Rawls' Difference Principle

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Rawls’ Difference Principle

Rawls believed in the ideal of perfect equality. This meant, to him, that everyone should have equal opportunity and receive the same treatment. To Rawls, there was only one reason why anyone should be treated differently to any other person – to help the worst off members of society. He called this reason the difference principle, and in conjunction with his “Justice as Fairness” ideal it formed the basis of his claims about distributive justice.

Rawls’ natural lottery was the biological limitations that one is born with. For example, some people are simply not capable of the intelligence and skill required to be a doctor. Rawls suggests a counter to this natural phenom, asserting that the difference principle is needed to counter the effects of the natural lottery (“The Law Of Peoples” p.114, On Distributive Justice Among People). People who are biologically less able than others would be provided for to the same level as others, but it would take more of society’s resources, so they would need a larger amount than the average person. This would create an inequality in terms of natural assets, but it would create equality in social order. The person who was disadvantaged would be brought to the same level as everyone else because of the excess money given to them.

The difference principle makes sense in a cut and dry hypothetical situation like giving more resources to someone who is biologically disinclined to be successful, but I feel that it fails in a few key areas. Throughout history, society has believed many different things to be biologically inferior to the norm at the time. A prime example is the discrimination that natives of basically any country in the world faced when confronted by settlers. When settlers arrived in Australia, they believed that the natives were biologically incapable of being “civilised”. Applying Rawls’ theory to a situation such as this would not be appropriate, because the resources would be going to someone who did not need them and therefore would not be going to someone who did, like a child born with a permanent medical condition.

We can see with perfect clarity in hindsight who the most disadvantaged group in society is, but at the time when we would have to decide how to best distribute natural resources we might not be so lucid. This, to me, represents the biggest flaw in Rawls’ difference principle – not that it would not help, but that we would not be able to decide who the most disadvantaged member of society is.

Rawls’ assertions about distributive justice are idealistic at best. If it would cost the community resources to get a person’s equal share to them because they are physically remote, then they should not receive the same as everyone else. The trouble with equally distributing all natural assets is that some people will lose theirs. Just like with money, some people make poor decisions with it and will inevitably end up with none. When that day comes, the person who lost everything expects that they will somehow be taken care of by society because everyone is equal but other people have more than they do. They feel a sense of entitlement to what everyone else has because they were meant to have the same. When a situation like this occurs, there isn’t a right answer. You can’t, morally, let this person live without any resources (whether it be money, food, shelter, etc) but you also would ruin the social construct if you were to give them an amount of resources from someone else.

This leads to the next big problem with Rawls’ principle, that is; if people turn their resources into more resources, are they then morally indebted to society and expected to share their profits with everyone? If everyone starts from the same point, it could be argued that any profit made by any single person is still a natural resource and should therefore be distributed equally between everyone. This should definitely not be the case. The...
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