Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Difference Principle and Fair Equality of Opportunity

In the last posting I did on Rawls I set out his account of the two principles of justice and concluded with his revised description of the second principle in section 13 of Chapter 2. Now we can see the second principle combines two elements together, the difference principle and the principle of fair equality of opportunity and in this posting I want to look further at the relations between these two elements.

In section 14 Rawls turns more specifically to the second part of the second principle, the part that specifies the principle of fair equality of opportunity which he had earlier distinguished from what he termed the "liberal" conception of careers open to talents. In opening his account of the principle in section 14 Rawls points out that reasons for requiring openness of positions are not primarily on grounds of efficiency as failure to allow such openness constitutes a ground for complaint as it means one is deprived of a main form of human good. 

This point partly relates back to the general conception of justice as concerned with the "basic structure" of society and attention to it is now buttressed by introduction of the notion of "pure procedural justice". "Pure procedural justice" to be defined requires, however, contrast with "perfect" and "imperfect" procedural justice. As an example of "perfect" procedural justice Rawls mentions as an example the way a fair cutting of a cake can be brought about by simply ensuring that the last portion goes to the one who cuts it which gives them an incentive to ensure that their portion, as equal to the others, will be a product of an egalitarian cutting. By contrast, a criminal trial is a form of imperfect procedural justice because, while there is an independent criterion for the correct outcome of the trial, there is no feasible procedure that is sure to lead to it (and prevent miscarriages of justice from ever possibly occurring).

Both perfect and imperfect procedural justice can identify an independent criteria for the correct outcome, the difference being that the perfect form can devise a procedure to achieve this identified criteria whilst the imperfect form cannot do so. By contrast, "pure" procedural justice obtains in situations where there is no independent criterion for the right result but there is a fair procedure that enables it to be the case that we can say that the outcome is fair provided the procedure is followed. Gambling illustrates one example of this assuming that there is no cheating involved on any side.

For pure procedural justice to apply to distribution it is required that there is set up and administered a just system of institutions and the connection of this discussion to the principle of fair opportunity is that the latter principle is meant to ensure that we get a system of cooperation that we can term one of pure procedural justice. In order to apply the principle of fair opportunity we abstract from individual cases as it is not the case that it treats distribution as a question of allocative justice. The notion of allocative justice belongs rather with the utilitarian conception. 

In thinking through the conception of the principle of fair equality of opportunity Rawls assumes that this principle is lexically secondary to the difference principle. The difference principle is an attempt to establish objective grounds for inter-personal comparisons and it does this by two means. The first way is by identifying the least advantaged representative person and judging the social system from their position. Secondly it allows a simplification in terms of expectations of primary social goods. "The primary social goods, to give them in broad categories, are rights, liberties, and opportunities, and income and wealth."

The good for people is the recognition of their right to these primary social goods so that the good becomes "satisfaction of rational desire". The basic question then, becomes, one of weighting primary goods for the least advantaged. This requires some intuitive estimates to enter in relation to what combination of primary social goods it would be rational for the representative person of the least advantaged social group to desire. The real point of insisting on primary goods is also well brought out as being their relationship to public recognition of a measure that reasonable persons can accept. This connection of a measure to public recognition of "reasonable" persons indicates the essential role of reference to publicity in Rawls' conception.

Rawls supposes that each person possesses at least two social positions, that defined by equal citizenship and that described by their place in the distribution of income and wealth. This allows for notions of the representative citizen and the representative persons for different social positions. The basic structure requires to be seen primarily from the standpoint of the representative citizen and this is satisfied for everyone when the two principles of justice are met. However, the reference to representative persons for different social positions is not something that can be dealt with in as satisfactory a manner, not least because the identification of the least advantaged group is not easy to do.

In responding to this point Rawls identifies some contingencies that are favoured when a group is relatively advantaged compared to another one. These include family and class origin, natural endowments, fortune and luck. All are treated as types of contingency and this again brings out the basis of the "luck egalitarian" reading of Rawls. Once these are listed we can see the general characteristics of the least advantaged group though precise specification of this group is not attempted by Rawls further than this. The reference to the representative nature of the person in relation to their group is also meant to rule out special pleading that can happen within groups. By this means it is hoped that "everyone's interests are taken into account".

Section 17 of Chapter 2 brings these points together by indicating the manner in which Rawls' treatment defines an egalitarian conception and how it differs from a meritocratic one (that he again aligns with the "liberal" view). The first point made in this section is that the difference principle is meant to give some weight to a principle of redress even though it is not equivalent to one. A principle of redress is the general claim that undeserved inequalities (contingencies) deserve to be compensated for. Given that the difference principle identifies the means to achieve such compensation in general terms it addresses the point of such a principle, not least in its 'luck egalitarian' elements.

Similarly the difference principle is meant to show the way that a society can be a system of mutual benefit showing that mutual cooperation is the means by which all can have a better life. In making this case Rawls makes even more concessions to the "luck egalitarian" conception indicating that even "character" is something contingent given that it depends on fortunate circumstances. 

Rawls also aligns the difference principle with a certain account of fraternity in the sense that not wanting to have advantages if they are not to the benefit of others also is taken to be a natural understanding of the relations within a family (though this may be news to some!). Finally, Rawls distinguishes his notion of egalitarianism from meritocracy on the grounds that the latter interprets the second half of the second principle only in terms of the "liberal" understanding of careers open to talents and not in the "democratic" manner of fair equality of opportunity.

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