Rawls on the difference principle

Notes for September 24

Main points

We discussed Rawls’s description of the difference principle from Justice as Fairness: a Restatement.

As Jessica noted before class, this is an odd way to go about it: the difference principle is something that is supposed to be selected by the parties in the original position, but we’re going to talk about the original position next time. Rawls put it in this order because he wanted to explain what the difference principle is before talking about why the parties would prefer it to utilitarianism. We were following him.

Figure 1

We started off with a searching examination of Figure 1 on pages 62–63. Professor Brown noted that the axes should be labelled as the quantity of primary social goods held by representative members of the less/more advantaged group.

We also talked about what conditions were being modeled in this figure. Is it variation in wages or taxes? We decided he was using “wages” as a shorthand for post-tax income. That way he could cover both the cases of a market economy (where wages are set by the market) or a socialist economy (where there could be some central planning).


We ended with a rousing discussion of the topic of desert. I offered my opinion that Rawls had not ever confronted a view like Locke’s head on. I said that I thought this was important because views about desert are what drive disagreements about what we call the “size of government.” To back up that assertion, I referred a study of Tea Party activists showing that they draw a sharp distinction between those who deserve government benefits and those who do not.Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics 9, no. 1 (2011): 25–43. (link)

Rebecca took a hard line on this: she thought that there is no understanding of desert that could support their claims. Everything we do is the product of either nature or nurture. But no one deserves to have either the natural or social influences on their lives. So no one can deserve the product of those influences.

Ruiwen and Zach said they thought that putting it in terms of desert missed the point of the welfare state. The welfare state is for preserving dignity or meeting needs. Whether those who benefit deserve what they get is beside the point.

And that, dear reader, is where we ran out of time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted September 24, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being