I am having some trouble trying to understand how that what Rawls allows as "inequality", i.e. a difference justified by gains for everyone, is inequal at all. If it results in gains for everyone, is this not some kind of equality?

However, Rawls find this as inequality?

  • What is your source for the Rawls quote? Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 16:47
  • 1
    He is not suggesting the rich should have loses that would make them more similar to the poor, as might a 'Progressive'. So no, this remains inequality, it is just a form of inequality that does not constantly worsten actual experiences. When you can motivate the rich to create power structures that create stability but don't increase the misery of the poor by giving the rich even more than they already have, then that is the utilitarian thing to do, even in a Rawlsian world. So much of capitalism is just fine, even though some threads of it will constantly make the rich richer.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 16:47
  • 1
    It is inequality because the two groups, already unequal are not necessarily getting any closer to being equal. Both the rich and the poor might gain, and still have them get no closer to being the same.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 17:01
  • 1
    The real proposition is 'in what kind of world would you be OK being born into disadvantage' -- one in which you can reverse that disadvantage, one in which disadvantage does not mean misery... So it might still be a world where some folks are very, very lucky, but you are able to survive and not feel oppressed. The path to that world from this one may involve making some of the luckier people even more advantaged, if it means, for instance that they can have employees rather than slaves.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 17:05
  • 1
    @Flow Much of Rawls's work is probably only in libraries as primary sources. This happens in academia. I've actually found some books in the stacks that are so old and disused they're falling apart.
    – user30980
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 18:07

4 Answers 4



A bit of background-setting is needed – I’ll keep it as brief as I can. The question and any relevant answer clearly concern Rawls’ ‘difference principle’, which he defines as follows :


'Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are ... to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged . . .' (Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 83. From now on ‘TJ’.)

Or put another way and more specifically :

Assuming the framework of institutions required by equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity, the higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society. (TJ :75.)


Who are the ‘least advantaged’ ?

Here it seems impossible to avoid a certain arbitrariness. One possibility is to choose a particular social position, say that of the unskilled worker, and then to count as the least advantaged all those with the average income and wealth of this group, or less. The expectation of the lowest representative man is defined as the average taken over this whole class. Another alternative is a definition solely in terms of relative income and wealth with no reference to social position. Thus all persons with less than half of the median income and wealth may be taken as the least advantaged segment. This definition de pends only upon the lower half of the distribution and has the merit of focusing attention on the social distance between those who have least and the average citizen. Surely this gap is an essential feature of the situation of the less favored members of society. I suppose that either of these definitions, or some combination of them, will serve well enough. In any case we are to aggregate to some degree over the expectations of the worst off, and the figure to be selected on which to base these computations is to a certain extent ad hoc... It may turn out that a more exact definition of the least favored proves unnecessary. (TJ, 98.)

Two comments on this are (1) that it does not identify any least advantaged individual but only a social group or class : ‘the least favoured members of society’ are the reference point. And (2) that it is that it is purely economic in its focus, centred on the least advantaged in respect of income and wealth.


The difference principle would be little worthy of discussion if it were merely an ad hoc principle jutting out of Rawls’ theory of justice. It needs defence if only on Rawls’ behalf. JEJ Altham explains the principle’s rationale neatly :

The principles of justice, in Rawls's view, are principles that would be agreed to in a position of equality by rational, mutually disinterested parties who know the general truths of social and economic theory, but are ignorant of all particular facts, including facts about their own aptitudes, preferences and future social positions. In agreeing on the difference principle, the parties are playing safe. Now if they are to play as safe as possible, it is not enough to agree that the representative man in the least advantaged group should have his expectations maximized, which is how Rawls puts the agreement. For within any group defined by the basic structure, there may still be wide variations in expectations. To select a representative man, it will be necessary to aggregate in some way the expectations of individuals in the group. The expectations of the represen tative man in the least advantaged group may thus be fairly high, while still leaving the very worst off in that group in appallingly miserable circumstances. In the original position, behind the veil of ignorance, no party to the contract can be sure that he will not turn out to be such an unrepresentative man, highly disadvantaged even by the standards of the least advantaged group. (JEJ Altham, ‘Rawls's Difference Principle’, Philosophy, Vol. 48, No. 183 (Jan., 1973), 76-7.)


The quote misrepresents Rawls’ position. He does not say that ‘Inequality would only be justifiable if the gains to the rich would also improve the gain of the poor’. This is an anaemic version of what he says, which is that inequalities, if they arise, ‘are to be arranged so that they are ‘to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged’. Mere gain cannot be equated with ‘greatest benefit’.

If there are inequalities (and Rawls does not say that they are inevitable) they can only be justified if (a) equality) or (b) all other inequalities (patterns of inequality) would result in less benefit to the least advantaged. If such inequalities as might arise do not fulfil these conditions then redistribution – redistributive taxation – would be justified in order to create equality or a different pattern of inequality, whichever is to the maximum benefit of the least advantaged.

Not only does Rawls not say that inequalities are inevitable or that such inequalities as do arise are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, he also sets an outer limit to the level of inequality

Although in theory the difference principle permits indefinitely large inequalities in return for small gains to the less favoured, the spread of income and wealth should not be excessive in practice, given the requisite background institutions' (TJ, 536).

This would also justify redistribution.


In saying what would justify what, I am talking within Rawls' theory. My own views about his theory of justice are not involved.


He is supposing that inequality is a precondition in his hypothetical. If inequality existed (the means by which it came about is not addressed), it would only be acceptable if the gains of the rich also improve the gains of the poor. Under all other conditions, the inequality would not be justifiable. That is my reading of it at least.


I think you have a valid critique. Perhaps he implies that progress towards equality is the metric of utility, and continued "status quo inequality" is the alternative metric, but if "status quo inequality" continues with an equitable rise in stature, one could also assert that there is some point at which the rich no longer see an improvement (diminishing returns), and that therefore that inequality does not exist.


A system in which the poor are paid 10% of the profit while the rich take 90% is an inequality but, as the position of the rich improves so does the position of the poor.

Take a system of governance where the rich landowners own large portions of land, those who work the land for the landowners get 10% of the crops or 10% of the profits. An increase in production introduces additional wealth into the communities of the poor. As they buy extra chickens or eggs in the poor market, so the poor chicken farmer also has an increase in wealth and, so on.

This is opposed to a system where everybody has, over time, the same portion.

For a comparison, consider the system of land distribution that the ancient Jews made use of and, the system of land distribution in middle England.

I add to the debate that an increase in the position of the poor also increases the money flow in the marketplace benefiting the people who bargain/trade provided that the increased position of the poor is not at the expense of those who bargain/trade. The difference in the mindset between the rich and the poor can be further debated, whether a simple financial increase to the poor is of ultimate benefit to the group without a change in mindset. Personally, I believe it is more important to educate the poor, even if they are only given a small sum to address their need, rather than simply increasing their wealth.

  • 90% of whose profit?
    – Wildcard
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 23:11
  • @Wildcard You are right. Usually, workers are paid wages or salary. There is inequality if a landowner pays only a small portion of profits to the workers but, it is the landowners' money if it is the landowners' profits. I suppose I ventured there in the second paragraph but it should not be necessary to assume that the statements are linked.
    – Willtech
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 8:51

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .