The difference principle is the second part of the second principle of John Rawls’s theory of justice. The first principle requires that citizens enjoy equal basic liberties. The first part of the second principle requires fair equality of opportunity. These rules have priority over the difference principle; the difference principle cannot justify policies or institutions that abrogate them. The difference principle governs the distribution of income and wealth, positions of responsibility and power, and the social bases of self-respect. It holds that inequalities in the distribution of these goods are permissible only if they benefit the least well-off positions of society.
Rawls’s argument for the principle is based on the premise that citizens have, as their highest interest, two moral powers. The first power is the ability to propose and act on principles of justice all can accept. The second power is the ability to hold, revise, and pursue a conception of the good. It follows that any principle of justice, including those that regulate social and economic inequalities, must be acceptable to all and help each citizen pursue his or her conception of the good.
Rawls argues that citizens concerned to protect and exercise their moral powers would agree on principles that guarantee equal basic liberties (his first principle of justice) and the resources to pursue their good. This rules out libertarianism, perfectionism, theocracy, and utilitarianism. Citizens would not choose a rule requiring absolute equality, for everyone could do better by allowing inequalities that spur economic production. Rules that allow more inequality than the difference principle ask the worst off to accept inequalities that do not benefit them; this violates reciprocity. Moreover, citizens must have self-respect if they are to pursue their good. Self-respect depends both on having the resources to pursue one’s good and others’ recognition of one’s worth. The difference principle supports the self-respect of the worst off more than alternative principles because it maximizes their resources and expresses the commitment of the better off to share their fate. Last, Rawls argues that a principle allowing some citizens advantages that do not benefit the worst off implies that the latter are not equally worthy members of society. This endangers social stability by causing them to withdraw in sullen resentment from the public world.
Critics have charged that Rawls’s argument ignores the principle that people with greater talents deserve greater rewards than others. Rawls responds that the point of any system of cooperation citizens construct is to enable them to exercise their moral powers and pursue their good. Because citizens are equal in their moral features, they have an equal claim to the benefits from the system of cooperation. The principle of desert implies the cooperative scheme ought to reward talent rather than to respond to the essential moral features of citizens. Rawls also argues that people do not deserve their talent or the character that allows them to develop it, for they have willed neither. Last, citizens have a variety of moral, religious, and philosophical views about what constitutes desert and so could not agree on what to reward.
SEE ALSO Equality; Justice, Distributive; Political Economy; Rawls, John; Wealth
Cohen, Joshua. 1989. Democratic Equality. Ethics 99 (July): 727–751.
Pogge, Thomas W. 1989. Realizing Rawls. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Rawls, John. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Ed. Erin Kelly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.