational to make a calculated gamble to secure an amount greater than the minimum level.

The third justification is ingenious but flawed. This is so even if one grants Rawls’ assumption that it would be rational for parties reasoning behind a veil of ignorance to secure the social bases of self-respect.

The reason is that it is unclear that Kantian considerations about treating persons only as ends and not mere means would be relevant to parties in the original position. Importantly, this is not because such Kantian considerations are moral ones; though the parties wouldn’t have moral considerations per se, they might be relevant in that they could be closely connected with securing the social bases of self-respect. Rather, it’s because parties in the original position would be selecting a principle to regulate the distribution of socio-economic positions, which would be anonymous (i.e. unattached to persons).

Kant’s maxim that one should treat persons only as ends and not mere means is grounded in the claim that, as rational beings, persons have intrinsic dignity, which is inviolable. However, since socio-economic positions do not have intrinsic dignity, it is not clear (assuming Kant’s maxim is right) that one should treat them only as ends. Consequently, it is not clear that a person’s self-respect could be undermined simply because they occupy a socio-economic position that has been treated as a mere means. 

One might respond that, since it is inevitable that all socio-economic positions will be attached to persons, treating a position as a mere means is, effectively, to treat the person ultimately occupying that position as a mere means. But, as Rawls stipulates, parties in the original position do not know the probabilities that any particular person will be attached to any particular position. 

This means that, before persons are attached to positions, no person could reasonably claim they have been treated as a mere means. Moreover, provided the distributive principle chosen by parties in the original position is in the ex ante equal interest of everyone, I’d suggest that nobody, even after they have been attached to a particular position, could reasonably claim to have been treated as a mere means.

All this means that Rawls’ third justification fails to show why parties in the original position would choose the difference principle over another that also secured the social bases of self-respect. In other words, it underdetermines the difference principle.

Why sufficientarianism?

If parties in the original position could choose a different distributive principle, what should it be? A plausible contender, I’d suggest, is sufficientarianism.

Sufficientarianism passes both Rawls’ first and second tests. It would give parties in the original position the assurance that they would not end up too badly, along with the option to make a calculated gamble to gain more than the guaranteed minimum level.

It could also secure the social bases of self-respect. Let us assume that a necessary and sufficient condition for securing the social bases of self-respect is that everyone has enough resources (both economic and social) to participate in society – for instance, they can attend and give their views at public meetings. (As I’ll argue in the second blog post, this is a plausible interpretation of what the social bases of self-respect consist of). Provided it is specified in the right way, sufficientarianism would ensure this is the case. In other words, it passes Rawl’s third test too.

Summary

Rawls’ three justifications of the difference principle fail to show why parties in the original position would choose it over sufficientarianism. The table below sums this up.

JustificationExplanationObjection
Satisfaction with the minimum levelA person wouldn’t care much about what they would gain above the minimum level guaranteed by the difference principle.Implausible – seems perfectly reasonable to want more than the minimum level.
Less riskThe risks of accepting another distributive principle would simply be too high for anyone to rationally accept.Not necessarily true – for instance if the alternative also guaranteed a minimum standard of living.
Secures the social bases of self-respectOnly the difference principle would secure the social bases of self-respect by treating persons as ends and not mere means in the structure of society. Not true – another distributive principle, such as sufficientarianism, could as well. 

If you buy Rawls’ reasoning about how to identify the right theory of distributive justice, this makes sufficientarianism a plausible contender.

In the next blog in this series, I’ll build on Rawls’ ideas about self-respect to propose a novel ‘currency’ of sufficientarianism. Refer to the introductory post to the series here.

One thought on “Same difference: how Rawls’ arguments for the difference principle motivate sufficientarianism

Leave a Reply