PHIL 213
Political and Social Philosophy


According to Rawls, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to everyone's advantage and attached to positions open to all. He argues for this by arguing against the prevailing ideology of equal opportunity. That ideology can be summarized in the following argument:

1. Inequalities are just only when conditions of equal opportunity obtain.
2. Conditions of equal opportunity obtain only when a person's fate is not determined by morally irrelevant factors.
3. One's fate is not determined by morally irrelevant factors only when it is determined by one's choices and efforts.
4. One's fate is determined by one's choices and efforts only if it is not determined by social circumstances.
5. Therefore, inequalities are just only when not determined by social circumstances.
Rawls argues that the prevailing ideology is unstable, since it only rules out inequalities determined by social circumstances. But one's talents and abilities are no more deserved that one's social circumstance. Therefore, inequalities determined by one's talents and abilities must be ruled out as well:
6. One's fate is determined by one's choices and efforts alone only if it is not determined by one's talents and abilities.
7. Therefore, inequalities are just only when not determined by a person's talents and abilities.
Kymlicka objects that while Rawls rules out inequalities determined by both social circumstance and talents and abilities, he appears to allow inequalities based on choices and efforts. But this conflicts with his own Difference Principle, which allows no inequalities that are not to the benefit of the least well-off position in society and open to all. In any event, Rawls holds that it is not how inequalities are determined which makes them just or unjust. Rather, it is whether inequalities, however determined (at least, consistently with the Liberty Principle), are to the benefit of the least well-off and open to all.



Rawls claims that justice consists of those principles people would agree to under conditions of fairness and equality. Hence, he refers to his view as "justice as fairness". Our conception of justice is constituted by principle we would agree to live by certain principles under fair conditions, in particular,

1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. (the Liberty Principle)
2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (the Difference Principle)
In outline, his argument is:
1. Our conception of justice is that of principles free and equal reasonable people would agree to live by.
2. Free and equal reasonable reasonable would agree to the Liberty and Difference Principles (giving the former priority).
3. So our conception of justice consists of these Principles (giving the former priority).
Now one can accept premise 1, but reject 2. Or you might accept the conclusion, 3, but reject 1. That is, as Rawls points out, one can agree with him that the principles of justice are whatever principles free and equal rational persons would choose live under, but disagree with him about which principles those are. And one can agree with him about the principles of justice, but disagree that they are identified as those which free and equal rational persons would choose live under. Moreover, one can disagree with Rawls about what "free and equal rational persons" means -- that is, one can disagree with his description of the "initial situation" or "original position" which specifies a "fair" choice situation. But why should we accept premise 1? What I will call the "social contract" argument purports to show us why:

1. The principles of justice are principles by which we are legitimately bound.
2. We are only legitimately bound by principles to which we would agree, were we free and equal rational persons.
3. So the principles of justice are the principles to which free and equal rational persons would agree.
The idea of the "social contract" argument is that we are only obligated by principles we would agree to under normal conditions (e.g., no force, fraud, we're of sound mind, etc.). Since we want a conception of justice that obligates us, we specify it in terms of a contract under the normal conditions.
The problem with this argument is quite apparent: 2 is false. That is, contracts obligate us only if we actually make them, not if we would make them. No one ever actually agreed to any principles of justice, and surely not Rawls'. So no such principles can legitimately bind us.
The truth is, however, that Rawls does not rely on hypothetical agreement to secure the obligatory force of the principles of justice. Rather, the hypothetical agreement is simply a device for "embodying" a certain conception of justice as fairness. Dworkin offers an additional idea, based on the social contract argument, to show how such a conception could be binding on us. The principles of justice legitimately bind us, not simply because we would have agreed to them, but because what we would agree to under these conditions reflects principles that treat persons as moral equals.

1. The principles of justice are principles we are legitimately bound by.
2. We are only legitimately bound by principles that treat persons as moral equals.
3. Principles that treat persons as moral equals are those we would agree to live under we free and equal rational persons.
4. The principles of justice are the principles free and equal rational persons would agree to live under.
Notice that we get the same result, with an additional premise specifying why the social contract, as construed by Rawls, is binding. It is binding, not because it is a contract, but because it specifies principles that treat persons as equals.



The question remaining is What conditions specify a fair agreement, one which will reflect principles that treats persons as equals? Rawls' answer is the Original Position. The Original Position is the position under which people are free, equal and rational and are concerned to make a choice of principles that they will live under. People in the original position (POPs):
(a) Are rational (i.e., they take the most efficient means to satisfy their desires).
(b) Desire a set of primary goods--wealth, opportunities, liberties and self-respect--that enable one to promote their conception of the good, whatever it is.
(c) Are mutually disinterested (neither sympathetic nor malicious).
(d) Know general laws and principles that govern society and psychology (e.g., that humans are social creatures, typically need affection, etc.).
(e) Know that they will have a conception of the good for themselves.
(f) Know that they will have a sense of justice.
(g) Know that their society is subject to the "circumstances of justice"- people live in proximity and are roughly equal; there is moderate scarcity; they have some, but not all interests in common; and they have finite psychological, emotional and intellectual capacities.
(h) Are situated behind a "veil of ignorance" about
1. What stage of social, economic and cultural development their society is in, nor what sort of society or economy it is.
2. What generation of that society they belong to.
3. Their social, political and economic position.
4. Their natural talents and abilities, intelligence, strength, etc.
5. Their conception of the good.
6. Their psychological proclivities.


Rawls' argument is that people facing a choice of principles under these conditions would agree to his two principles. Let us set aside the argument for the Liberty principle. The Difference principle, according to Rawls, represents a "maximin" solution to the choice situation faced by persons in the "original position". The conditions under which it is rational to choose a "maximin" principle (M-conditions) are these:

M1. One has no knowledge of probabilities of outcomes. (If you knew it was unlikely that you would end up in the least-favored position, it might be rational to go for an alternative that has a minimum which is worse than the others but a maximum which is better.)

M2. One has no reason to try for anything above the minimum possible.  (If you have a strong  desire to get more than the minimum outcome, then it will be rational to go for the option with a greater maximum possibility, even if it has a minimum which is worse than the others.)

M3. The alternatives have dire, unacceptable worst-possible outcomes. (If the alternatives had acceptable minimums, then you would be willing to take a blind chance, and opt for principles that might result in a system in which you have less than you could have--since the least isn't so bad.)

Outline of Rawls' argument:
 (i) If M-conditions obtain in OP, then the principle which maximizes the minimum position (the maximin principle) is the most rational choice.
 (ii) M-conditions obtain in OP.

 (iii) Justice as fairness is the maximin principle.

 (iv) Therefore, justice as fairness is the most rational choice.

V. ARGUMENTS FOR (i) & (ii):

Does OP call for a maximin solution?
 (a) M-1: POPs are ignorant of the conditions of society; it is as likely that they end up getting the minimum as it is that they get anything else.

 (b) M-2: POPs will not prefer to gain more than the best minimum possible of primary goods. They will take a chance on something other than maximizing the minimum only if they believe that more than the minimum possible would be necessary to their conception of the good. Only then will it be rational to take a chance on more than maximin. But they do not know what their conception of the good is, and so do not know whether it would be worth the risk to try for something other than maximin. So they do not prefer anything other than maximin.

 (c) M-3: The alternative principles have unacceptable minimums.  Rawls takes it that utilitarianism is the main opponent. Utilitarian principles say to maximize overall well-being. But there may be overall well-being in a society that has slavery. That is, a few people suffering may be of so much benefit to everyone else that there is a net gain in well being for the society as a whole. But it is possible that one will be a suffering slave in that society. And, given we don't know how possible, any possibility is unacceptable. So utilitarianism has an unacceptable outcome.

Therefore, POP's will choose whichever principles regulating the basic structure of society provide a maximin solution (or maximize the minimum outcome possible).

Objection: POPs will not opt for a maximin solution, for that is not a rational principle to follow under conditions of ignorance about the probability of outcomes. Rather, under such conditions it is most rational to follow the principle of insufficient reason, viz., to count each outcome as equally likely. Hence, given the number of possible outcomes (O) of a given distribution (n), we should say that we have a 1/n chance of getting On. But that is equivalent to maximizing average utility. Hence, POPs will maximize average utility. They will not maximize the minimum position.



But is justice as fairness  (the difference principle) the maximin solution?
1. POPs desire the maximum amount of primary goods, and so will choose the principles that will insure that they get the maximum. From behind the Veil, only the liberty and difference principles will insure that they get the maximum. So POPs will choose these principles.

2. POPs will not choose a principle that they do not believe reasonable people could abide by. For if they agree on a principle in OP, and it turns out that some cannot abide by it once the veil is lifted, then the scheme of cooperation so constructed would fall apart. Once the veil is lifted, even the person in the worst position must be able to see the reasonableness of the arrangements. The Difference Principle does this by insuring that inequalities are to the benefit of the persons in the worst positions. Of course, this would not help as far as stability is concerned unless the principles of distribution were public. For if they are not public, then people in the worst position will presumably not know that the inequalities are supported only if they are to their benefit. But once they know this, presumably they will acknowledge that it is rational for things to be arranged in this way.

POPs will not be interested in taking a chance on anything more than maximizing the minimum expectation. And this is just what Rawls' principles of justice do.



Kymlicka holds that the Difference principle allows inequalities to be influenced too much by undeserved natural talents. That is, he defines the "least well-off" position only socially and economically, but not in terms of the lack of natural talents. But lacks in natural talents are undeserved, and make people less well-off. Therefore, if inequalities are to be to the benefit of the least well-off, they must compensate not only for less social and economic goods, but also for less natural goods--talents, abilities, and health, for instance. Hence, "the difference principle...does not entirely ėmitigate the effects of natural accident and social circumstance'. For the well endowed still get the natural good of their endowment." (p. 72)
How, then, should we compensate natural inequities? On Rawls' view, the least well-off position is defined only in terms of social goods. Hence, suppose we have two people of equal natural endowments, but one is entrepreneurial and the other is a couch-potato. The couch-potato, because of his choices, may end up in the least well-off position economically. So it looks as if "removing the inequalities" requires that the entrepreneur get a greater income only by subsidizing the couch potato. Surely this is a bad result. And Rawls recognizes that it is bad, and that inequalities that reflect people's choices are just. But the difference principle does not insure this, and, indeed, does not even recognize it at all.



Dworkin, on Kymlicka's view, tries to come up with a scheme that is both "ambition-sensitive" and "endowment-insensitive".

1.  Ambition-sensitivity: Suppose everyone has equal natural endowments and equivalent money, and all society's resources are "up for sale". Each person then bids on these resources based simply on their plan of life. Hence, the couch-potato will get his couch and TV, the entrepreneur her business tools, and so on. After the auction, each person will be satisfied, as measured by the "envy test". If no one is envious of another's bundle, then the distribution treats each as a moral equal. Notice that this will allow inequalities of income, but equality in respect. No one can claim to be treated with less consideration, since the distribution reflects choices alone.
2. Endowment-insensitivity: 1 alone fails the envy test because not all inequalities are chosen. Some are natural, and those naturally disadvantaged will be left less well-off after the auction.

Remedy A: First compensate natural inequalities; then distribute income equally for the auction.
Problem:  More income can't genuinely equalize these inequalities. If we equalize them as much as possible, we might have no income left for the auction. But this would undermine the point of equalizing, which was to allow each to pursue her own life-plan.

Remedy B: Don't compensate (Rawls).

Remedy C: "Second-best" theory (Dworkin). How much will people behind a veil of ignorance spend on insurance? That amount will be an income tax to be distributed to the naturally disadvantaged. Everyone will buy some insurance, but no one will spend all of their income on it.

Problem (Narveson): The envy test will still fail.

Reply: Question-begging. Dworkin doesn't say that this is full compensation for natural inequalities, just that it is the best we can do. But Narveson doesn't show how we can do better, or why we shouldn't try to live up to this ideal.

3. The real world: A tax system can only approximate the ideal of hypothetical insurance.

A. (i) Measurement of relative natural inequalities impossible, since people may or may not choose to develop their skills. We cannot determine which inequalities are chosen and which are natural. (ii)  What counts as a natural advantage depends on what skills people value. But that is revealed only after the auction, not before.
Dworkin's response: Tax the rich and support the poor, no matter what the inequalities are the result of. Some will get less coverage than they would have bought, and others will get more.
B. Unforseen contingencies (e.g., natural disasters) are also undeserved. But compensating them as well runs into all the problems of compensating natural inequities.
All in all, the insurance scheme is a second-best strategy for dealing with these problems, and taxation a second-best application of this scheme. The problem is that accounting for ambition-sensitivity and endowment-insensitivity pull in opposite directions. Compensating for one implies disadvantage for the other.

4. The envy test makes vivid the fact that a distributive scheme that treats people as equals will compensate for unequal circumstances while holding individuals responsible for their choices.