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the difference principle-brilliant or impractical?

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egyptian goddess View Drop Down
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    Posted: 07 Jul 2009 at 13:07

Just a Background (for those who don't know of the Difference Principle):

The difference principle was formulated by the renowned political philosopher, John Rawls in his 1971 scholarly publication, A Theory of Justice and reinforced in his 2001 revised text, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. The difference principle is one of the three components of Rawls' "special conception of justice" and through the difference principle, Rawls essentially argues that inequality is unjustifiable, unless the existence of inequality is operating to benefit the least advantaged in society. As he states, "Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all".

Rawls' "special conception of justice" is encapsulated in Rawls' two principles of justice, where the first principle stipulates that each person has an equal right to "the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others" while the second principle instructs that social and economic inequalities are required to be arranged (a) according to the difference principle and (b) based on fair equality of opportunity. Hence, subject to the constraints of the other two principles, the difference principle requires that one should "arrange social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits", thereby through its leximin formulation its operation is permitted on the condition that the fair value of political liberties are not compromised. Therefore the difference principle is essentially based on the simple notion that social and economic inequalities are justifiable "only if the difference in expectation is to the advantage of the representative man who is worse off". This is fundamentally achieved through existing social and economic institutions who are permitted to initiate schemes which encourage better prospects for the most advantaged on the basis that it will also simultaneously benefit the less fortunate. As Rawls argues, "Their [the most advantaged] better prospects act as incentives so that the economic process is more efficient, innovation proceeds at a faster pace and so on. Eventually the resulting material benefits spread throughout the system and to the least advantaged".

My View:

I think that because Rawls' argument in favour of the difference principle is supported by a culmination of economic, social and moral justifications, it is essentially a favourable idea if imposed upon society. For instance:

Economically, the difference principle appears preferable as it is "compatible with the principle of efficiency". This is evident as an economy becomes stagnant and inefficient when it pays everybody the same and this as a result does not provide the kind of growth that benefits everybody- including, overtime, the worst off. This is essentially the argument used to explain the inefficiency and economic demise that occurred under state socialism in Eastern Europe. Therefore the difference principle is economically justified on the basis that inequality in expectation provides an incentive so that the economy is more efficient, industrial advance precedes at a quicker pace, and so on. The end result of which is that greater material and other benefits are distributed throughout the system.

Socially, the difference principle is seemingly practical as Rawls suggests that when the difference principle is satisfied, the least advantaged individual accepts that the most advantaged individual being better off will inevitably improve their prospects as "representative men do not gain at one another’s expense since only reciprocal advantages are allowed". Moreover, compliance with the principle is ostensibly guaranteed as the difference principle is subject to the first two principles of equal liberties and fair equality of opportunity which prevents it from being exploited or abused. Additionally, Rawls convincingly suggests that it is rational for individuals to accept this principle as it is mutually enforcing and under the veil of ignorance one is obliged to comply with it as they must consider the possibility that he might end up as the worst off individual in the society.

Therefore, Rawls' formulation of the difference principle appears justified, in that "it avoids, at the same time, the absurdity of equality at any price and the outrageousness of maximising the aggregate no matter how distributed" (Parijs 2002, p.200).

I am aware of the existing criticisms against Rawls' difference principle, but rather than make this one long essay like thread would like to hear what AE members think about it. Is the difference principle a formulation devised by a genius or is it a completely impractical and unreasonable idea?



Edited by egyptian goddess - 07 Jul 2009 at 13:14
�I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be� � Douglas Adams
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gcle2003 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09 Jul 2009 at 05:57
I need a little more time to think on this one. Probably because I'm still recovering from my birthday....
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Jul 2009 at 01:02

Up front I should probably say that as a goal for society Rawls' principles appeal to me. That is I'd see us as on the same side.

However, the problem is, it seems to me, that they represent a prescription that will only be seen as satisfying by people who are already biassed in favour of greater equality in society, economically and politically (like me). As an argument for converting someone who doesn't already accept that kind of goal I don't thinik it is persuasive.

Another way of putting it is that while his logic is sound enough it is only valid insofar as one accepts his axiom: that society exists for the betterment of all its members, and that individual benefit at some point has to be sacrificed for the sake of others. That's not a position that would appeal to opponents of, say, universal health care, or proponents for instance of flat rate taxes (or no income taxes at all).

Economically, it is a much more apposite position than that of the 'a rising tide raises all boats' school, a purely propagandist position which ignores the blatant fact that over the last 40 years the rising economic tide, particularly in the 'Anglo-Saxon' countries put also in for instance Russia, has left many a boat tied to its mooring as the water rushes in (to further the metaphor). But facts are not convincing in the face of prejudice. Neither is logic.

In some ways Rawls is a Lockeian - that is someone influenced by the Lockeian view of the social contract as designed to benefit everyone - as opposed to the Hobbesian view of the social contract as simply designed to protect the individual. Which is a dichotomy that has split the political world for nearls four centuries.
 
Those for whom the welfare of the community is at bottom paramount should and will welcome Rawls. Those for whom the individual should only act for his own benefit won't.
 
PS To answer the question: not brilliant because not entirely original but a good way of formulating economic and social goals. Practical in the sense that it is certainly workable; possibly not so practical in that it is unlikely to convert anyone to his point of view who doesn't already in some way share it.


Edited by gcle2003 - 11 Jul 2009 at 01:06
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote egyptian goddess Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 Jul 2009 at 17:41
thats a really insightful way of looking at it gcle. I agree also I guess it's not original but I still credit the guy for being so innovative still. pity this topic hasn't really received any attention though haha
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 Aug 2009 at 05:38
Goddess, on this theme you might be interested in this obituary from today's Guardian:
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote DownBabylon Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26 Sep 2009 at 21:01
One thing it might miss is the issue of Power. That is that in practice those who seek to control the institutions which govern democratic societies are often motivated by, and appointed through processes which require the establishment of power relationships, which are actually antithetical to the kind of deliberative democracies which Rawls envisions. Habermas argues that the fact that the rules of the game are constitutionally legitimized preempts the kind of deliberative dialog which allows citizens to engage in a way that allows for genuine political autonomy.

The following article is actually a very good summary of Rawls ideas about deliberative democracy, some of the arguments against them, and how Foucault's theories on power and pluralism might add to Rawls' ideas: http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/5/0/7/4/p150745_index.html
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote eventhorizon Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Nov 2009 at 08:59
All brains are not created equal, every one of them has their unique strengths and weaknesses. Putting the right brain for the right job, the better suited brains for more difficult jobs for collective good of the community is a management principle that is as old as humanity itself. Why is Rawls' theory something new, I didn't quite understand.

Equal pay for everyone and lack of incentives to do better is problematic, because communism was not a tried and true system that evolved by trial and error over thousands of years, but came out of some so called bright brains in Germany, a rather unfortunate chapter in human history. Easy to rouse the rubble, but hard to make an idea work, if it was never tried before and just because someone thought that it would work better.

That said, the kind of pay inequalities that happen in today's societies, is also problematic, as it creates waste and planetary mismanagement. If there was no hunger, no malnutrition, no environmental degradation or no climate crisis, then we could say that the current global system is working, clearly it needs correction and needs it really really fast.


Edited by eventhorizon - 19 Nov 2009 at 09:00
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Jameshopes Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 Dec 2010 at 22:16
I think that because Rawls' argument in favour of the difference principle is supported by a culmination of economic, social and moral justifications, it is essentially a favourable idea if imposed upon society.http://www.bullrally.com/
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote marjKings Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 Mar 2011 at 23:44
The difference principle has elements of other familiar ethical theories. Rawls adopts the concept of efficiency that is associated with the name Pareto in the field of economics.
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