In Theory of Justice to begin with, then I

            In Rawls’
book ‘A Theory of Justice’ he presents his argument for the ‘difference
principle’ which I will critique and evaluate in the essay. Despite Rawls’
theory of justice (composed of two main principles) offering a comprehensive
and pioneering retort to a debate stretching as far back as the times when ancient
Greek philosophers such as Plato dominated philosophical rhetoric regarding
justice, there are many critics of the theory (Alfred, 1978). In order to
assess the argument Rawls’ presents, I will look at a variation of criticisms
and theories from other dominant philosophers on the subject of justice.
For
example, criticisms from the left come from philosophers such as Okin and Cohen
and criticisms from the right come from those such as Norzick. Similarly,
philosophers such as Pogge, who have theorised on topics similar to Rawls and,
in fact, furthered some of his ideas will play a role in my evaluation of the
Rawls’ work. This is because the difference principle is founded in domestic
theory and I have found it useful to explore if an international difference
principle is feasible (Pogge, 2002). Cohen comes from a socialist background
and critiques many aspects of Rawls’ argument as he believes ‘justice is
equality’ meaning he intrinsically disagrees with Rawls (Moon, 2015). Whilst on
the right, Norzick offers the perfect opposing side to the debate. It’s said that
together the two frame a well-rounded set of opinions on the topic of justice (Fried:
2005 ; MacIntyre: 1985; Schmidtz: 2006). I hope to lay out the main themes of
Rawls’ Theory of Justice to begin with, then I will explore the specific criticisms
presented by Cohen and Norzick. I will next look at the application of the difference
principle on the international stage and finally I will conclude that Rawls’
argument for the difference principle has suffered much scrutiny – rightly so –
but it is nonetheless highly plausible and impactful in the study of justice in
philosophy.

             In order to begin commenting on Rawls’
argument for the difference principle we must first look at its origins. Rawls
believed that if an agent of a civilised society is acting from the original
position behind a veil of ignorance, a rational person will adopt two main
principle of justice (Rawls, 1971, 118).  These principles start with the equality in
distribution of basic rights and duties; this can include freedom and speech
and expression. The second starts with equality of opportunity and is followed
by what we know as the difference principle. This difference principle states
that within the basic structure of society inequalities can exist with regards
to the distribution of wealth and goods if this will benefit the least well-off
in society (Rawls, 1999a, 266). These people are defined in this category based
on morally arbitrary factors such as class origins and natural endowments or
talents (Rawls, 1999a, 83-84). This is one of the key features of Rawls’ theory
of justice as it permits inequality; Rawls states that goods “are to be
distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these
values is to everyone’s advantage” (Rawls, 1971, 660). All the features
described here add up to what Rawls’ would describe as his ‘reasonable
conception of justice’ (Rawls, 1971, 8).

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The difference principle is a
widely criticised aspect of Rawlsian theory because it does not fall in line
with the rest of Rawls’ theory. For example, Cohen describes the models
presented in Rawls’ Theory of Justice as being ‘inconsistent’ in his book ‘If
you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’ and rejects the principle as ‘insufficiently
egalitarian’ (Moon, 2015). Cohen does not dispute the difference principle
itself, instead he argues that the argument Rawls puts forward does not specify
which inequalities are permissible; to Cohen it may even seem that no
inequalities run deep enough to qualify for Rawl’s difference principle (Cohen,
1997, 6). Furthermore, it is contradictory to disagree with moral arbitrary
features benefiting a society to begin with but then supporting this when it is
beneficial. This leads me onto the point that Cohen has an issue with the
widely accepted incentive argument. This is because he believes if the ‘talented’
people have their beneficial arbitrary feature discounted in the original
situation, it should stay the same throughout. This is another example of
Rawls’ inconsistencies picked up upon by Cohen (Cohen, 1977, 8).  Rawl’s believes that natural talents are a
‘common asset’ (Rawls, 1972, 101) meaning the benefits reaped from them should be
shared, if this is so Rawls’ should hold this view throughout the theory.

This leads to another aspect of
Rawls’ Theory of Justice which is referred to by Rodriguez as the ‘effort
argument’. This is a three stage argument which Rawls’ uses to form his argument
for distributive justice and in tuner the difference principle. The first part
of the argument states that within a functioning society an agent’s willingness
to make an effort is determined by their social circumstances and natural
endowments (Rawls, 1999a, 64 & 274). The next part of the argument states
that the distribution of resources based on social circumstances and natural
endowment are morally arbitrary (Rawls, 1999a, 274). Finally the argument
states that the people who make more effort don’t deserve more resources
(Rawls, 1999a, 274). This argument forms the bases of Rawls’ argument for the
difference principle in that equal distribution is not required due to the
arbitrary nature of the qualities one need not possess to produce good and
work. However, taking a constructivist stance when looking at this argument,
and therefore concluding that the first part of the argument means an agents
willingness is only ‘partially’ reliant on their social circumstances and
natural endowments means that the argument in invalid (Cohen, 1989, 914-16).
According to Cohen this is another flaw in the plausibility of Rawl’s
difference principle.  

A different form of criticism of
Rawls comes from Norzick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Norzick is critical of Rawls’ ‘quest for a
conception of justice’ as he believes that the welfare of the least
well-endowed in society need not be the issue of those elsewhere positioned in society.
He believes instead that people can do as they wish with their goods under a
principle of ‘self-ownership (Norzick, 1974, 215). This directly contradicts
Rawls and presents a flaw in his argument in that Norzick can far better
explain extreme poverty. One of Nozick’s main criticisms of Rawls is that his
argument is not historically sound as it is found in ‘unhistorical
considerations’ (Meadowcroft, 2011). Nozick critiques Rawls as he believes the
focus of distribution should be on where it comes from and not whether or not
it is just (Kaufman, 2004). Nozick also produces his own theory of justice as a
criticism of Rawls. Nozick denotes; “we are not in the position of children who
have been given portions of pie by someone who now makes last minute adjustments
to rectify careless cutting” (Nozick, ASU, 149). He states fairly that these
resources Rawl’s exemplifies as cake are no longer in the possession of central
authority and instead they are people ‘holdings’ to which individuals now have
a right (Nozick, 149-150). This is relevant to the world as we know it now and
therefore is a sound critique of the argument presented by Rawls for the
difference principle. To resolve this problem of being Rawls’ hypothetical
concepts, Nozick gives us the proposal for a ‘historical conception of justice’
This would be that each line of distribution was covered by three basic
principles which are ‘justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and rectification
when the first two principals have been transgressed: “the holdings of a person
are just if he is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acquisition
and transfer, or by the principle of rectification of injustice (as specified
by the fi rst two principles). If each person’s holdings are just, then the
total set (distribution) of holdings is just” (Nozick, 153) (Meadowcroft,
2011).

Another criticism of Rawls’ argument
for the difference principle is that it is not applicable worldwide and is in
fact only useful when looking at domestic cases. Rawls looked upon the
international difference principle as a ‘fraternity’ between citizens (Rawls 1971:
105). However, he later discredited the existence of a worldwide difference
principle at all saying that it is not the responsibility of people to bear the
costs of choices made by others (Rawls, 1999, p. 116ff). This is an aspect of
Rawls’ work which I would expect to be praised by the likes of Cohen, rather
than refuted as it derives from a sense of community with ‘fraternity
or friendship’ being key themes which Cohen supports. Pogge (2002) and Beitz
are examples of two who wish to further the research and strife for proof of a
globally accepted difference principle; this strengthens Rawls’ argument even
if he did withdraw later on. However, criticisms of Rawls’ original work on an
international difference principle do exist. For example, when looking at
natural resources we can see that if distribution is uneven this is not fair
according to Rawls as this is a morally arbitrary factor; natural resources are
simply ‘out there’ (Beitz, 1979, 139). Pogge argues that ‘peoples’ become
nations in international theory and they are then recognised as the ‘ultimate
unit of moral concern’ (Pogge, 2006, 211)

Rawl’s argument for the ‘difference
principle’ is certainly plausible despite a lot of criticism. Cohen presents
some very significant criticisms which in some ways help Rawls in his
theorising to see flaws. However a main argument he presents is the incentive
argument. It is my belief that in reality this can only make Rawl’s argument
more relevant and applicable to everyday life; humans respond to material
incentives and in fact this can increase production in society (Lamont and
Favour, 2013).  Norzick also claims some
problems within Rawl’s theories however his side of the argument is so
contrasting to Rawl’s that it will never act to disprove, rather continually
challenge and strengthen Rawls’ argument. Fortunately, Rawls’ has already
self-critiqued his global difference principle and eradicated it from his there
in order to strengthen his argument however it is good that research has
continued into this by other philosophers as there were significant and
informative application of the difference principle at an international level. The
theory is wide-ranging and flexible; the range of use is expressed nicely in Rawls’
declaration, ‘In justice as fairness men agree to share one another’s fate.’
(Rawls, 1971, 102). Rawls’ focus on the ‘political culture’ being the
determiner of how successful a society is positive and refreshing to study as
it does not determine that arbitrary factors such as natural resources
determine how a society fares. This point is exemplified in the case study of
Japan we have seen development rapidly socially and politically despite and
lack of natural resources (1999, p. 119).

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