Chapter 9.  Rawl's Theory: Justice as Fairness
Section 4. Problems with Rawl's Theory


Because there has been such extensive discussion of the Difference Principle in the last 30 years, there have been numerous criticisms of it from the perspective of all five other theories of distributive justice. Briefly, the main criticisms are as follows.

1. Advocates of strict equality argue that inequalities permitted by the Difference Principle are unacceptable even if they do benefit the least advantaged. The problem for these advocates is to explain in a satisfactory way why the relative position of the least advantaged is more important than their absolute position, and hence why society should be prevented from materially benefiting the least advantaged when this is possible. The most common explanation appeals to solidarity : that being materially equal is an important expression of the equality of persons. Another common explanation appeals to the power some may have over others, if they are better off materially. Rawls’ response to this latter criticism appeals to the priority of his first principle: The inequalities consistent with the Difference Principle are only permitted so long as they do not result in unequal liberty. So, for instance, power differentials resulting from unequal income are not permitted if they violate the first principle of equal liberty, even if they increase the material position of the least advantaged group.

2. The Utilitarian objection to the Difference Principle is that it does not maximize utility. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls uses Utilitarianism as the main theory for comparison with his own, and hence he responds at length to this Utilitarian objection and argues for his own theory in preference to Utilitarianism (some of these arguments are outlined in the section on Welfare-Based Principles)

 3. Libertarians object that the Difference Principle involves unacceptable infringements on liberty. For instance, the Difference Principle may require redistributive taxation to the poor, and Libertarians commonly object that such taxation involves the immoral taking of just holdings. (see Libertarian Principles)

4. The Difference Principle is also criticized as a primary distributive principle on the grounds that it mostly ignores claims that people deserve certain economic benefits in light of their actions. Advocates of Desert-Based Principles argue that some may deserve a higher level of material goods because of their hard work or contributions even if their unequal rewards do not also function to improve the position of the least advantaged. They also argue that the Difference Principle ignores the explanations of how people come to be in the more or less advantaged groups, when such explanations are relevant to the fairness of these positions.

5. The Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance may exclude some morally relevant information. the theory excludes in order to promote rationality and is biased in favor of rationality.  

6. Some criticize it for being similar to Utilitarianism in as much as these two principles could permit or demand inequalities and suffering in order to benefit the least well off.

7. Like Desert theorists, advocates of Resource-Based Principles criticize the Difference Principle on the basis that it is not ‘ambition-sensitive’ enough, i.e. it is not sensitive to the consequences of people’s choices. They also argue that it is not adequately ‘endowment-sensitive’: it does not compensate people for natural inequalities (like handicaps or ill-health) over which people have no control.

8. There is also the difficulty in applying the theory to practice.  It is difficult if not impossible for people to place themselves under the Veil of Ignorance in the Original Position in order to formulate what conduct would be required of them by the MAXI MIN Principle.  

9. Some question whether or not people are rational enough to assume the veil of ignorance and operate under the two principles.

10. The theory was developed more to handle problems within society and there are difficulties in applying the principles to individual decision-making involving specific others.

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© Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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