an unfair difference

John Rawls’ compellingly cogent and thorough book A Theory of Justice has catapulted his political philosophy into the mainstream during the latter quarter of the twentieth century. The two cruxes of Rawls’ notion of justice, the Difference Principle and the Veil of Ignorance, are tightly woven into a theoretical mesh that serves as the strength of the safety net keeping the worst off in society from falling even further.

Rawls begins his book with an account of the Veil of Ignorance, a theoretical curtain which denies individuals access to potentially self-biasing information such as their economic status, place in history, gender, race, et cetera. The individuals behind this veil then engage in a hypothetical discussion about the principles of justice. Rawls argues that one of the principles at which they will inevitably arrive is the Difference Principle. The Difference Principle, put crudely, is the principle that we ought to maximize the position of the worst off–through destribution and redistribution–up until the point when doing so would be worse off for everyone (you could think about this as an equalizing of utilities although Rawls would reject that line of thinking for more complicated reasons than are worth getting into here). The reason the individuals behind the Veil of Ignorance will arrive at the Difference Principle is simply because they don’t know their economic status and, Rawls argues, since everyone wants to maximize their well-being, the best choice here is an appropriate variant of egalitarianism.

Rawls’ argument makes a good deal of intuitive sense. If I am deprived of biasing information and am asked to deliberate over my preferred social set-up, I would be hard-pressed to conclude anything other than what Rawls proposes. But there’s something about what he proposes that doesn’t seem to jive with how we think of well-being in the real world, biasing information and all. I haven’t read Rawls for a few years so I may be misrepresenting his argument, but if I’m not, what’s not jiving is this: he creates an artificial and fundamentally unrealistic world in which all that matters is measurable well-being.

Think for a second about what makes your life go well. In fact, even better, try to imagine what made John Rawls’ life go well. Of course it’s impossible to fully put yourself in another’s shoes but we can make some reasonable and illustrative inferences. I bet it was the case that Rawls derived a great deal of pleasure out of reading, writing, and thinking about political philosophy. In fact, he derived so much pleasure that he was willing to sacrifice what, presumably, could have increased his well-being–a larger salary–in order to pursue philosophy. As Harry Frankfurt puts it, “a reasonable person might well regard an unequal distribution as entirely acceptable even though he did not presume that any other distribution would benefit him less.” In other words, I can conceive of an unequal distribution, in which I am one of the worse off, that I prefer to an equal distribution or an unequal distribution in which I am one of the better off.

Presumably, for John Rawls he would prefer to be worse off and study philosophy than to be equal and not. Yet Rawls’ own reasoning does not allow for this sort of individualistic pursuit of well-being. Subjective well-being seems tough to account for behind the Veil of Ignorance precisely because it denies the substance of the subjective self in favor of a watered-down intersubjectivity.

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