Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

The first principle is a familiar one – each person has an equal right to free
speech, association, conscience, thought, property, a fair trial, to vote, hold political
office if qualified and so on. Principle 2a is also familiar – jobs and services should
be open to all (equal access), but furthermore society should be so arranged that
as far as possible people have an equal opportunityto get jobs and gain access to
services. Principle 2b – the difference principle – is the novel one, and it is the one
we shall focus on in the next section.
Rawls maintains that there is a lexical priority of 1 over 2a and 2a over 2b. That
means that you cannot sacrifice liberty for economic justice – you must satisfy fully
the equal liberty principle before applying the difference principle (Rawls, 1972:
42–3). For example, the greatest source of unequal opportunity is the family –
parents favouring their children – but Rawls argues that even though people in the
original position are ‘mutually disinterested’ they do value personal freedom, which
includes the freedom to form personal relationships, marry, have a family and enjoy
a ‘private sphere’ of life. They would, therefore, opt to protect this private sphere
even if it resulted in unequal opportunity. Although Rawls’s theory does not operate
at the detailed level of public policy, he would probably have argued that, for
example, outlawing private education contravenes the first principle of justice. On
the other hand, he does support high inheritance tax, and that tax not only works
directly against privilege but generates resources which can be used to fund an
extensive state education system. Lexicality also entails that equal opportunity takes
priority over the difference principle. Discrimination in access to jobs might improve
the position of the worst off, but it would violate the equal opportunity principle.

Would we really choose the difference principle?

If you consider the distributions set out in Table 4.1, we asked you to choose one
of the six distributions. Rawls argues that the rational strategy is to choose
distribution B2.
Rational agents in the original position, recognising the seriousness of the choice,
will, Rawls maintains, ensure that should they end up in the bottom quarter of
society they will be as well off as possible. The reasoning behind this is termed
‘maximin’: maximum minimorum, or the maximisation of the minimum position
(Rawls, 1972: 154). Although Rawls avoids committing himself to any particular
view on agents’ attitude to risk, only highly risk-averse agents would select B over
the most credible alternative, principle C2.^1 To be fair, the table fails to capture
the dynamic nature of income distribution, for what is presented is a one-off ‘time
slice’ of income, whereas in the original position agents are not choosing a particular
distribution but a principleof distribution, and the principles underlying B and C2
are quite different: C2 says ‘maximise average expected utility (subject to a floor)’
whereas B says ‘maximise the position of the worst off’. There is a shifting sands
quality to C2: it does not concern itself with any particular group in society, but
takes only average income to be morally significant. It is possible that over time
distributions could move quite dramatically and compared to B the worst-off class
under C2 could become a lot worse off. B, on the other hand, always gives priority
to the worst off. Nonetheless, the floor – which is defined as a fraction of the average,
but could be a fraction of the income of the best-off – provides some reassurance

Chapter 4 Justice 83
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