Rawls on Distributive Justice and the Difference Principle

Samuel Freeman

in The Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice

Published in print May 2018 | ISBN: 9780199645121
Published online June 2018 | e-ISBN: 9780191756733 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Rawls on Distributive Justice and the Difference Principle

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This chapter analyzes Rawls’s complex account of distributive justice. Rawls’s difference principle requires that economic systems be organized so that the least advantaged members of society are better off than they would be in any alternative economic arrangement. The following questions are addressed here: What constraints are imposed by equal basic liberties and fair equality of opportunity on inequalities allowed by the difference principle? What are the difference principle’s broad and narrow requirements? Is maximizing the least advantaged position mandatory regardless of the inequalities created, or is it optional so that a society can choose to limit inequalities permitted by the difference principle? In what respect is the difference principle a reciprocity principle and not prioritarian? What measures are required to realize the difference principle under ideal conditions of a well-ordered society versus non-ideal conditions of an unjust society? Why should property-owning democracy rather than welfare-state capitalism satisfy Rawls’s principles of justice?

Keywords: John Rawls; distributive justice; economic justice; basic liberties; equality of opportunity; the difference principle; property-owning democracy; welfare-state capitalism; prioritarianism; ideal and non-ideal theory

Article.  13233 words. 

Subjects: Social and Political Philosophy

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