John Rawls’ Difference Principle in Philosophy

Rawls’ defence of the difference principle is very compelling, as it contains critical elements that advocate the betterment of all people. The principle eliminates the gaps of injustices commonly found in the community and puts up fair principles in place (Cline, 2012 p. 4). The fair principles eliminate cases of inequality where there is the existence of unjust resource distribution. It is important to review what justice entails and how Rawls came up with the principle to support the difference principle.

Moreover, this paper will look at other principles that Rawls came up with and how the difference principle stood out among the rest. The principle originated from Rawls’ view of justice and fairness in the distribution of resources in the social and economic system. Certain places are more favourable than others, thereby creating a lot of inequality as some people acquire more resources than others. The difference principle addresses this concern.

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Rawls argued that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought” (O’Neil 2008, p. 3). Justice is a crucial factor in all social institutions as it entails fairness that helps in the smooth running of a community. In general, the concept of justice states that if freedom or an unfair act is committed to an individual, then it will be made right by the views shared by others for the greater good. Rawls further explains that theory may seem elegant and economical, but it should be done away with or revised if it is deemed to be untrue. Moreover, any public entity or laws should be discarded if they do not abide by the theory. Every human being is characterized by an inviolability based on justice that is very strong; even the society’s welfare has no ability to override (Rawls 2009, pp. 2-3).

Principles of Social Justice

The principles of social justice are guidelines that determine the division of advantages and underwriting agreements on the appropriate distribution of shares. The principles of justice create a pathway for determining how rights and duties are assigned to the society’s basic institutions and further define how benefits, as well as burdens, are distributed (Hodgson 2012, p. 1). Rawls used the concept of a people he called, “the original position”. The concept was made up of mutually disinterested people with a veil of ignorance, with the main concern of securing primary goals. He believed the individuals in the original position would make a choice between two basic principles of justice (Brooks & Freyenhagen 2005 p. 46).

The first principle of justice states that each should be entitled to equal rights to the most extensive total system of equal and basic liberties that are compatible with the same liberty for everyone; also known as the basic liberty principle. The argument of the second principle is that inequalities in the socioeconomic aspects of a society should be the responsibility of the just members of the society to ensure fair distribution of opportunities. In essence, the principle promotes fairness in the distribution of socioeconomic changes. The less privileged should get the greatest advantage to solve the inequality problem. This is the difference principle (Rawls, 2009, pp. 11-14).

The Difference Principle

Equality in a democracy entails a combination of fair opportunities. Inequalities in the social and economic expectations are only just if they contribute to improving the needs and expectations of the worst off represented person. According to Rawls, the difference principle only allows deviations from equality concerning resource distribution if those inequalities are the greatest advantage to the most disadvantaged group in comparison to all the other distributions (Jacobs 2004, p. 20). In this particular scenario, inequality elevates the status of the least advantaged to a higher position than the equal distribution. Rawls further explains that the greatest rewards are attached to positions with the highest salaries in society, thereby attracting the best and most talented persons (Nathanson 1998). Therefore, it means that economic inequalities can only be viewed as just if the systems maximize the well-being or progress of individuals who possess the least resources. Consider the example below regarding resource distribution:

Resource distribution
Resource distribution

In the first situation, there is egalitarian distribution; every person has the exact amount of money as the other. However, in the second situation, one person receives a higher amount of money than the rest, but their share is increased as well. Assuming person C is given less than 3000, and, as a result, makes the amount less than 2250 for persons A and B, the second situation would be the one satisfying the difference principle. The chart is not a true representation of Rawls’ view, despite being largely accurate in presenting the difference principle. Rawls is mostly concerned with society’s basic structure. The number of resources possessed by a particular individual is not a subject of interest. The socio-economic classes should be considered in drawing the examples, as opposed to comparing individuals. The next chart illustrates the Rawls’ concerns better.

The Rawls’ concerns
The Rawls’ concerns

Rawls’ thinking roots for the reasoning that a system is allowing inequalities, but providing incentives resulting in the benefit of all is acceptable through the adoption of the difference principle. As a result, inequalities are only desirable if their consequences are positive in nature. Some people believe that getting rewards increases the productivity of the individual, thereby raising the welfare of everybody. The thinking justifies the concept that even though some individuals acquire more resources and wealth than others, those at the lowest level of the pyramid are far off better about the increase in productivity. Rawls supported the “trickle-down” view of economics, which posits that the resources that are in the hands of the rich in the society should also reach the less privileged.

However, Rawls’ difference principle differs from the “trickle-down” economics, logic through some crucial ways. First, Rawls suggests that the less privileged in society gain when other people are rewarded. Rawls requires pure egalitarian distribution of resources while, theorists behind the trickle-down concept do not regard equality seriously (Konow 2013, p. 1194). Secondly, the “trickle-down” view posits that the wealthy get the largest proportion of the available resources at the expense of the poor. The difference principle, on the other hand, dictates that inequalities should be set up in a way that maximizes the status of the poor for justice to be served.

A substantial share of the resources, not just a fraction, must reach those at the bottom of the ladder. Finally, Rawls’ theory requires the maximization of the wellbeing of the poor to be just. The argument is that for an increase in the equality to be realized, there must be a justification in the sense that the lives of the less fortunate must be improved as well (Bercuson 2014). The “trickle-down” argument suggests that the poor in the society should enjoy the resources, instead of waiting for the “trickle-down” of resources. There will be no equal distribution if this is not accomplished. Therefore, it is more of a “trickle-up” situation than a “trickle-down”.

Defending the Difference Principle

Rawls defends the difference principle by showing that the principle of justice is correct if adopted by the people in its original position. People are only interested in their wellbeing and advancement in life; they are not concerned whether their actions benefit others or not. It is easier for the same people to accept terms that benefit them all than those that encourage the wellbeing of others, which leaves the rest of the people out of the equation (Clayton & Williams 2004, p. 10). Every individual wants to better off themselves; they would take an opportunity whereby they would acquire more even if it meant inequality.

Take, for instance, the second situation whereby an increase in the company’s executive salary also means an increase in the skilled worker’s salary and the unskilled one too. If another situation was set up in such a way that the company’s executive salary was increased, as well as that of the skilled worker, but lead to a decrease in the salary of the unskilled worker, then the unskilled worker would likely refuse to accept these terms. Besides, these terms would be very unfair; hence he would rather sign up to a deal that benefits everyone. Individuals are not likely to strive to reach the highest status in society.

Instead, they are likely to be contented with the positions that make them comfortable even when they lose. For instance, in the case of the slave trade, entry into the trade would either make you a slave or a master, and destiny can land you in either position. The inequalities that make the least position favourable are what they would go for, which is the position that the difference principle advocates (Hardin 2005 p. 181). That is the same reason people would not gamble because gambling leads to extreme gains or extreme losses.

The second principle continually advocates the fair distribution of resources to close the socioeconomic gaps in society. He then introduces the difference principle to explain the same concept. Before this interpretation, Rawls mentioned two other interpretations in justification of the difference principle (Routledge n.d.). The first interpretation revolved around the system of natural liberty, libertarian capitalism, in other words, which is survival of the fittest. This type of scenario suggests that everyone is at a position of rising to the highest level in society without using fraudulent means. The interpretation lacks legal restrictions on equality as the law does not prohibit competition for positions with greater economic, as well as social rewards (Arneson 2000, p. 4). Rawls rejects this system because, in his view, the distribution of resources would be highly dependent on talents and abilities, which cause favour and disfavour (Rosen 2003).

Some individuals are endowed with better traits that make their competitive advantage more favourable than others, while some lack these traits. Other people are born in favourable or well off social conditions, which assist in the enhancement of the same success traits and abilities. Therefore, such people end up succeeding where others cannot. This ultimately means some people will have more resources than others, leading to unequal distribution of resources and the promotion of the difference principle (Reidy 2004). The nature of birth and circumstances surrounding the person should not determine one’s destiny because as much as people make an effort and compete, the environment they have exposed to plays a huge role in determining their future to a great extent.

It is reasonable to conclude that the resources that are available to society should be used to promote people’s ability to compete on the same platform. All individuals should be given a fair opportunity to access and use the resources. Provision of education and necessary training and opportunities that give people a good chance of success is crucial, but these steps, but do not guarantee equal distribution of opportunities and resources. Natural capacity development revolves around several factors, such as family and social positions. As much as factors like education eliminate the unfairness, some people are prone to be intelligent than others, maybe genetically or naturally, making it impossible to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of achieving. The difference principle covers this gap, as it does not restrict the acquisition of resources to the contingencies of social and natural circumstances. The principle benefits the worst of them all. This argument is the backbone of the difference principle and justifies why it should be adopted by all. It also makes Rawls’ defence of the principle a compelling one.

List of References

Arneson, RJ 2000, Rawls versus Utilitarianism in the light of political liberalism. Web.

Bercuson, J 2014, John Rawls and the history of political thought: The Rousseauvian and Hegelian heritage of justice and fairness, Routledge, New York, NY.

Brooks, T & Freyenhagen, F 2005, The legacy of John Rawls, Continuum, London.

Clayton, M & Williams, A 2004, Social justice, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Cline, ME 2012, Confucius, Rawl and the sense of justice, Fordham University Press, New York, NY.

Hardin, R 2005,From order to justice’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 175-194.

Hodgson, LP 2012, ‘Why the basic structure’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 42, no. 3-4, pp. 303-334.

Jacobs, LA 2004, Pursuing equal opportunities: The theory and practice of Egalitarian justice, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Konow, J 2003, ‘A positive analysis of justice theories’, Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 43, no. 1, pp.1188-1239.

Nathanson, S 1998, Rawl’s defense of the liberal democratic welfare state. Web.

O’Neil, M 2008, Liberal egalitarian routes towards economic democracy. Web.

Rawls, J 2009, A theory of justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Reidy, DA 2004, ‘Rawls on international justice a defense’, Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 291-319.

Rosen, M 2003, Rawls and the market. Web.

Routledge, n.d., Rawls and Nozick on Justice, 2015. Web.

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