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Rawls Justice As Fairness Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4921 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay I will offer up a critique of Rawls difference principle I will draw out the advantages and problems of Rawls theory in relation to each end of the political spectrum; In a comparison with socialist thought by way of Cohen, and liberal thought by way of Nozick. In relation to Nozick I will initially set out his “entitlement theory” showing his criticisms of Rawlsian theory; I will go on to side with Rawls and show that Nozick’s contrived stance of redistribution as an “infringement to liberty” and taxation as “forced labour” is clearly objectionable. Cohen looks to highlight inconsistencies in the Rawlsian theory, questioning, “If you are an egalitarian, who come you are so rich?” Cohen highlights the moral arbitrariness of Rawls’ incentives argument based on a moral basis of community values, and shows that a Pareto-improving equality-preserving redistribution can exist; for the most part the two desiderata can co-exist. To show this I will firstly, give a brief overview of Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Secondly, I will focus on the “difference principle” itself for deeper analysis. Thirdly, I will explore a right wing objection to Rawls; examining Robert Nozick and his work, Anarchy, State and Utopia. Fourthly, I will explore a left wing objection to Rawls; examining G. A. Cohen and his work, Rescuing Justice and Equality. Finally, I will conclude…

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Rawls’ “Justice as Fairness”

Aristotle envisioned the ingredients of a theory of justice; he held that it is the job of a good political arrangement to provide each and every person with what they need to become capable of living rich and flourishing human lives. [1] In contrast Rawls takes justice to be the “first virtue” of social institutions. [2] Rawls set himself the task of establishing what moral principles should govern the basic structure of just society. [3] Taking influence from the Social Contract tradition [4] Rawls wants us to examine the question from a hypothetical standpoint; asserting that we can come to a rational decision on the principles of justice if we chose them from an original position, behind a veil of ignorance. [5] These are two central ideas at the heart of Rawls’ theory of justice, which he refers to as “justice as fairness”. Justice for Rawls is the hypothetical contract that would emerge from this thought experiment; in depriving people of particularizing knowledge people will rationally chose fair principles rather than allowing that knowledge to bias the choice of principles in their own interest. [6] The intuitive idea is the link between fairness and ignorance. “If I do not know which piece of cake I am going to get, I am more likely to cut fairly than if I do.” [7] From the range of conceptions of justice available to them the rational choice of persons in the original position would be the two principles which comprise “justice as fairness”. The first principle requires equality in the assignment of basic liberties (rights and duties). [8] The second principle is concerned with social and economic inequalities, and itself has two parts: the principle of fair equality of opportunity, which has priority over, the difference principle; which holds that social and economic inequalities are just only if they maximise the benefit of the least advantaged members of society. [9] 

“All social primary goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured. [10] 

Taken together these mean that a just society will, first and most important, give each of its members the same set of basic liberties or rights: freedom of expression, of religion, of association, of economic inequalities, it will make sure that all citizens enjoy equality of opportunity in the process by which they come to achieve (and avoid) the unequally rewarded positions. Finally, it will only allow such inequalities at all if they tend, over time to maximise the position of the worst-off members of society. The central idea behind Rawls’s principles seems clear enough: the output or earnings of a practice is to be distributed equally, unless some pattern of unequal distribution can, in the manner sketched above, be made to work for everyone’s benefit, and provided that everyone has a shot at the better-paid roles.

The Difference Principle

Rawls acknowledges that inequality is a natural occurrence but like many natural things which civilized society overcomes for the greater-good it is also possible that society can narrow the gaps of inequality. Rawls states,

“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it just that persons are born into society at some particular positions … these are simply natural facts. What is just and in just is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” [11] 

He believed the best to contrive a just society is to raise the expectations of those worst-off off members. Rawls does not want a meritocracy and therefore does not believe in wages for one’s deserts. Firstly, because there is no way in defining the requisite criteria of deservedness in the original position; secondly, it fails to distinguish between moral desert and legitimate expectation. He saw that success was mostly a result of economic and social serendipity; the work that someone put into their success was not the element that made people deserve high income as the opportunity to succeed is effectively impossible without society. Therefore, society deserves the reward for having enabled you to succeed at all. Additionally talents you are born with should not permit you to command an excessive reward for your lottery success (For instance great singers or sport stars).

“Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances.” [12] 

Rawls therefore believed that people ought to be paid enough to give them an incentive to work and enough for them to also give back to society (for instance via tax) but preferably in more direct means as he did not believe in the trickle down system. With this approach he is not compensating those naturally less fortunate for their bad luck nor limiting the gifted from monopolising all their good luck, there can be a great income disparity between people but this must be reflected in the benefit of the worst off. He states, “Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit off all.” [13] To conclude it seems evident that the second principle is simply about wealth and the redistribution of it so that it benefits society as a whole.

Nozick – Anarchy, State and Utopia

Nozick rejects that inequalities must serve, over time, maximally to promote the well-beings of the least advantaged members of society. Conversely he defends the idea of the minimal state promoting a principle of self-ownership that leaves people free to do what they like with property that is theirs; a principle that could justify extreme inequality. [14] Nozick asserts that; the logic that leads you to restrict the economic liberties in the way that you do, should also lead you to restrict civil liberties in ways that you don’t want to restrict them. Essentially egalitarian liberalism rendered internally consistent yields classical liberalism. [15] Hence, Nozick looks to apply the liberal principles that go against state enforcement (i.e. freedom of speech, free association, free immigration) to economic principles. [16] Nozick explains by way of analogy: [17] if I were to decide I did not want to conform to a societal system of taxation and redistributive justice and I were not to use any of the benefits that came from it, (i.e. social welfare, education, health care, etc.), could the state force myself to stay within its borders and force myself to conform to the societal system? He arbitrarily points out that this would be morally wrong, going against the principle of free immigration, infringing your liberty. However, what if I was again to opt out of the same system of taxation and remain in the county, by way of a contractual agreement with the government whereby I never have to pay tax but can never consume any tax provisions. Would this be just? Are we slaves to the state?

In applying the same uncontroversial liberal principles to economics Nozick is highlighting the fact that taxation and redistribution of wealth infringes our liberty, restricting our free choice to conform or not to the wishes of the government. Any distribution of wealth can be just if it came about by peoples free choices. He criticises end-state and patterned theories such as Rawls’ theory of distributive justice, as focusing on the moment, looking at things are now not how things came about. In contrast to his own historical principles; what really matters is not who has what, but how they got it; to be just in economic terms is to have a clean history, on the basis of mutual agreement and voluntary consent. Nozick gives us the analogy of Wilt Chamberlin to extrapolate his claims: [18] he asks us to

“Specify an initial distribution which we feel is legitimate, and then argues that we intuitively prefer his principle of transfer to liberal principles of redistribution as an account of what people can legitimately do with their resources.” [19] 

Wilt Chamberlin (a talented basketball player) arrives in town; he agrees to play a game of basketball, fans can watch for the charge of $1.25, with 25 cents going directly to Wilt. This agreement in entered into voluntarily by all willing participants. Suppose now half the population of the town were to agree to the proposed contract and were willing to pay money to see Wilt play, and half the population were not. Wilt Chamberlin stands to earn a substantial amount of money from the voluntary contractual agreement in return for his service (playing a game of basketball). This Nozick points out that this voluntary agreement disrupts the perfect pattern of redistribution. Wealth would no longer be distributed equally for example, and if justice is about achieving a certain pattern or end then the post Wilt distribution is un-just as it will no longer fit the pattern or end. However, that is counter intuitive if the post Wilt distribution is unjust how exactly did the injustice creep in, so who exactly was treated unfairly in this case?

If distribution justice is about achieving some ideal pattern or end, like equality or utility maximisation, where exactly does the injustice arise in the Wilt Chamberlin case? Nozick clearly thinks that no injustice has taken place in this case and his historical principle does a good job of explaining why. Every transfer of wealth in the example takes place on mutually acceptable terms so the fans agree to watch Wilt play for an extra quarter and Wilt agrees to play in exchange for the promised reward; the final distribution of wealth is perfectly just because it came about as a result of just processes. Liberty will upset any pattern or end-state achieved by the interventionist state. To then remedy/restore the pattern or outcome the state would have to continually interfere in our lives. In effect income tax to fund redistribution is forced labour; it gives the poor and needy partial ownership in wage earners. [20] 

Nozick’s argument, then, is that to enforce a pattern of redistribution of wealth restricts liberty. A certain picture of what it would be like to enforce a pattern is implied: constant surveillance to make sure on one gets too much or too little, and constant intrusions either to prohibit or to rectify the effects of pattern-breaking transactions. Here Nozick is guilty of a gross exaggeration; he treats all patterned theories of distribution as rigid, when actually, as in the case of Rawls’ theory, in enforcing a weak pattern it does restrict peoples liberty to a certain extent, but it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that this infringement was as serious as Nozick maintains. [21] In relation to a Rawlsian approach to distributive justice: inequalities are only permissible only in so far as they improve the position of the worst-off. Would the institutions of taxation and welfare benefits really constitute “constant interference”? [22] Nozick’s objection can only be to hold that they do infringe on our liberty, as much that would constitute a rejection of any meddling in one’s own affairs. Rawls would hold that: in the trade-off of values, small losses of privacy and liberty are acceptable in exchange for a great deal of poverty alleviation. Thus, redistribution from the better-off to the worse-off, by means of taxation appears not to involve a serious assault on liberty. [23] 

To really know what infringes liberty we would need to go down the road of philosophical analysis to define and construe the intricate working of the notion. To highlight his cause Nozick tries to assert that income taxation is in effect forced labour; a notion which clearly involves an unacceptable violation of liberty. “Taking the earnings of n hours labour is like taking n hours from the person.” [24] To extrapolate on this claim Nozick suggests that the income taxation system unfairly discriminates against people with expensive tastes. As demonstrated by the following analogy: consider the enjoyments of two differing individuals; one enjoys the pleasure of an evening at the theatre, the other takes enjoyment from a country walk. The former will have to work, to earn money to pay for the pleasure, while the latter gains pleasure at no cost to themselves. These “poor unfortunates” have to pay for their tastes and pleasures, as well as being forced to contribute to the needy, whereas those who get their pleasure for free are not so required. [25] Hence, Nozick suggests that we are discriminating against those with expensive tastes making then work even harder to lead a satisfied pleasurable life. This contrived stance by Nozick is clearly objectionable, forced labour rarely includes the option of deciding how much labour to do. Further, most people have a measure of choice as to the nature of the activity at which they work, and who in particular employs them. This hardly constitutes forced labour. [26] 

Nozick points to specific cases and instances, he is looking for the exception rather than focusing on the rule, he seems to be side-stepping the debate by focusing on the extremes trying to detract from Rawls’ theory, every theory will have flaws but that does not necessary mean it is not just or worthwhile. Nozick’s radical views do encourage debate but do not stand up to Rawls’ stance; although it would be unfair if tastes were as fixed as eye or skin colour, in fact tastes and pleasures are developed against a range of costs and expectations, so those with expensive tastes are likely to have formed and maintained those tastes knowing them to be expensive. [27] 

Socialist critique – Cohen

Cohen in Rescuing Justice and Equality literally looks to “rescue” equality from Rawls’ “incentives argument”, that in respect to the difference principle; to ensure high level of productivity is maintained by the better-off members of society, in order to benefit the worse-off, inequalities in wealth are justified as incentives. Cohen is critical of Rawls’ argument, albeit conceding that incentives may abate suffering; in no way can they formulate justice. This is because such a formulation,

“… presupposes a model of society as a non-community, in which relations among human beings are construed as strategic, with people taking one another into account as so many opportunities for, and obstacles to, gain, rather than as fellow citizens by whom they can be asked to justify the way they live.” [28] 

Rawls is guilty of a fundamental inconsistency in his conception: Cohen asserts that incentives are only necessary because of the attitudes and choices made by the better-off, more talented citizens. These attitudes and choices are inconsistent, if like Rawls, we assume that the talented support the difference principle and actually want to maximize the position of the worst-off in society. Cohen questions: “if you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?” [29] 

“[C]ommunity, or as Rawls denominates it, fraternity, is an important value for Rawls, and one that he claims to be not only consistent with but illustrated by the incentive rationale that I criticize…[T]he manner in which Rawls applies the difference principle, in his endorsement of incentives inequality, represents abandonment of that very principle.” [30] 

Cohen claims that no reasonable account of distributive justice can go through on the assumption that justice pertains only to political structures narrowly conceived because it necessarily involves the conduct of persons in relation to one another in the family and in the full ethical dimensions of life. [31] 

These issues worry Cohen as well as other critics of A Theory of Justice too. There appears to be a conflict between Rawls’ reasons for saying that justice demands an initial equality of primary goods for all and his argument justifying a move away from equality to a situation where primary goods are unequally distributed. [32] Rawls maintains that there is an obvious starting-point when considering a just distribution of primary goods. This starting-point is equality of all such goods. The natural distribution of talents is morally arbitrary, so there is no reason why the talented should be rewarded more than the untalented in the initial situation. However, Rawls’ also maintains that it is irrational to stick with an equal division of primary goods if it is possible to better the circumstances of everyone, even the untalented, by permitting the talented to enjoy greater rewards than the rest:

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“Imagine, then, a hypothetical initial argument in which all the social primary goods are equally distributed: everyone has similar rights and duties, and income and wealth are evenly shared. This state of affairs provides a benchmark for judging improvements. If certain inequalities of wealth and organizational powers would make everyone better off than in this hypothetical situation, then they accord with the general conception [of justice].” [33] 

Here, in a nutshell, is what Cohen calls the Pareto argument for inequality. Starting from equality, a movement to a position of inequality is justifiable so long as everyone benefits from it. Rawls does not see a movement away from equality as entirely compatible with distributional justice. A movement away from equality may be justified if everybody gains from it. [34] The value judgement which is relevant to this argument is the weak Pareto principle; if a change is beneficial for everyone then it is a change for the better. This can be viewed in contrast to the strong Pareto principle; if a change is beneficial for at least one person and worse for nobody then it is a change for the better.

The Pareto argument, as interpreted by Cohen, assumes that Rawls is appealing to the weak Pareto principle; to justify a movement away from the benchmark of equality. [35] Cohen focuses on the initial situation of equality of primary goods as an initial situation. He adds the presumption that there are only two relevant groups, the talented and the un-talented, each group apply the same degree of effort and application. Consequently the talented, by virtue of their talent, produce more than the un-talented, for no extra reward.

“Some people would regard this as unfair, but in the argument for baseline equality Rawls has treated people’s initial endowments of talent as morally arbitrary and therefore as not meriting extra reward.” [36] 

Then, in this original situation both groups receive, and deserve the same wage. However, if a Pareto change is possible, that in moving to a new situation, output would be increased to the benefit of all. If the talented were to apply themselves to a greater extent, increasing output for the reward of a higher wage. The effort and the output of the untalented remains the same but their wage rate also increases but remains less than that of the talented. Thus, everyone benefits from the new situation. The change, Cohen argues, is one which must be endorsed by the Pareto argument. [37] The inequality in the second situation is justified by the fact that all benefit in contrast with their original position. Hence, so by the weak Pareto principle it would be irrational for anyone to resist the change.

However, Cohen hypothesis a third even more improved situation which would triumph over the unequal situation that arose by way of the first Pareto change. This new situation involves the same characteristics as the second, bar the wage rate would be the same for both the talented and un-talented groups; the talented still working to their maximum capabilities, but now they do not receive extra benefit (incentive) while the un-talented receive even more than in the second situation. Cohen argues that the talented could have no reasonable objection for working to their potential for no extra reward then there would be no need to introduce any inequalities in primary goods. [38] 

“Rawls’ claim about the irrationality of insisting on equality in the face of a Pareto- superior inequality would lose its force, since a Pareto-improving equality-preserving move, in which no one is as badly off as some are in the second situation, would now also be available.” [39] 

The obvious objection to this is that it would be unfair to the talented. However, Cohen insists that this argument is inconsistent to Rawls’ theory as a whole. If in the original situation it was right to discount talent as being morally arbitrary, then this should be applied to the present situation and throughout his whole theory. If in the first situation the talented would have been accused of exploiting morally arbitrary advantages if they had objected to the equality of the situation. Even in the second situation, “it is hard to see why an egalitarian should be expected to regard what they then do as acceptable, even if nothing can be done about it”. [40] 

In short, Cohen wishes to assess Rawls’ move from a situation of equality to one of inequality and incentives by reference to a feasible Pareto improvement, a new improved situation, which would preserve equality. If this new situation is not feasible for objective reasons, reasons independent of the attitudes of the talented, then Cohen will regard the second situation as acceptable. However, he thinks that such cases are unlikely. Hence Rawls does not have to choose between inequality and taking advantage of Pareto changes. For the most part the two desiderata can co-exist. [41] 


John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is widely held to be a primary liberal egalitarian solution to a problem that has been debated over by philosophers and politicians since the time of the ancient Greeks. The problem: of how to organise a just and fair society that allows it citizens to live full and flourishing lives. Rawls’ offers us a theory that provides us with functioning equality in exchange for minimal inequalities in the form of incentives. This focus on wealth is the downfall of the Rawlsian theory; do we really need incentive to value equality and understand the needs of our fellow humans? Cohen’s emphasis on community and understanding allows for a more equal morally responsible society, one in which allows each and every citizen to work and live according to their own capabilities, and one due to the emphasis on community allowing equality of opportunity to all. These conditions allow and would satisfy Aristotle’s criteria of becoming capable of living rich and flourishing human lives.


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