What About a Social Minimum?

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 pick if they had to choose 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.

Distributive vs. needs based standards

Waldron’s social minimum is an absolute standard that is based on what people need. Rawls’s difference principle is a distributive or relative standard that is based on where the poor stand relative to the rich. The difference is that a society committed to Rawls’s principles has to redistribute from rich to poor as the rich get richer. A society committed to Waldron’s social minimum only has to ensure that the needs of the poor are met; it is not committed to doing anything in particular about the gap between the rich and poor.

In order to illustrate the point, I returned to our old friend: Figure 6 (Rawls 1999, 66). This charts the share of primary social goods (which I will just call “wealth”) held by two groups. The chart is meant to illustrate the effects of incentives: the people in X1 will produce more if they are allowed to earn more than a strictly equal share and this will make the people in X2 better off even if it means they will have less than the people in X1.

Figure 6 from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, red lines added by me.
Figure 6 from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, red lines added by me.

The difference principle is a relative standard because it treats inequality as undesirable in itself. It permits inequality, but only so long as it is necessary to raise the wealth of the worst off class. In Figure 6, inequality is permitted only as long as the worse off group (X2 in this graph) is made better off. Once the society hits point a, no additional inequality is allowed because it would not improve the position of worst off group. In Rawls’s original graph, going to the right of point a would mean gains for the people in X1 but losses for the people in X2. But the difference principle would not allow further gains for the people in X1 even if they did not make the people in X2 worse off. Thus the difference principle forbids moving to the right of point a even if the line were flat (as it is with the red dashes). Inequality either benefits the worst off class or it is not permitted at all.

Waldron’s argument

Waldron thought the most important arguments for the difference principle are the ones about finality and stability. The idea is that the parties in the original position would reject utilitarianism because they are told their decision must be final and that people would be motivated to comply with the rules. If you are a loser in a utilitarian society, Rawls said, you would find it difficult to comply with the rules and, since the parties know this, they would reject utilitarianism in favor of Rawls’s principles.

Waldron’s point was that a society that met the social minimum could accomplish the same goal. Such a society would ensure that people were comfortable enough that they would not find it difficult to comply with its rules. But it would not be committed to doing more than that.

As Harry put it, the idea was to deprive Rawls of his best argument against utilitarianism. If the possibility of disaster were taken off the table, why would the parties prefer Rawls’s principles over this modified version of utilitarianism?

Our discussion

We talked a lot about what might lead people to be dissatisfied with their society.

Will and Audrey said that they thought social science shows that people make relative comparisons: they will be dissatisfied if there is too much of a gap between themselves and people at the top. Oscar said something like this must be true because people in rich countries are absolutely better off than people in poor countries but still frequently dissatisfied.

Kamyab noted that what counts as an unacceptably low standard of living varies across societies. In that sense, it is misleading to talk about an “absolute” measurement of well-being.

Eliza pointed us to something called the Easterlin Paradox, namely, that increases in GDP are not correlated with increases in average happiness in a country even though wealthier people in the country are happier than the poorer people in the country are. It is a paradox because wealth seems to be both correlated with wealth and not correlated with wealth.

Will surmised that people are less concerned with inequality in wealth per se than they are with the way that inequality gives some people (the wealthy) more control over politics and the civil life of society than others (the not-wealthy).

Kamyab pointed out that Rawls does not actually guarantee that people will be happy. His theory is concerned with the distribution of primary social goods. These are resources that people can use to advance their plans in life. But having them is not the same thing as being happy. For instance, the mentally ill or handicapped may require significantly more (or different) resources than others to be happy in life. Utilitarians will care about that, since they think society’s job is to promote the overall happiness, but Rawls’s theory does not, since it is only concerned with the distribution of resources and not about whether people use those resources to live happy lives.

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.


Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Waldron, Jeremy. 1986. “John Rawls and the Social Minimum.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 3 (1): 21–33.