Type: Evaluation Essays
Sample donated: Lois Osborne
Last updated: September 15, 2019
In Rawls’ book ‘A Theory of Justice’ he presents his argumentfor the ‘difference principle’ which I will critique and evaluate in the essay.
Despite Rawls’ theory of justice (composed of two main principles) offering a comprehensiveand pioneering retort to a debate stretching as far back as the times when ancientGreek philosophers such as Plato dominated philosophical rhetoric regardingjustice, there are many critics of the theory (Alfred, 1978). In order toassess the argument Rawls’ presents, I will look at a variation of criticismsand theories from other dominant philosophers on the subject of justice.Forexample, criticisms from the left come from philosophers such as Okin and Cohenand criticisms from the right come from those such as Norzick.
Similarly,philosophers such as Pogge, who have theorised on topics similar to Rawls and,in fact, furthered some of his ideas will play a role in my evaluation of theRawls’ work. This is because the difference principle is founded in domestictheory and I have found it useful to explore if an international differenceprinciple is feasible (Pogge, 2002). Cohen comes from a socialist backgroundand critiques many aspects of Rawls’ argument as he believes ‘justice isequality’ meaning he intrinsically disagrees with Rawls (Moon, 2015). Whilst onthe right, Norzick offers the perfect opposing side to the debate. It’s said thattogether the two frame a well-rounded set of opinions on the topic of justice (Fried:2005 ; MacIntyre: 1985; Schmidtz: 2006).
I hope to lay out the main themes ofRawls’ Theory of Justice to begin with, then I will explore the specific criticismspresented by Cohen and Norzick. I will next look at the application of the differenceprinciple on the international stage and finally I will conclude that Rawls’argument for the difference principle has suffered much scrutiny – rightly so -but it is nonetheless highly plausible and impactful in the study of justice inphilosophy. In order to begin commenting on Rawls’argument for the difference principle we must first look at its origins. Rawlsbelieved that if an agent of a civilised society is acting from the originalposition behind a veil of ignorance, a rational person will adopt two mainprinciple of justice (Rawls, 1971, 118). These principles start with the equality indistribution of basic rights and duties; this can include freedom and speechand expression. The second starts with equality of opportunity and is followedby what we know as the difference principle.
This difference principle statesthat within the basic structure of society inequalities can exist with regardsto the distribution of wealth and goods if this will benefit the least well-offin society (Rawls, 1999a, 266). These people are defined in this category basedon morally arbitrary factors such as class origins and natural endowments ortalents (Rawls, 1999a, 83-84). This is one of the key features of Rawls’ theoryof justice as it permits inequality; Rawls states that goods “are to bedistributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of thesevalues is to everyone’s advantage” (Rawls, 1971, 660).
All the featuresdescribed here add up to what Rawls’ would describe as his ‘reasonableconception of justice’ (Rawls, 1971, 8). The difference principle is awidely criticised aspect of Rawlsian theory because it does not fall in linewith the rest of Rawls’ theory. For example, Cohen describes the modelspresented in Rawls’ Theory of Justice as being ‘inconsistent’ in his book ‘Ifyou’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’ and rejects the principle as ‘insufficientlyegalitarian’ (Moon, 2015). Cohen does not dispute the difference principleitself, instead he argues that the argument Rawls puts forward does not specifywhich inequalities are permissible; to Cohen it may even seem that noinequalities run deep enough to qualify for Rawl’s difference principle (Cohen,1997, 6). Furthermore, it is contradictory to disagree with moral arbitraryfeatures benefiting a society to begin with but then supporting this when it isbeneficial.
This leads me onto the point that Cohen has an issue with thewidely accepted incentive argument. This is because he believes if the ‘talented’people have their beneficial arbitrary feature discounted in the originalsituation, it should stay the same throughout. This is another example ofRawls’ inconsistencies picked up upon by Cohen (Cohen, 1977, 8). Rawl’s believes that natural talents are a’common asset’ (Rawls, 1972, 101) meaning the benefits reaped from them should beshared, if this is so Rawls’ should hold this view throughout the theory. This leads to another aspect ofRawls’ Theory of Justice which is referred to by Rodriguez as the ‘effortargument’.
This is a three stage argument which Rawls’ uses to form his argumentfor distributive justice and in tuner the difference principle. The first partof the argument states that within a functioning society an agent’s willingnessto make an effort is determined by their social circumstances and naturalendowments (Rawls, 1999a, 64 & 274). The next part of the argument statesthat the distribution of resources based on social circumstances and naturalendowment are morally arbitrary (Rawls, 1999a, 274). Finally the argumentstates that the people who make more effort don’t deserve more resources(Rawls, 1999a, 274). This argument forms the bases of Rawls’ argument for thedifference principle in that equal distribution is not required due to thearbitrary nature of the qualities one need not possess to produce good andwork. However, taking a constructivist stance when looking at this argument,and therefore concluding that the first part of the argument means an agentswillingness is only ‘partially’ reliant on their social circumstances andnatural endowments means that the argument in invalid (Cohen, 1989, 914-16).According to Cohen this is another flaw in the plausibility of Rawl’sdifference principle. A different form of criticism ofRawls comes from Norzick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Norzick is critical of Rawls’ ‘quest for aconception of justice’ as he believes that the welfare of the leastwell-endowed in society need not be the issue of those elsewhere positioned in society.He believes instead that people can do as they wish with their goods under aprinciple of ‘self-ownership (Norzick, 1974, 215). This directly contradictsRawls and presents a flaw in his argument in that Norzick can far betterexplain extreme poverty. One of Nozick’s main criticisms of Rawls is that hisargument is not historically sound as it is found in ‘unhistoricalconsiderations’ (Meadowcroft, 2011). Nozick critiques Rawls as he believes thefocus of distribution should be on where it comes from and not whether or notit is just (Kaufman, 2004). Nozick also produces his own theory of justice as acriticism of Rawls. Nozick denotes; “we are not in the position of children whohave been given portions of pie by someone who now makes last minute adjustmentsto rectify careless cutting” (Nozick, ASU, 149).
He states fairly that theseresources Rawl’s exemplifies as cake are no longer in the possession of centralauthority and instead they are people ‘holdings’ to which individuals now havea right (Nozick, 149-150). This is relevant to the world as we know it now andtherefore is a sound critique of the argument presented by Rawls for thedifference principle. To resolve this problem of being Rawls’ hypotheticalconcepts, Nozick gives us the proposal for a ‘historical conception of justice’This would be that each line of distribution was covered by three basicprinciples which are ‘justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and rectificationwhen the first two principals have been transgressed: “the holdings of a personare just if he is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acquisitionand transfer, or by the principle of rectification of injustice (as specifiedby the fi rst two principles). If each person’s holdings are just, then thetotal set (distribution) of holdings is just” (Nozick, 153) (Meadowcroft,2011). Another criticism of Rawls’ argumentfor the difference principle is that it is not applicable worldwide and is infact only useful when looking at domestic cases. Rawls looked upon theinternational difference principle as a ‘fraternity’ between citizens (Rawls 1971:105).
However, he later discredited the existence of a worldwide differenceprinciple at all saying that it is not the responsibility of people to bear thecosts of choices made by others (Rawls, 1999, p. 116ff). This is an aspect ofRawls’ work which I would expect to be praised by the likes of Cohen, ratherthan refuted as it derives from a sense of community with ‘fraternityor friendship’ being key themes which Cohen supports. Pogge (2002) and Beitzare examples of two who wish to further the research and strife for proof of aglobally accepted difference principle; this strengthens Rawls’ argument evenif he did withdraw later on. However, criticisms of Rawls’ original work on aninternational difference principle do exist. For example, when looking atnatural resources we can see that if distribution is uneven this is not fairaccording to Rawls as this is a morally arbitrary factor; natural resources aresimply ‘out there’ (Beitz, 1979, 139). Pogge argues that ‘peoples’ becomenations in international theory and they are then recognised as the ‘ultimateunit of moral concern’ (Pogge, 2006, 211)Rawl’s argument for the ‘differenceprinciple’ is certainly plausible despite a lot of criticism. Cohen presentssome very significant criticisms which in some ways help Rawls in histheorising to see flaws.
However a main argument he presents is the incentiveargument. It is my belief that in reality this can only make Rawl’s argumentmore relevant and applicable to everyday life; humans respond to materialincentives and in fact this can increase production in society (Lamont andFavour, 2013). Norzick also claims someproblems within Rawl’s theories however his side of the argument is socontrasting to Rawl’s that it will never act to disprove, rather continuallychallenge and strengthen Rawls’ argument. Fortunately, Rawls’ has alreadyself-critiqued his global difference principle and eradicated it from his therein order to strengthen his argument however it is good that research hascontinued into this by other philosophers as there were significant andinformative application of the difference principle at an international level. Thetheory is wide-ranging and flexible; the range of use is expressed nicely in Rawls’declaration, ‘In justice as fairness men agree to share one another’s fate.'(Rawls, 1971, 102).
Rawls’ focus on the ‘political culture’ being thedeterminer of how successful a society is positive and refreshing to study asit does not determine that arbitrary factors such as natural resourcesdetermine how a society fares. This point is exemplified in the case study ofJapan we have seen development rapidly socially and politically despite andlack of natural resources (1999, p. 119).References Alfred, E. (1978). ‘The Greek concept of justice: from itsshadow in Homer to its substance in Plato’.
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