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Sunday, July 12, 2015


Thirty-eight years ago, I published a book on John Rawls' A Theory of Justice -- the first of what would be a flood of books about what is arguably the most widely read and influential piece of political philosophy to appear in English in the last century and a half.  Next month, I shall start teaching an informal reading group on that work to some graduate students in the UNC Chapel Hill doctoral program, and in preparation for that gig, I have been reflecting on Rawls' argument.  I have been elaborating in my mind, as I take my morning walks, a line of analysis that is not present in my book, and which, so far as I know, has not found its way into the literature on Rawls.  Since I wanted to spring it on the students, and since I long ago learned that anything posted on the Internet is sure to be read by all the wrong people, I have been keeping it to myself, but having run out of topics to comment on this summer, I have decided to lay it before you in a lengthy post.  If the graduate students find their way to it before we formally convene, so much the worse for me.

A word of warning:  Rawls first announced his theory in a journal article published in Philosophical Review in 1958.  He subsequently made several major revisions in the theory, initially in another article, Distributive Justice, and then in the book, which was published in 1971.  Thereafter, he spent several decades tinkering with the theory.  None of these changes in any way affect the idea I am going to set forth here, and I shall therefore simply ignore them. 

The centerpiece of the theory is the two principles for the general regulation of society that, according to Rawls, would be unanimously chosen by individuals engaged in what Game Theorists call a Bargaining Game.   Here is the passage in which Rawls first introduces those  principles:

The conception of justice which I want to develop may be stated in the form of two principles as follows: first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The central idea of these principles is this:  Modern society consists of large-scale bureaucratic organizations -- corporations, universities, hospitals, government offices, armies, and so forth -- in which there are clearly defined roles to which attach specified duties and compensations.  The default baseline situation, we may imagine, is one in which all the roles receive the same compensation -- a situation of absolute equality.  However, if the ablest individuals with the best sets of talents and skills are drawn into certain key positions, the institutions will function much more efficiently -- to be put it as simply as possible, the net output of the institution will be higher.  Now, to ensure that these especially talented or well-prepared individuals end up in those key positions, it is necessary to pay them higher salaries, and this is an element of inequality.  But the gain from their greater efficiency will be such that after they receive their added compensation, there will be something left over that can be given to everyone else [or to the least advantaged representative individual, depending on which version of Rawls' theory we are considering.]

Let us call this something extra the "inequality surplus" [not Rawls' term, by the way.]  Assuming, as Rawls does, that the individuals in the society are "not envious," which is to say assuming that those getting less in the way of compensation than the key individuals do not begrudge them their higher salaries so long as they themselves are getting more than they would without the productive efforts of those key individuals, everyone will endorse this system.  And that, in a nutshell, without all the baroque elaborations, is Rawls' argument.

Since this is rather abstract, let me restate it by way of a hypothetical example.  Consider a manufacturing firm that makes washer-dryers.  The employees, we may suppose for simplicity's sake, are divided into executives who direct the operations of the firm, production line workers who assemble the washer-dryers from components delivered to the factory, and loading dock workers who unload the components when they are delivered by truck to the back door of the factory and load the finished washer-dryers onto trucks waiting to take them to retail outlets.

Clearly, the earnings of the company will be much greater if those with special skills, training, and talent for corporate management are assigned to the executive jobs, and that fact will make it possible to raise everyone's salary.  But there is a problem.  Rawls does not identify this problem, but his theory makes no sense at all unless we assume that the problem exists, so we are justified, I think, in assuming it.

The problem is this:  After the professionally administered aptitude tests are scored, and the individuals with special management talents are identified, they are offered jobs as managers.  But when the selected individuals are invited into the executive suites, they say, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I would rather work on the loading dock." 

"What is this?"  you say incredulously.  "Where on earth does Rawls say that in A Theory of Justice?"  Well, nowhere of course.  But he must be assuming it, even though he doesn't know it, because if those tapped for management actually prefer to be in management [or, technically, are indifferent between executive suite and loading dock, but never mind that], WHY PAY THEM MORE TO TAKE THE JOBS?

"But it is not just to pay them no more than loading dock workers, and Rawls says his theory is a theory of justice!” you protest.  "Ah," I reply, "you have not read Rawls as carefully as you ought.  Rawls does not start with a pre-systematic concept of justice that he assumes without argument.  He starts with a collection of rationally self-interested individuals who, according to him, will out of self-interest choose these two principles, and the fact that they will out of self-interest choose these principles MAKES THEM the principles of justice."

There is no reason for me, a rationally self-interested individual, to approve a system of unequal compensation unless I believe that doing so will draw into key positions individuals whose greater efficiency will end up benefitting ME.   

Does anyone at all really believe that offered a choice between corner offices in the executive suite and nine-to-five jobs on the loading dock, potential executives will opt for the loading dock unless they are paid hefty salaries well above that of their lesser brothers and sisters out back?  Rawls does.  He must.  Otherwise the centerpiece of his theory collapses.

Now, it is entirely possible that extra compensation will be required to draw people into some important jobs.  Maybe those with a gift for medicine will choose that career from sheer love, but would anyone actually want to be a corporate lawyer if it weren't for the pay?

Think about my own profession, university teaching.  Since universities are [or used to be] non-profits, it is a little hard to translate the gain from selecting talented philosophers for the professoriate into dollars and cents, but clearly there is some social benefit to having Plato or Kant taught by folks who actually understand them.  Now, a university Philosophy department employs a bunch of professors and some secretaries.  I am vain enough to believe that the education students get is actually better for having me teach the classes rather than having me sit in the front office and answer the phone.  But if I were offered both jobs, would I choose the secretarial position unless the professor's slot came with a salary bump?  Of course not.  I enjoy teaching much more than I would enjoy answering the phone, even taking into account grading papers.

There is much more to be said, but this post is long enough, so I shall conclude by simply noting that A Theory of Justice, when all is said and done, is an ideological rationalization of mid-twentieth century American welfare state liberalism.  Think about it.


Jerry Fresia said...

Good lord, so that's Rawls? Forget the loading dock; is there any job where I can use my mind and my hands? I promise, I'll work for less! It is hard to believe that "what is arguably the most widely read and influential piece of political philosophy to appear in English in the last century and a half" assumes Taylorism.

Chris said...

"A Theory of Justice, when all is said and done, is an ideological rationalization of mid-twentieth century American welfare state liberalism. Think about it."

This always seemed glaringly clear to me when on page 57, and 118, of the revised edition, he admits that in his thought experiments he's going to 'take for granted' that the market is 'free' and capitalistic, and people will belong to certain corresponding economic classes.

Just imagine a Mayan behind the veil of ignorance. Would those categories find their way there?

Robert Paul Wolff said...


mikhail said...

Perhaps I am missing your point, and I have no desire to defend Rawls or mid-twentieth century American welfare state liberalism; but I can imagine a person with a talent for administration but a preference for the honest work of the loading dock requiring an incentive of some sort to endure the endless meetings, management fads, buzzwords and sycophants associated with being an executive.

Unknown said...

Wouldn’t Rawls answer by invoking the difference principle: inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the least advantaged? The executives would get higher salaries than the loading dock workers only if those higher salaries benefited the least advantaged. That might be pretty hard to show. It might be true in some cases, for example, a physician might not be willing to take the time and the debt burden of becoming a neuro-surgeon if he or she could make as much doing something else. Since we need neurosurgeons, it might be necessary to pay them more. Rawls doesn’t seem to me to be saying that this necessarily is the case, only that if it is the case, then inequality would be justified. His default position seems to me to be equality.

Anonymous said...

I agree with David Palmeter, so I won't repeat what he said. I am not seeing the "knock out punch" so far, in fact, Rawls doesn't even seem to be on the ropes!

Also, I have absolutely no doubt that for a Mayan behind the veil of ignorance the calculus would be very different, but really, is that where we want to go? (Rigid theocracy, human sacrifice...I could go on.)

What Rawls assumed as his starting point was the modern man or woman that is common to both liberalism and Marxism (and NOT common to classic,Burkean conservatism or traditionalist peasant or tribal society): individuals who stand before the world without illusions and for whom distinctions of race, gender, class, standing in the theocratic hierarchy, and even "merit" are devoid of INHERENT value or respect--retaining only plain, unsentimental, drab INSTRUMENTAL value. Of all of these distinctions, "merit" was the last to go. Marx never mentioned it. But Rawls put paid to that illusion as well. Even merit, seemingly so "fair," so "earned" only matters, if, and only if, it benefits the least well off. That's radical.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Maximising the prospects of the least well-off has always seemed pretty radical to me. And I find the Original Position interesting, and possibly a good rhetorical device, but I'm not sure it's not just jargon for empathy.

Jerry Fresia said...

Chomsky: "The founders of classical liberalism, people like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt... were what we would call libertarian socialists, at least that ïs the way I read them. For example, Humboldt, like Smith, says, Consider a craftsman who builds some beautiful thing. Humboldt says if he does it under external coercion, like pay, for wages, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is. On the other hand, if he does it out of his own free, creative expression of himself, under free will, not under external coercion of wage labor, then we also admire what he is because he's a human being. He said any decent socioeconomic system will be based on the assumption that people have the freedom to inquire and create -- since that's the fundamental nature of humans -- in free association with others, but certainly not under the kinds of external constraints that came to be called capitalism."

Apparently, the requirement that any decent liberal socioeconomic system would require that no one work under external coercion has escaped Rawls and his followers.

Chris said...

"Also, I have absolutely no doubt that for a Mayan behind the veil of ignorance the calculus would be very different, but really, is that where we want to go? (Rigid theocracy, human sacrifice...I could go on.)"

I'm not making the claim that the Mayan would propose a better society, I'm only making the claim that Rawls's theory is purely ideological because he's peppering hsi thought experiments with loaded dice. Everyone that reads him should be suspicion of the fact that behind a veil of ignorance and in an original position, we emerge welfare liberals. It's so convenient, that it's dubious. And one can see why it's dubious when he takes certain PRODUCTIVE relationships for granted (largely capitalist), in deciding how to DISTRIBUTE goods. When in fact, productive activity is the antecedent condition for the latter, and requires its own veil of ignorance and original position.

Unknown said...

It's been years since I've read Theory of Justice, so I can't comment on what he said there, but in his last book, Justice as Fairness--a Restatement, he makes quite clear that only two systems of economic organization would meet his criteria: democratic socialism or a property-owning democracy. He explicitly argues that welfare capitalism would not suffice.

Unknown said...

One could equally conclude, with G.A. Cohen circa 1992 Tanner Lectures, that because the members of an ideal Rawlsian society accept the rationale behind the difference principle as well as the principle itself (so Rawls says), they would not insist on extraordinary wages for ordinary work - and therefore that correctly understood the difference principle doesn't justify any serious inequality.

Other aspects of the view that undercut the "just a rationalization of welfare-state liberalism":
1. considering only the difference principle, inequalities have to *maximize* the level of the lowest social position, not just raise it above what it would be under 100% equality. So to conclude that the DP justifies current practice one has to believe that any policy change that reduced inequality would also worsen the position of the worst off. That's hard to believe; but if it really were true, maybe it *would* be wrong to insist on greater equality at the expense of making the dock workers poorer; except for 2 and 3, below.
2. inequalities that satisfy the difference principle can be trumped by the demand for fair equality of opportunity (in the case where large increases for the better off lead to very small increases for the worst off, and also assuming private childrearing, the resulting differences in conditions of development and access to advantage might lead to a violation of the opportunity principle, which comes before the difference principle).
3. inequalities that satisfy the difference principle can be trumped the demand for fair value of political liberties, part of the principle, for reasons similar to 2.

Unknown said...

Good point. It is similar to the one sometimes made about the "what if everyone did that?" rationale for rules. For example, the rule is "Don't walk across the lawn" and the rationale for the rule is that if everyone walked across the lawn, the grass would die. Well, suppose not everyone WANTS to walk across the lawn. Would the grass die if everyone who WANTS to walk across it did? If not, then the "what if everyone did that?" rationale fails.

The upshot is that a more demanding standard is required to justify a rule. The proper question is "What if everyone who WANTS to do that did?" Fewer rules will pass this test.

Terry L. Smith

Unknown said...

Didn't see David Palmateer's comment about Rawls's point being conditional; Rawls isn't saying that unequal will reward will be necessary only that if it is it would be justified. I think that's right. Interestingly, some socialists recognized the same necessity. I've been reading Ben Jackson's book Equality and the British Left. At pp.75-76, he quotes the Webbs and Laski as accepting that in a socialist society those with special talents would be able to extract some "rent of ability." He's got a long quote from Laski about how we need to pay wages so that we attract enough talent into each socially necessary occupation, which concludes as follows: "For us, then, the justification for any difference in reward [he means between miners and judges or doctors, for example] must lie in the probability that such difference will provide us with the service we require in greater numbers than would be true were equality of reward to obtain." Some socialists held out hope for a greater transformation of motivations, Jackson says, but even those who expected a radical transformation "accepted that in the medium to long term some material incentives would nonetheless be inescapable" (75).

The justification of inequality from the quote from Laski above is essentially a difference principle rationale - the inequality is justified if it benefits everyone, which means even those on the bottom end of the inequality. Jackson finds similar reasoning in Hobson and Tawney.

One difference between Rawls and these people on the British left might be that they recognized this rent of ability to be an unfortunate thing. The inequalities in question might be justified, in the circumstances, but not fully just, because they're only necessary given the unfortunate lack of social spirit on the part of the talented. Rawls doesn't say that (though the idea of accepting the rationale underlying the difference principle does go in that direction).

Chris said...

David, what about a socialist workplace?

Unknown said...


I’m not sure what you mean by a “socialist workplace.” If it means an employee-owned company, it would fall under the property-owning democracy that Rawls mentions. Another example he gives is a cooperative. He doesn’t elaborate on this, so far as I know, and a lot of points remain unclear to me.
A very practical problem with an employee-owned company is that, for most of the employee-owners, all of their eggs are in that one basket. These companies would be competing in the market place, and there would be losers. When that happens, the typical employee loses just about everything—job, savings, health insurance. Universal single-payer health insurance could solve part of the problem, but not the rest. A better social safety net could help, but in all likelihood there would still be serious personal losses.
Again, so far as I know, Rawls never addressed this kind of problem in any detail. I suspect he would say that this kind of thing would be decided in the original position, i.e., the kind of social safety net would you favor behind the veil of ignorance.

Gene said...

It seems to me that the real problem with Rawls' argument is that it is so absurdly Kantian in the insistence that all rational actor will always arrive at the same rational conclusion. Just like Kant's rational actors were very 18th century European, Rawls' are very 20th century American. Neither is realistic.

David Gordon said...

In considering the value of incentives, wouldn't it be necessary to take account not only what is needed to draw qualified persons into managerial jobs, but also whether these persons, once in the managerial jobs, did more or better work in response to higher rewards?

MKH said...

This is an important line of argument. I don't know if you're right about whether it has found its way into the literature (I am no Rawls scholar), but I do remember exactly this point being made in an undergrad seminar at Cambridge offered in 2008 or 2009! Maybe the idea was floating around beforehand, maybe the lecturer originated it, or maybe it came from one of the students. Sadly I don't remember (although I remember being convinced!). I'm not putting the lecturer's name here because I'm not sure if she wants to stand by this point in public, but if you want to contact her personally to ask I'd be happy to tell you who it was in an email.

Neverthelessly said...

If we are speculating about how one might choose to be either a dock-worker or a manager (or doctor or lawyer, for that matter), considering that that choice is likely to be governed by preference, interest and internal motivation, or distorted by envy etc. ought we to consider that the preferences such a one makes ALREADY INCLUDES, in psychological terms, content ancillary to the occupation itself, such as the likely "ball-park" remuneration one receives for such work, social status etc.? Though such remuneration for a specific occupation may vary across time and place, it would nonetheless be universally incorporated into a subject's advance understanding and appreciation of what the occupation entailed, what is its value in both economic and social/reputational terms, and whether or not he wants to nonetheless do it. For a example, you are right to say that nobody would want to do corporate law but for the remuneration, but the remuneration is inextricably linked to a whole network of other factors inhere to the job, without which the job would be 'another, different job'. It's not a dissimilar argument to the old problem, "if you were Napoleon, what would you do at Waterloo", which of course makes no sense either because Napoleon would no longer be Napoleon but you, or because you wouldn't be yourself either, because you were Napoleon...

I hope I'm not being too opaque here, simply because I haven't the time to be more clear. And I certainly don't want to seem an apologist for the widening pay gap between the dock worker and the executive, nor the background cultural powers that make this both possible and 'acceptable' to the vast majority of workers (and Economists). That can be criticised on other grounds. The criticism of Rawls here is a strong argument, but for the above reasons I've given, it may be too narrow an understanding of the kinds of motivation Rawls was basing his principles on.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

nope. I am tired of writing about Rawls, but if you want a serious reply, send me an email at and I will explain.

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