John Rawls’Difference Principle is the idea that there are unequal rewards for work done. Inequalitiesare arranged so that they are to the greatest possible benefit of the leastadvantaged. The Difference Principle acts as a ‘social compact’ between therich and the poor.
Rawls thought that perhaps unequal rewards are necessary to incentivisepeople with lower incomes to work harder and challenge themselves in moredemanding jobs rather than easy, low-paid ones. Rawls did not believe in theargument that the talented deserve to earn more, he only thought that thiswould incentivise people to work harder. In a Rawlsian just society, only inequalitieswhich boosted the position of the worst off would remain (or ‘productive’inequalities). In Rawls’ book “A Theoryof Justice (1971”) he says that “if we are to be free and equal citizensthen we require equal basic liberties as well as any inequalities satisfyingboth fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle.”1The rich will not tell the poor that they should keep their income because theydeserve it, they will say that allowing them to keep their income produces thebest standard of living for the poor. In this Essay, I will examine G.
A. Cohen’scritical response to this idea and I will determine whether or not his argumentoutweighs Rawls’. In responseto this idea, Gerald Cohen argued that we should be much more reluctant thanRawls seems to be to grant unequal incomes for incentive purposes. Incentives canbe seen as a necessary evil; if the talented require incentives to work harder,it makes sense to pay them more. However, Cohen does not believe these arenecessary. He questions if the talented even require incentives as surely theywill be determined to work hard on their own account? Cohen also argues againstRawls that using our talents is required by the difference principle itself;Cohen suggests that Rawls may have misinterpreted the egalitarian character ofthe difference principle, and therefore his own theory of justice. One of Cohen’smost persuasive arguments is the ‘interpersonal test’. In this he states thatthe moral plausibility of an argument may depend on who is making it – a principlemay be comprehensively justified if it is plausible coming from anyone who isinvolved.
A scenario this can be seen in is the idea of kidnapping. In this scenario,person X kidnaps person Y’s child and demands £1 million in return for thechild’s safe return. A friend could plausibly say “children should be withtheir parents.
If you don’t pay the ransom, you won’t get the child back, soyou should pay Y.” But the kidnapper says: “children should be with theirparents. If you don’t pay the ransom, you won’t get the child back, so youshould pay me.” The kidnapper’s statement can be seen as objectionable,however, because his intentions make the factual statement true, but hisactions also suggest that he is not committed to the moral claim, thereforesaying he is a hypocrite. So, he agrees that children should be with theirparents, but he contradicts this argument by threatening to not give the childback if the ransom is not paid. This can relate to the Difference Principle asthe rich may say that if they have higher incomes the poor will benefit, butwill contradict themselves by saying that the poor will be incentivized bytheir actions, when they cannot actually prove this. TheDifference Principle can be seen as a kind of pact between the rich and thepoor in which they agree that only functional inequalities will be condoned(such as inequalities that will incentive them to work harder).
Cohen wasconvinced that the Difference Principle allowed hypocritical threats. He can bequoted as saying “The worst-off benefit from incentive inequality… only becausethe better-off would, in effect, go on strike if incentives were withdrawn.”2 Cohen says here that there will alwaysbe disproportional inequalities in a world where the Difference Principle exitsbecause the rich will always have the power. It is easy to say something willwork in theory, but the actual execution of that theory is often flawed. Cohen isconvinced that individual citizens should develop an egalitarian ethos in orderto enable a just society as well as the use of incentive payments to persuade individualsto use their talents in socially ideal ways. An egalitarian ethos is the ideathat all humans are equal in worth and social status.
This is embedded in theelement of a just society and displays an idea that two moral powers of the membersof the society should be in balance within their influence of their choice andlife in general. Cohen thinks that Rawls’ Theory of Justice is not actuallycompatible with his incentive-based arguments for inequality. He says thatRawls is more egalitarian than he thinks3.The principles of justice can be seen to only apply to the basic structure ofsociety, therefore in a society that is governed by the Difference Principle,citizens don’t require the incentives that the incentive-based argumentattributes to them. Anotherpersuasive argument Cohen proposes involves the idea of Strict and LaxDifference Principles. The Strict Difference Principle is the idea that allunequal incentives are accepted when they are genuinely necessary, comparedwith the Lax Difference Principle which believes in the acceptance of unequalincentives when the intentions and attitudes of the talented make themnecessary. Cohen believes in the rejection of the Lax Difference Principle asthe Strict Difference Principle means that we will tolerate far less incentivesand inequalities. Cohen says that considering in Rawls’ just society citizenswould be committed to the Difference Principle as a principle, anything otherthan the Strict DP would be hypocrisy.
WithinCohen’s critique one of his underlining arguments is that the differenceprinciple applies to inequalities resulting from our occupational choices.4Cohen points out that the incentives which are supposedly justified by theRawlsian argument are only necessary within an intention-relative sense. Cohen’smain critique is against these certain inequalities. Cohen does not understandhow the talented could justify the idea that inequalities are necessary toimprove the general living conditions for the worst-off. He challenges whetherindividuals who regard inequalities benefitting the least advantaged as morallydesirable can disregard such a conviction in everyday life.
Market behavior shouldabide by an egalitarian ethos which is influenced by the Difference Principleand does not focus on the pursuit of one’s personal interests. This againrelates to Cohen’s idea that Rawls’ just society cannot be supported by theDifference Principle due to the many hypocritical aspects. Inconclusion, I believe that G.A. Cohen’s critique of Rawls’ just society iscompletely reasonable and persuasive. The idea that in order to achieveequality, there cannot be principles to govern a basic structure of justinstitutions, but instead refrain from asking questions about people’sindividual decisions and motivations.
There must also be an egalitarian ethos presentin order to sustain a commitment to work for incentives that are necessary, butnot demand more. I think that the basic idea Cohen has that the DifferencePrinciple cannot support a just society (a.k.a. Rawls’ two main principles) completelybreaks down and disregards Rawlsian ideas.
Cohen’s argument is more logical andcan be proved (e.g. the kidnapper scenario) as opposed to Rawls’ idea which canbe viewed to favour the better-off and the talented and keep them at the top,whilst the worse-off are suffering from inequalities designed to ‘incentivisethem to work harder’.1 Rawls,J. (1971).
A Theory of Justice. 2 Tannerlectures.utah.edu.https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/c/cohen92.
pdf.3 Mit.edu. http://www.mit.