RAWLS’ DIFFERENCE PRINCIPLE: ABSOLUTE vs. RELATIVE INEQUALITY

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Abstract
In the book “A Theory of Justice”, John Rawls examines the notion of a just society. More specifically, he develops a conception of justice—Justice as Fairness—derived from his novel interpretation of the social contract. Central to his account are two lexically-ordered principles of justice by which primary social institutions, or the basic structure of society, are ideally to be organized and regulated. Broadly speaking, the second of Rawls’ two principles pertains to “the distribution of income and wealth”, and its formulation is to be understood as an expression of Rawls’ Difference Principle—roughly, the principle that “inequality in expectation is permissible only if lowering it would make the [worst-off] class even more worse off.”1 2 I want to suggest that Rawls’ Difference Principle (DP) entails the following worrisome outcome: Because DP maximizes the absolute level of expectation (and disregards the relative level), it authorizes potentially immense levels of inequality, such that this inequality itself can become a source of social discord and injustice. This paper will (§2) present Rawls’ formulation of DP, (§3) motivate the worrisome outcome entailed by DP, and (§4) offer a prima facie plausible solution in the form of an addendum to DP.
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Archival date: 2017-07-27
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