John Rawls’ Argument for the Difference Principle

According to Rawls’ notion of justice as fairness, the perceptions of judicial issues emanate from a political concept. By regarding human thoughts as those from behind ‘veils of ignorance’, he affirms that every being is equally entitled to gain access to basic and adequate liberties.

These liberties should be compatible with a similar approach of the right of every person to gain access to societal possessions. Rawls’ second principle states that socio-economic inequalities exist to satisfy conditions of fair equality, opportunity and greatest benefit to disadvantaged members of society. The stem of the second principle and the second condition is widely called ‘the difference principle’ (Rawls 410-30).

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According to Rawls, human thinking from behind ‘veils of ignorance’ causes society to engage in activities which require certain people to be given more power, status and income hence such people acquire a higher status than others. Rawls asserts that for equality to take place, the activities have to better lives of people who are worse off in terms of improvement of living standards and empowerment of disadvantaged members to levels which are consistent with their well being.

In the second condition Rawls points out that attempt of disadvantaged members to rise to advantaged levels should not be hindered by discriminatory and irrelevant criteria. Therefore, Rawls’ difference principle entrenches ethical theory elements and the ‘socialist’ perception which requires distribution of responsibility or burden to be based on people’s benefit and ability (Rawls 412-24).

In line with Rawls argument above, it is reasonable to infer that less advantaged members of society have more needs and those who yield power (greatly advantaged members) have designated responsibilities or burdens which accrue with their positions. Therefore part of the merit principle which entails compensation of special skills, is also contained in the difference principle (Rawls 400-11).

In addition the difference principle disputes socio-economic changes which only benefit privileged members of society while worsening lives of the less privileged members. This includes projects which cause environmental degradation and greatly affect surrounding communities while only benefiting the elite and people from a higher social class (Rawls 415-34).

Rawls believes that Nozick’s entitlement theory, libertarianism and utilitarianism cannot be accepted behind the veil of ignorance. This comes out in the first edition of the ‘Theory of Justice’ where he points out that the book’s main aim is a systematic and workable moral conception to counter utilitarianism (Rawls 1).

Rawls opposes the utilitarian perception of “the greatest good for the greatest number” by asserting that societies have to be arranged to enhance total or average maximization of the expected well being of individuals or aggregate utility (Rawls 408-20). In addition, John Rawls opposed classical utilitarianism by pointing out that it fails to account for distinction between persons. This is because classical utilitarianism wholly perceives society as the principle of choice for a single person.

This is the highly influential criticism of utilitarianism which Rawls is credited with. This criticism generally contradicts Robert Nozick’s perception of socialist ideas in his book, ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’. By this criticism, Rawls opposes libertarianism and Nozick’s idea of voluntary redistribution that creates uneven distribution of resources (Rawls 418-40).

I tend to disagree with Rawls Theory of Justice because it entrenches socialist ideas in the difference principle. This ‘almost socialist idea’ which suggests that distribution of responsibility or burden be based on people’s benefit or ability is not workable in current society.

This is because it may be chaotic in cases where perpetual and strict controls are not exercised, especially in voluntary redistribution of resources. Similarly, this concept is pointed out by Robert Nozick who refutes Rawls’ ‘almost socialist idea’ that is entrenched in the difference principle (Rawls 400-30).

Works Cited

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. Print.

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