Social minimum

Notes for May 1

Main points

We discussed Waldron’s criticism of Rawls’s difference principle.

Rawls had argued that the parties in the original position would select the difference principle rather than utilitarianism because they would know they are required to make a final commitment to a set of principles and they would fear that they might not be able to keep their commitment if they wound up as losers in a utilitarian society.

Waldron asked what the parties would choose if they had to pick between Rawls’s principles and utilitarianism with a floor of a guaranteed social minimum. In that choice, the fear of being losers wouldn’t be a reason to prefer Rawls’s principles since, by hypothesis, the guaranteed minimum prevents anyone from losing. And there appears to be a lot to gain from choosing to maximize average utility for everyone above the floor when compared with Rawls’s principles.

Our discussion

We talked a lot about whether people care about their relative standing: how wealthy they are compared with others. The question at hand is whether inequality would pose a threat to people’s commitment to society or not. Waldron’s claim was that absolute levels of poverty do threaten this kind of commitment but that inequalities would not do so provided a guaranteed floor were in place.

There were many excellent points, but I wanted to record a couple that struck me as especially novel.

Adam was right to say that Rawls’s references to commitment and stability are about wholehearted acceptance of the social order. It’s not just a matter of avoiding revolution. Rather, the idea is that people who accept their society will consistently act in ways uphold its rules and principles of justice.

And I thought Sam had a good point in saying that inequality is different for those at the bottom than it is for those near the top, like myself. The gap between my wealth and a billionaire’s wealth is far greater than the gap between my wealth and the wealth of the people who have service jobs at the College. It’s relatively easy for me to avoid making comparisons with billionaires, however, because I don’t have to live and work with them. The same can’t be said for my fellow employees at the College. Good point!

Finally, Adam asked whether Rawls’s theory was meant to apply to separate societies or to the world as a whole. The answer is mixed. Rawls himself always insisted that his theory was for separate societies. So, there would not be a global difference principle. However, many scholars believe that there is no good rationale for that. They think the natural extension of the theory is to have a global original position that would, presumably, agree on a global difference principle. Needless to say, inequalities on the global scale are much more vast than they are within a society like the United States.

Did Rawls answer Mill?

Mill said our common sense ideas about justice are hopelessly unsystematic. Utilitarianism, he concluded, is the only hope of putting them into any order. Did Rawls show that Mill was wrong?

The original position looks like a serious advance in bringing a system to our ideas about justice. In my opinion, asking “would you approve of X if you didn’t know whether you would be favored or disfavored by X?” is a powerful question. That’s a big deal. At the same time, you might reasonably ask whether the various conflicts among our ideas about justice that Mill pointed out had really been resolved or if the original position largely diverts our attention from them.

And even if the original position is as big a theoretical advance as it appears to be, there’s still the question of whether the parties in the original position would favor Rawls’s principles over utilitarianism. Speaking for myself, I think it’s a very close call.

Hey, if the answers were obvious there wouldn’t be a point to talking about the questions!

Key concepts

  1. How a social minimum is different than the difference principle.
  2. Why the parties in the original position might prefer a social minimum to the difference principle.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted May 7, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy