Rawls [7], “Distributive Justice,” (1967)

After a brief segue into the topic of legal obligation, Rawls is back to elaborating on his conception of justice as fairness.  In “Distributive Justice” he has three aims: 1) Explain why the just society should not be structured by utilitarian principles; 2) Clarify the Difference Principle–what, exactly, it means to require that inequalities work to the ‘advantage’ of the worst off; and 3) make a prima facie case for the feasibility of arranging a constitutional democracy so that the Difference Principle is satisfied.  This is an interesting essay.

I found Rawls’s treatment of (1) especially interesting.  On Rawls’s view, utilitarian conceptions of justice gain their plausibility by extending the principle of ‘individual choice’ to the social sphere.  The relevant principle of individual choice is to maximize the amount of good in and over the course of one’s life, and this principle naturally suggests a principle of social choice according to which our aim should be to maximize the amount of good in society.  (Rawls is noncommittal about the relevant sense of ‘good,’ presumably having a pluralistic conception of the good in mind.) There is an appealing symmetry here: maximization is the right approach on the individual level, so why not also on the social level? Rawls’s resistance to this move is of course well known–relevant here is his famous objection that utilitarian reasoning on the social sphere treats society as if it were a kind of super-individual and in so doing ignores the “separateness of persons.”  In this essay he raises the (equally well-known) objection that there is nothing on the utilitarian view that opposes, in the name of justice, the few suffering for the benefit of the many. Since Rawls thinks that participants in the Original Position would never agree to a utilitarian principle of distribution of goods and resources (for fear of finding out that they belong to the disadvantaged ‘few’) he suggests that we ought to reject the Utilitarian principle.

Side Note:  Along with Rawls I’ve been reading a bit of Derek Parfit this summer (Reasons and Persons) and it’s worth noting that Parfit explicitly contests the Rawlsian objection to utilitarianism I just sketched.  I’ll leave the details for a later post, but Parfit’s astonishing (and brilliantly argued) claim is that there is really no deep fact about the ‘separateness of persons,’ and that it is to utilitarianism’s credit, and certainly not to its demerit, that it doesn’t mistakenly presuppose that there is.

As for (2), Rawls recognizes that there are a variety of ways in which to construe the Difference Principle, due to the ambiguity surrounding the notion of an individual being ‘better off.’  He rejects some candidate interpretations, such as a classical social contract interpretation (which he attributes to Hume) and a Pareto Optimization interpretation.  The interpretations are rejected on the same grounds: they would justify distributions of goods and resources that are intuitively unjust or, to avoid begging the question, distributions that rational contractors in the OP would be prudent to reject.  Rawls next announces his preferred interpretation of the Difference Principle, viz., that it calls for the strategy of maximin, or maximize the minimum–on this interpretation, a distribution is consistent with the DP only if inequalities make the least well-off members of society as well-off as possible, or only if these inequalities could not be eliminated without adversely affecting the welfare of the least well-off.  It is DP on this construal, Rawls suggests but does not argue for, to which rational contractors in the OP would agree.

Second side-note: Again in Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, there is a very interesting appendix in which Parfit and the economist/philosopher John Broome criticize the ‘maximin’ construal of the Difference Principle.  I hope to post on this appendix in the near future.

(As for (3), I found it tough going.  I suppose I’m predisposed to accept the feasibility of a Constitutional Democracy organized on Rawlsian principles, so I read inattentively and won’t bother trying to summarize this section of the essay.)

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3 Responses to Rawls [7], “Distributive Justice,” (1967)

  1. Josh says:

    David –

    I’d be interested in hearing Parfit’s argument (on both counts). Whether there is any sense or significance to the “separateness of persons” seems a very fundamental ethical question.

  2. Lime says:

    David, perhaps you should spend a little less time posting on Rawls and little more time on that novel you’ve been working on.

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