Tag Archives: John Rawls

Philosophies of redistribution

By James Fodor

      The key to understanding the difference between progressives and conservatives is their attitude to wealth sharing.

Key points

  • Debates over wealth redistribution are key to understanding the difference between progressives and conservatives.
  • Progressives see it as reducing inequality, conservatives see it as theft.
  • The difference can be analysed by looking at the interpretation of the pre-tax situation.
  • There are key differences in the way each side evaluates social institutions and individual effort.

     Income redistribution is the practice of using revenue gained from taxation of relatively wealthy persons to fund social programs and welfare benefits aimed to help poorer persons. It is commonly associated with, though not identical to, the practice of progressive taxation, in which the marginal rate of income tax increases with higher income levels.

     Redistribution is a subject that has long polarised progressive (“left wing”) and conservative (“right wing”) political groups.

     Debates concerning income redistribution tend to focus on two main categories of issues: moral considerations related to the justification of redistribution in principle, and practical considerations concerning its efficacy when put into practice.

     In this short essay I will focus exclusively on moral questions surrounding redistribution, and shall not attempt to present any firm conclusions, instead confining myself to presenting a brief overview of some of the critical philosophical issues at stake, and key points of disagreement between progressives and conservatives.

     Conservatives tend to be relatively hostile to, or at least sceptical of, income redistribution.

     Progressives are more likely to favour the practice. Progressives argue that redistributive taxation ameliorates economic inequality and helps poor and marginalised groups meet their needs, and therefore is morally justified, indeed imperative, in a just society.

     Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that redistributive taxation is a form of coercion in which the state forcibly expropriates the property of some in order to give it to others. Even if the state puts the expropriated property to good use, they argue that such actions are illegitimate. As Robert Nozick has said: “The state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others.

     Too often debates concerning redistribution proceed no further than this: progressives argue that it reduces inequality, while conservatives argue that it is morally little better than theft.

     In order to advance the discussion, it is helpful to realise that which of these two characterisations one finds most convincing depends on how we evaluate the moral status of the income distribution that would prevail before any redistributive taxes. Conservatives tend to think that this “pre-tax” distribution has considerable moral importance, regarding it as sort of a “coercion-free” baseline from which redistribution increasingly departs. Progressives, on the other hand, typically do not regard the pre-tax state as having any particular moral importance. Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, for example, argue that: “taxes do not take away from taxpayers what is antecedently theirs; pre-tax income has no status as a moral baseline for the purpose of evaluating the justice of the tax system.”

     Instead, progressives tend to believe that the state of affairs with most moral relevance is that which would prevail in a just society in which everyone received what is necessary to meet essential needs, or in which everyone received what they justly deserve.

     John Rawls famously argued that the morally relevant state of affairs is that which we would regard as just if we were placed behind a “veil of ignorance” where we did not know which position in the society we ourselves would occupy. While differing as to exactly what the ideal comparative state is, progressives generally agree in rejecting the conservative view that the pre-tax distribution of incomes in itself necessarily has any special moral standing. As such, attempts to move away from this state of affairs via progressive taxation are not regarded as necessarily suspect or problematic, since there was nothing special about the initial state of affairs to begin with.

     In response to these views, conservatives typically attempt to provide some reason as to why the initial pre-tax distribution of income should be given some special moral standing. As noted previously, the notion of coercion or use of force is often central to such accounts. Thus, conservatives argue that the pre-tax distribution is the only one that can be obtained without use of coercion, force, or the threat of force, to take income from some people and give it to others.

     They argue that if, for example, many individuals freely choose to buy the music of a particular popular singer, causing that singer to become very wealthy, all that has occurred are voluntary transactions which both parties believe made themselves better off. The resulting distribution of incomes, therefore, is privileged in that it alone corresponds to the product of free choices of individuals, rather than the use of coercion or force. (This, of course, is assuming the absence of private forms of theft, extortion, fraud, etc, which progressives and conservatives alike generally regard as immoral.)

     A second form of reasoning used by conservatives appeals to the idea that it is appropriate and just for people to enjoy the fruits of their own labour. Thus, if one person through their labour and skills earns a large income, it is unjust to deprive them of this income, even if we wish to use it for worthy ends.

     Just as it would be wrong for private charities to rob the rich in order to obtain funds, so do conservatives believe it is wrong for governments to forcibly extract some portion of their earnings for redistributive taxation.


     There are two main progressive lines of response to such arguments. The first is to argue that, even if redistributive taxation is to some degree a moral bad on account of the sorts of reasons conservatives outline, it is nevertheless justified by the much greater goods achieved by the practice, such as reduced poverty and inequality. The second response is to counter that taxation can only count as unjust expropriation if individuals originally had a just claim on the entirety of their pre-tax income. In actual fact, it is argued, no one ever rightfully has such a claim, since one is only ever able to receive income as a result of a complex web of practices, institutions, and public goods that make one’s economic activities possible, including the court system, public roads, police force, past investments made by others, publicly funded education, etc.

     Since it would not be possible to earn much of any income without these things, and since these are not the result of one’s own actions or skills, it is therefore concluded that one never has a morally justified claim to the entirety of one’s pre-tax income, and thus government taxation for redistributive purposes does not constitute any sort of unjust violation of rights.

     A stronger form of this argument contends that the wealthy are actually complicit in perpetuating an economic and political system in which they benefit at the expense of others, and as such the wealthy have little or no morally valid claim to any of their income at all.

     Note that both of these responses appeal to the causal mechanisms by which the pre-tax income distribution comes about, and thus are sensitive to one’s beliefs about the functioning of the economy and polity.

     It is beyond the scope of this essay to attempt to adjudicate such views, so I will simply note that conservatives tend to emphasise the role of individual choices, talents, hard work, and initiative in bringing about a given distribution of income, while progressives emphasise the importance of social institutions, social class, luck, and unjust practices.

     There is one final aspect of the income redistribution debate which I believe deserves some attention: namely the degree to which the wealthy have moral obligations to help the poor.

     Many people believe that the giving of alms to the poor, or making charitable donations to alleviate suffering, is a morally good thing to do.

     Where people differ is in whether or not this is regarded as supererogatory (something that is morally praiseworthy but not required), or whether it is something that all those with the means have a moral obligation to do.

     The important point to understand is that conservatives and progressives do not necessarily hold common views with respect to this issue. Thus, progressives may regard redistributive taxation as just and appropriate, but not necessarily think we have any moral obligation to aid the poor beyond this. Conversely, conservatives may regard redistributive taxation as unjust, but think that we are personally morally obliged to aid the poor through private charitable donations.

     There is arguably a tendency for progressives to prefer government-based welfare entitlements and institutional reforms over private charitable work, but this again is a subject that goes beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that it is important to understand that one’s position on the moral obligation of the rich towards the poor is not reducible to one’s views on redistributive taxation.

     The differences in the attitude of conservatives and progressives to the practice of redistributive taxation are the result of a diverse range of philosophical differences on a variety of issues.

     Progressives place more weight on the importance of a just distribution of income in society, while conservatives place a greater weight on the importance of preserving freedom of individual choices and action. Furthermore, progressives tend to believe that the pre-tax distribution of income is largely the result of social and structural forces and only minimally due to the effort or talents of individuals.

     Conservatives are likely regard these individual factors as more important and the social factors as correspondingly less important.

     There is, of course, much more to say about this complex and multifaceted issue, and a variety of other viewpoints that I have not considered in this short piece. Nevertheless, it is my hope that the ideas raised here will help readers to understanding perspectives outside their own, and facilitate a better informed, more constructive discourse on this most important and longstanding issue.

     James Fodor is author of the blog The Godless Theist.

     From the Australian Rationalist (Melbourne), v. 107, Summer [Dec.] 2017: 34 & 35. (Reblogged with permission of the author). 


Filed under Reblogs

Consequentialism versus Justice

by Tim Harding

There are several objections to consequentialism as a basis for morality.  Some of these objections are of considerable scholarly interest to philosophers; but I think the most powerful objection is that adherence to consequentialism can in some cases result in unacceptable injustice.  My thesis is that justice is an important factor that needs to be taken into account in ethical theories.  I also intend to argue that the best response to this objection, which is to attempt to treat justice as an intrinsically valuable consequence of actions, is currently unworkable.

Consequentialism is traditionally a set of ethical theories where the morality of an act should be judged solely by its consequences.  An act is required just because it produces the best overall results (Shafer-Landau 2012: 119).  Two of the key words here, in my view, are ‘solely’ and ‘overall’.  Consequentialism solely takes into account the overall effects of an act on the population as a whole.  Specific effects on justice or the rights of individuals or minorities are not taken into account.

The most prominent version of consequentialism is act utilitarianism, where well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable (Shafer-Landau 2012: 120).  The principle of utility states that ‘an action is morally required just because it does more to improve overall well-being than any other action you could have done in the circumstances’ (Shafer-Landau 2012: 120).  Whilst utilitarianism is not the only form of consequentialism, for my current purposes I will regard an objection to utilitarianism as an objection to consequentialism.

In its broadest sense, justice may be defined as fairness: a proper balance between competing claims or interests (Rawls 1971: 10-11).  Russ Shafer-Landau (2012: 145) says that to do justice is to respect rights, which is arguably similar in meaning to properly balancing competing claims or interests.

In stark contrast to act utilitarianism, John Rawls has described justice as ‘the first virtue of social institutions’ (Rawls 1971: 3).  He argues that:

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.  For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.  It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many (Rawls 1971: 3-4).

Indeed, according to Rawls (1971: 4) justice is uncompromising: an injustice is tolerable only when it necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.

The conflict between consequentialism and justice can be illustrated by some thought experiments, starting with the well-known trolley problem, the modern version of which was first described by Philippa Foot (1967: 8) as follows:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

Foot (1967: 8) reasonably asks why we should say that the driver should steer for the less occupied track, while most of us would be appalled at the idea that an innocent man should be framed and executed.  Yet in both cases, the act is done for utilitarian reasons, to maximise overall well-being.  The interests or rights of the individual who is to be killed are rated no higher than anybody else in this scenario.  The dead individual is counted merely as a pro-rata contribution to the overall aggregated well-being.  Five lives are worth more than one life, regardless of the circumstances.  The end justifies the means.

This problem has been adapted and analysed in some detail by Judith Jarvis Thomson (1985: 1395-1415).  Thomson argues that whilst most people would say that is morally permissible to steer the trolley tram away from the five men on one track towards one man on the other track, they would not regard the killing of one person to save five as permissible in other cases with similar consequences.  For instance, Thomson (1985: 1396) asks us to consider another case that she calls the ‘transplant case’:

This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, “Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no.” Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway?

Thomson (1985: 1396) asks why is it that the trolley driver may turn his trolley and kill a man on the other tram track, though the surgeon may not kill the young man and remove his organs?  In both cases, one will die if the agent acts, but five will live who would otherwise die – a net saving of four lives.  As the consequences are the same in each case, utilitarianism would allow both acts to take place.  The difference in moral permissibility in these two cases with similar outcomes indicates a serious problem with utilitarianism as an ethical theory.

Russ Shafer-Landau (2012: 144-146) identifies this problem as injustice, meaning the violation of rights, such as the right of the healthy young man in the transplant case to not be murdered for his organs.  On the other hand, I would argue that turning the trolley is not an injustice because unlike the healthy young man in transplant, the tram track workers on both tracks have implicitly consented to take the normally small risk of being hit by a runaway trolley. (There is also a difference between these two cases in respect for autonomy – the implied consent to risk in the case of the trolley track workers versus the explicit refusal of consent in the transplant case. However, that is an issue for another essay).

Shafer-Landau (2012: 144) in fact argues that injustice is perhaps the greatest problem for utilitarianism.  He says that ‘moral theories should not permit, much less require, that we act unjustly.  Therefore, there is something deeply wrong about utilitarianism’ (Shafer-Landau 2012: 145).

Shafer-Landau (2012: 145) strengthens the case against utilitarianism with some real historical examples rather than just thought experiments.  He cites wartime cases of vicarious punishment where innocent people are deliberately targeted as a way to deter the guilty; and exemplary punishment where random prisoners are shot to deter resistance or escapes.  Such punishments are now treated as violations of human rights and war crimes; but in earlier wars such punishments could have been justified according to utilitarianism.

Shafer-Landau (2012: 146-148) goes on to identify some potential solutions to the problem of injustice.  To assist in analysing and evaluating these potential solutions, Shafer-Landau formally states his Argument from Injustice as follows:

  1. The correct moral theory will never require us to commit serious injustices.
  2. Utilitarianism sometimes requires us to commit serious injustices.
  3. Therefore utilitarianism is not the correct moral theory.

One of his potential solutions is to say that justice must sometimes be sacrificed for sake of overall well-being.  I do not think that this would solve the problem at all.  Unacceptable injustices would still occur, and I support Rawls abovementioned view that justice is uncompromising – an injustice is tolerable only when it necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.  Another potential solution is to deny Premise 2 above, that is to deny that utilitarianism requires us to commit injustice.  Under this solution, adjustments will naturally be made to scenarios to ensure that maximising overall well-being produces a just outcome.  Shafer-Landau (2012: 148) regards this solution as overly optimistic, and I agree.

I think the best of these potential solutions is to attempt to build justice into the calculation of intrinsic value, alongside overall well-being.  In this way, the consequences of an action should try to maximise justice in addition to well-being.  Shafer-Landau (2012: 147) argues that sometimes a very minor injustice can be justifiably traded off in favour of an overwhelming increase in well-being.  However, giving roughly equal weight to both well-being and justice is problematic due to the lack of any principles for deciding between these two values where they conflict.  Also, as Rawls (1971: 4) has argued, justice is uncompromising – there can be no such thing as ‘half-justice’. For these reasons, I support Shafer-Landau’s view that this solution is currently unworkable.

In this essay, I have endeavoured to show how consequentialism can sometimes result in injustice, by reference to some notable philosophical thought experiments, as well as to some historical wartime cases.  I have cited the work of John Rawls to argue that justice is an important factor that needs to be taken into account in ethical theories.  I have considered some potential solutions to the problem of injustice, and argued against what I think is the best solution to this problem.  For these reasons, I conclude that the injustice objection to consequentialism should be upheld.


Foot, Philippa. ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’ Oxford Review, no. 5, 1967, 5-15.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2012. The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1985. ‘The Trolley Problem’ The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985), pp. 1395-1415.

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Filed under Essays and talks

The paradox of tolerance

The paradox of tolerance arises when a tolerant person holds antagonistic views towards intolerance, and hence is intolerant of it. The tolerant individual would then be by definition intolerant of intolerance.

Philosopher Karl Popper defined the paradox in 1945 in The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1. [1]

“Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

He concluded that we are warranted in refusing to tolerate intolerance:

“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

In 1971, philosopher John Rawls concludes in A Theory of Justice [2] that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls also insists, like Popper, that society has a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance:

“While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.”

In a 1997 work, Michael Walzer [3] asked “Should we tolerate the intolerant?” He notes that most minority religious groups who are the beneficiaries of tolerance are themselves intolerant, at least in some respects. In a tolerant regime, such people may learn to tolerate, or at least to behave “as if they possessed this virtue”.


  1. Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies, volume 1, The Spell of Plato, 1945 (Routledge, United Kingdom); ISBN 0-415-29063-5 978-0-691-15813-6 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.)
  2.  Rawls, John, (1971). “A Theory of Justice”: 220
  3. Walzer, Michael, On Toleration, (New Haven: Yale University Press 1997) pp. 80-81 ISBN 0-300-07600-2


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Filed under Paradoxes

Economic efficiency and social justice

by Tim Harding

At first sight, the concepts of economic efficiency and social justice might seem unrelated or even counterposed.  Some people intuitively feel that in the economic sense, efficiency works against fairness and therefore equality. Economic inequality just seems unfair and wrong.

In this essay, I propose to argue that the concept of economic efficiency can be used as part of a case that social justice does not require economic equality.  My case is primarily based on the works of Frankfurt; but Rawls’ Difference Principle is also of assistance.  I also intend to consider some objections to this case, and to either provide counter-arguments against them, or to suggest that the objections are not sufficiently important to outweigh the case I am putting forward.

Economic efficiency is typically defined as a Pareto optimum – a state of affairs in which it is impossible to make anybody better-off without making somebody worse-off.  Economists often describe a Pareto improvement as a change that makes some people better off without making anyone worse off (Hausman and McPherson 2006, 65).

An example of such Pareto optimality is where a farmer produces a crop that he does not consume himself, and either sells all of the produce or gives it away.  There is no wastage of the produce: somebody is better off as a result of the transaction and nobody is worse off.  Transactions of this nature are called ‘positive sum’ and the outcome is classified as economically efficient.  In contrast, an example of economic inefficiency would be where instead of selling the produce or giving it away, the farmer disposes of some or all of the produce as waste.  Depending on the amount of produce involved, the farmer may incur some costs in disposing of the waste, at least in terms of his time if not monetary costs.  So under this scenario, the farmer would be worse off and nobody would be better off.

The following diagram illustrates illustrates that Pareto efficiency can be at any point on the curve (e.g. B, D or C). Points not on this curve, such as A and X, are Pareto inefficient.

Thus there are multiple states of affairs that can be Pareto optimal or economically efficient.  So on its own, Pareto optimality will not necessarily guarantee a moral outcome; and thus economic efficiency cannot serve alone as a conception of social justice – it must be supplemented in some way (Rawls 1971, 71).  For example, if there are millions of people starving, Pareto optimality will not allow one affluent person to be worse-off (through say, increased taxation) to make others better-off (Hausman and McPherson 2006, 65).

What is needed are complementary theories that build on the concept of economic efficiency to provide a better moral basis for economic inequality.  In my view, these other theories are provided by the works of Rawls and Frankfurt.

As part of his Theory of Justice, John Rawls has proposed what he calls the Difference Principle.  This principle ‘removes the indeterminateness of the principle of efficiency by singling out a particular position from which the social and economic inequalities of the basic structure are to be judged’ (Rawls 1971, 75).[1]  The Difference Principle is that social and economic inequalities can be justified if they work as part of a scheme which benefits the worst-off members of society (Rawls 1971, 75).[2]  In this way, Rawls establishes a connection between the seemingly unrelated concepts of economic efficiency and social justice.  But more importantly, he also uncouples social justice from economic equality.  Economic inequality can be justified if it meets certain criteria and conditions related to economic efficiency.

A very simple example, illustrating the Difference Principle.
Screencast by Dr. Toby Handfield

Frankfurt takes this idea further and argues against the notion that economic equality is of significant importance.  He proposes his ‘doctrine of sufficiency’ as an alternative to the doctrine of economic egalitarianism (Frankfurt uses the terms equality and egalitarianism interchangeably):

Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance. With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.  I shall refer to this alternative to egalitarianism – namely, that what is morally important with respect to money is for everyone to have enough – as the ‘doctrine of sufficiency (Frankfurt 1987, 21).

Frankfurt defines ‘enough’ or sufficient in terms of meeting a subjective personal standard rather than reaching an objective limit.  This standard is when a person is content with what he has: ‘A contented person regards having more money as inessential to his being satisfied with his life.’ This is not to say that the person would not prefer more money – it means that he lacks an active interest in seeking it by, for example, changing careers (Frankfurt 1987, 37-40).

Frankfurt argues that economic equality can be actually harmful on several grounds. One of these grounds is that measuring their financial circumstances against others distracts people from focusing on their own real needs in terms of how much is ‘enough’ for them (Frankfurt 1987, 22).  Another ground is that economic equality tends to divert attention from considerations of greater moral importance (Frankfurt 1987, 23). In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.

Frankfurt provides an example to show that under conditions of scarcity, an egalitarian distribution may be morally unacceptable.  Suppose there is only enough of a vital resource such as food or medicine to enable some but not all members of a population to survive.  An equal distribution would result in all members of the population dying, but an unequal distribution would enable some of the population to live.  In this way, an egalitarian distribution would produce a net loss of aggregate utility (Frankfurt 1987, 30).

Frankfurt thus argues that ‘it is a mistake to maintain that where some people have less than enough, no one should have more than anyone else’ (Frankfurt 1987, 31).  He argues that this conclusion leads to a logical separation between egalitarianism and sufficiency (Frankfurt 1987, 33).

In a more recent work, Frankfurt identifies some objections to his doctrine of sufficiency.  Firstly, the excessively affluent could be guilty of a kind of economic gluttony, resembling gobbling down more food than they need (Frankfurt 2015, 4).  My view is that this objection is based at least partly on aesthetics – conspicuous over-consumption may appear to be distasteful or unpleasant to observe.  This objection can be dismissed on the ground that aesthetics are matters of subjective personal taste rather than objective standards of social importance.  However, if this gluttony is perceived as wanton waste, it could also constitute an instance of the zero-sum fallacy; that is, the mistaken view that people can only become richer by making others poorer, or vice versa.  Viewed through the prism of this fallacy, waste by the rich can be perceived as throwing money away, resulting in less money being available for the poor.  Common textbook economic theory tells us situations like these are not necessarily zero-sum, because economic value can be created, destroyed, or altered in a number of ways, thus creating a net gain or loss of value to various stakeholders.

Secondly, highly conspicuous disparities wealth in close spatial proximity could cause a lack of social cohesion, which may be associated with frustration, envy and resentment experienced by those lower down the scale, which can damage overall social welfare in a variety of ways (Parkinson et al 2006, 109).  In extreme cases, economic inequality where people do not have ‘enough’ has led to riots or even revolutions in the past.


Paris women marching on Versailles, 1789

It is sometimes argued that cooperative relationships among members of society are beneficial and that economic inequality is not conducive to such relationships (Frankfurt 2015, 16).  My own view is that adverse consequences of such lack of social cohesion can be managed at least to some extent by government intervention (for example by the establishment of social safety nets) and that the disadvantage of economic inequality where people have more than ‘enough’ does not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach.

Thirdly, wealthy people have may have a competitive advantage or economic power that gives them an unequal opportunity to accumulate more wealth and to exert more political influence than those starting with less wealth (Frankfurt 2015, 5-6).  My view is that this problem can be mitigated at least to some extent by the regulation of excessive political influence, for example via limits on political donations.  Again, this disadvantage does not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach and to the extent it cannot be mitigated it is probably something we may just have to live with.

Finally, I would like to consider Elizabeth Anderson’s theory of ‘democratic equality’ based on equal respect of law-abiding citizens (Anderson 1999, 287-337) as a principled objection to the case I have outlined.  Anderson does not directly respond to the arguments of Rawls and Frankfurt that I have summarised in this essay.  Instead, she approaches the debate from a different direction and initially argues against the notion that the motive behind egalitarian policies is mere envy (Anderson 1999, 287-288).  She also argues against the idea of social justice as equality of fortune or ‘luck egalitarianism’ – compensating individuals for undeserved misfortunes in their lives such as being born poor (Anderson 1999, 289-309).  One of her main arguments is that equality of fortune interferes with citizens’ privacy and liberty (Anderson 1999, 310).  She thinks that such an approach gives individuals an incentive to deny personal responsibility for their problems.  ‘It is easier to construct a sob story recounting one’s undeserved misfortunes that it is to engage in productive work that is valued by others’ she argues (Anderson 1999, 311).

From these criticisms of the equality of fortune, Anderson moves towards a positive principle of the equal moral worth of persons, or ‘universal moral equality’ (Anderson 1999, 313).  She believes that ‘the basis for people’s claims to distributed goods is that they are equals, not inferiors, to others’ (Anderson 1999, 314); and that ‘citizenship involves functioning not only as a political agent…but participating as an equal in civil society (Anderson 1999, 317).  In other words, Anderson extends the concept of the political equality of citizens to their economic equality – she thinks that you can’t have one without the other.

In contrast, Frankfurt categorically rejects ‘the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance’ (Frankfurt 2015, 65).  He argues that ‘whenever it is morally important to strive for equality, it is always because doing so will promote some other value rather than because equality itself is morally desirable’ (Frankfurt 2015, 68).  Frankfurt believes that the widespread tendency to exaggerate the moral importance of egalitarianism is due, at least in part, to a mistaken conflation of the ideas of treating people with respect and treating them equally (Frankfurt 2015, 77).

Building on the theories of Rawls and Frankfurt that economic inequality is not necessarily unjust, I think that a case can be made that there can be even some advantages in having an inequality of wealth.  An example I would like to propose lies in the social benefits of philanthropy, where almost by definition generous donations are made to worthy causes in the arts and sciences that governments do not see sufficient short-term political advantage in funding.  These donations are often highly beneficial to medical science and treatment, especially in underdeveloped countries.  For instance, it is on the public record that the multi-billionaire Bill Gates has made a major financial contribution towards eradicating the dreadful disease of poliomyelitis from the world.


In conclusion, I have shown that social justice, as defined in terms of either Rawls’ Difference Principle or Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency, does not entail economic equality; and that the undesirable consequences of economic inequality can to some extent be managed by government intervention.  Where such consequences are unavoidable, their disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach, and in the case of philanthropy an inequality of wealth can even be socially beneficial.


[1] Rawls’ basic structure is a foundational component of his larger Theory of Justice that need not be discussed here.

[2] The application of this principle is subject to other principles of justice that take priority under specified circumstances that also need not be discussed here.


Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ Ethics 109: 287-337.

Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson 2006 Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 1987 ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’ Ethics 98: 21-43.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 2015. On Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parkinson, Michael et al. 2006 State of the English Cities Volume 1. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Filed under Essays and talks

John Rawls on Justice

John Bordley Rawls (1921 –  2002) was an American moral and political philosopher. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University and theFulbright Fellowship at Christ Church, Oxford. Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of how Rawls’s work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”

His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), was said at the time of its publication to be “the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II” and is now regarded as “one of the primary texts in political philosophy”. His work in political philosophy, dubbed Rawlsianism, takes as its starting point the argument that “the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position”. Rawls attempts to determine the principles of social justice by employing a number of thought experiments such as the famous original position in which everyone is impartially situated as equals behind a veil of ignorance. He is one of the major thinkers in the tradition of liberal political philosophy. According to English philosopher Jonathan Wolff, while there could be a “dispute about the second most important [American analytic] political philosopher of the 20th century, there could be no dispute about the most important: John Rawls”.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. “ – John Rawls in A Theory of Justice


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