The philosopher John Rawls has created an impressive political theory detailing how a society can create a just state by beginning with just principles. Rawls sees justice as only being possible “ in an initial situation that is fair” (Rawls 11). A state is only fair if all
“rational persons” would freely consent to the state (Rawls 14-15). In order to judge if a state could meet this requirement, we must put ourselves behind a theoretical veil of ignorance and give no regard to our actual position in society or particular interests (Rawls 17). Instead we must assume that we can be any member in society, including the worst off (Rawls 17). From this vantage point we must ask “would every citizen, assuming she was rational and self-interested consent to this arrangement?” Rawls believes that we would arrive at certain broad principles “duly pruned and adjusted” after conducting this exercise which he refers to as “reflective equilibrium” (Rawls 18).
The decision principle for finding these broad principles behind the veil of ignorance is Maximin. Maximin is a particular criteria for assessing the structure of a state by which a state is assessed as acceptable only if it guarantees the very highest minimum possible in terms of primary goods to those who are the very worst off in society (Rawls 65). Primary goods are anything which would be considered essential for any rational life plan (Rawls 54). I believe there is some ambiguity as to what constitutes primary goods.
This ambiguity will become important later. For instance, a vacation in London, while perhaps a nice luxury, is not a primary good. This is because the desire for a vacation in London would represent a particular desire, not an element necessary to my living a rational life plan. Food, water, and shelter are certainly primary goods. Several centuries ago, I do not think we could have argued that higher education or universal health insurance were primary goods. This is because these things were either not readily available, or society was structured so that one did not really need them to be successful. In such societies I might just need to learn how to make shoes to live a decent rational life plan. This is not the case in the contemporary West for the most part (there are exceptions of course, but I do not think many people would argue that some sort of formal education is necessary to live out a rational life plan today).
The next principle we need to take note of is the Difference Principle. The Difference Principle stipulates that inequalities are permissible in society if and only if these inequalities benefit the worst off (Rawls 68). Presumably we might want to incentivize innovation. An economy with a lot of innovation may be expected to create high paying jobs, and valuable services which would benefit those in society who are worst off. So offering a higher income for innovators will help society by encouraging those who possess the capacity to innovate to do so. This does not mean that innovators can make as much money as possible. They could only make more money insofar as that increased income above and beyond what those at the very bottom earn could be directly linked to improvements for the worst off.
Rawls’ system is a very cautious one since it focuses so much on maximizing the position of the worst off, versus seeking to improve the welfare of the majority or the highest off (Rawls 65). Rawls assumes that an inability to meet your basic needs is a great evil, whereas the ability to live in excess of your basic needs is a comparatively small good. Thus, when we are behind the veil of ignorance, our first concern will be in ensuring that our basic needs are met. Even if they are met, we will not then begin to focus on maximizing the benefits for others, because those at the bottom, assuming they are rational and self-interested, would not consent to a society in which they are worse off than they otherwise would be, for the sake of those who are better off in an unequal distribution (Rawls 131). Behind the veil of ignorance however, people would consent to having a higher minimum floor even if this takes away their chance of having an excessively high standard of living in actual society once they come out of the veil of ignorance.
Unlike Rawls, I do see higher standards of living beyond our basic needs as a substantial good. I agree that deprivation of basic needs is a greater evil, but this does not mean we should ignore the benefits of living above and beyond our basic needs or primary goods. In any case, this personal difference I have with Rawls would not lead me to change his system. I firmly endorse the principle of maximin because it would be the best in ensuring everyone’s basic needs are met within the context of a fair state. Also, maximin allows enough flexibility to keep up with societies as their notion of what primary goods are changes. Finally, maximin gives us an objective criteria in which to decide what a reasonable floor is.
Langtry argues that the Difference Principle does not guarantee that we actually maximize our minimums for everyone (Langtry 72-73). In support of this, he gives an example of someone who is handicapped (Langtry 73). A handicapped person might not even be at the bottom of our society in terms of economic structure. We could imagine she makes a bit more than the minimum. However, her excess expenses which are the result of needed compensation for her disabilities means that in real terms, she is living a standard of living below those who are putatively at the bottom (Langtry 73). This seems like a good attack on the Difference Principle because it shows that it can err in terms of making sure everyone lives above a certain minimum. Presumably this society would not focus on raising the wages of this disabled woman since she is not at the bottom in terms of goods allocated, but she is at the bottom in terms of welfare, and hence she would be treated unfairly by the system. I consider this a strong cautionary anecdote. If we are to implement a Rawlsian system, we must make sure that people like this disabled woman are not overlooked. However, Langtry does not successfully point out a fatal flaw in the system. This is because while he seems to be assuming that we would determine who is at the bottom in terms of monetary income, Rawls is quite clear that his system must focus on primary goods. So a person who is making more in terms of dollars could be recognized as being at the bottom of the Rawlsian system so long as she had the least in society in terms of primary goods.
Hubin offers several critiques of maximin. The first of his arguments which I will consider is the notion that “maximax” would be just as logical a choice for people to consider as “maximin” when they are behind the veil of ignorance (Hubin 364). Under maximax, we could potentially have very high payoffs. It of course risks that we will end up suffering in the very low lows that Rawls’ system seeks to guard against. Rawls’ system is only guarding against these lows out of a sense of pessimism about what the state of nature will end up being once we leave the veil of ignorance. This pessimism is not founded on anything concrete, and thus, a sense of optimism about what the state of nature will be is just as rational (Hubin 364). This critique is widely off mark for several reasons. Though Rawls assumes we should be cautious about what position we will occupy in society, his justification of maximin has nothing to do with if or if not our society as a whole will find itself in a positive state of nature or not. Even if we were guaranteed to find ourselves in very bountiful conditions as a society, the argument for maximin would still be there, because within that society, a rational, self-interested person would not consent to sacrificing what could have been a larger share of good for herself, so that someone else might have even more than her. Thus Rawls’ caution has much more to do with fairness within society, than pessimism about the availability of goods in any particular society.
Crocker asserts that despite a widespread assumption to the contrary, maximin can be argued from a liberal left position because of a need for solidarity among persons in society (262). Though Rawls rules out envy as a factor among rational, self-interested persons behind the veil of ignorance, because envy is not rational, there might be other motivations that would also go against the maximin and the Difference Principle. His specific example is the solidarity disposition. We cannot dismiss a desire for solidarity among citizens as being irrational. In fact, a rational person may argue that this sort of societal solidarity makes up a primary good for people within society (Crocker 264). Crocker strengthens his argument when he discusses a scenario in which society is already very egalitarian. Any differences in income are very minor. However, people come up with a scenario in which to benefit those who are worse off by one percent. Though this is a relatively modest gain, it is still a gain for those who are worse off. However, the only way to achieve this is to increase the incomes of those who are already in the top five percent of society by a factor of ten. This would be permissible by Rawls since it is consistent with maximin, though it would sharply increase stratification in society and attack the rational solidarity disposition felt by the people. Since Crocker argues that this solidarity position could be a primary good, in that it is necessary for a rational life plan within society, he believes that this instantiation of maximin would actually be bad for society. Hence, we sometimes need to favor egalitarianism above and beyond what maximin prescribes if we want to have a truly just society (Crocker 265-266).
Crocker does not make a convincing argument that a solidarity disposition must be considered a primary good because it is not necessary for all rational life plans. However, if we assume that it is, he is still unable to prove that maximin does not work. As I said earlier, Rawls is concerned with the distribution of primary goods, not of money. If a solidarity disposition is reckoned as a primary good, then it must be included in the equation when we are determining what society would maximize our minimum. So if an increase in primary goods to those already best off in society would increase the primary goods of those who are worst off, including the primary good of societal solidarity, then the increased goods to those at the top would be justified. If instead this increase for those at the top increases some primary goods for those at the bottom, but decreases the primary good of the solidarity disposition so much that those at the bottom would actually be at a net loss in terms of primary goods, then this increase to those at the top would not be justified under Rawls’ system.
Now that I have dealt with Crocker, I will return to additional objections to maximin raised by Hubin. According to Hubin, if we have two societies to choose from and both have minimums that exceed minimum threshold of primary goods for those who are worst off, we should choose the society which maximizes utility overall. Since this seems rational to Hubin, he sees no reason why it would not be chosen behind the veil of ignorance (Hubin 370). The problem I see in Hubin’s thinking here is it assumes a fixed floor regarding primary goods which is not present in Rawls’ theory. This is crucial to understanding why I like Rawls’ theory so much. As a society progresses and is thus able to increase the standard of living for the worst off, its conception of primary goods may change. Though this might sound odd, since we always need things like water and food, other primary goods can depend on context. I earlier used the example of college education. During a time of medical ignorance, there also might not have been much value in having access to formal healthcare. However, in a state in which medicine is practiced as a science, and in which it is possible to allocate goods so as to make healthcare available to everyone, then it is easy to see healthcare as necessary to the primary good of health. Without universal healthcare, a person would be less able to fulfill her rational life plan within society. This does not necessarily mean that what we consider primary goods will necessarily increase at a fixed rate in relation to the potential maximin a society is capable of. Yet, I cannot think of how we would decide any other floor behind the veil of ignorance. This is because I imagine that the person who is worst off, is always going to want the highest minimum possible if she is rational and self interested. Those in other positions in society might be motivated to conceive of the primary goods necessary to a rational life plan as being unfairly low because of their own biases given that they would stand to gain from this. Hence the only rational and fair means of determining a floor is the principle of maximin.
An additional argument against Hubin here is that according to Rawls we are not entitled to the fruits of our natural and social endowments. This is because we have not earned either of them and thus they are morally arbitrary (Rawls 63). We are born with our natural endowments, and the family and context in which we are born determines our social endowments (Rawls 14). If I am very talented and able to make a lot of money, or if I am born into a family that can afford the best tutors, and thus I am able to get a high paying job in adulthood, I am in neither case better off than someone who lacks these endowments because I intrinsically deserve to be better off. So why would it be rational for society to allow these fortunate individuals to enjoy the fruits of these endowments to an excessive degree just because those at the bottom who lack these endowments have met some arbitrary minimum threshold?
The last argument of Hubin’s I will consider is one that I am actually quite sympathetic to. Rawls believes that gains above the minimum threshold are always negligible compared to deficiencies below the minimum threshold. Thus far I am with Rawls, as I think this is true. Hubin and I both part company with Rawls when Rawls assumes this means that gains above the minimum threshold must be of very little value, and that any gain above the threshold must be worth less than any deficiency beneath the minimum threshold. Also, according to this logic, the higher the gain, the less value it will have than lower gains, regardless of how far apart they are (Hubin 367). Hubin illustrates this with a great example. If we live in a society where everyone is living above the minimum threshold, this does not mean we will consider a five thousand dollar raise as only negligibly higher than a five hundred dollar raise (Hubin 368). Hubin is right here. Rawls goes too far in insisting that goods in excess of our basic needs will be of very modest value. In fact, a very slight deprivation of primary goods might be experienced as a smaller evil compared to the good of a tremendous excess experienced by someone in the same society who is above the minimum threshold.
Hubin’s masterful argument could lead me to question my adherence to Rawls if I thought Rawls’ system depended on utilitarianism or if I thought that utilitarianism is superior to Rawls’ system. Hubin does not seek to justify either notion, though. Rawls explicitly seeks to build his system because he feels that utilitarianism is limited in its ability to bring about a fair society. The maximum overall good, along with the minimum overall suffering in a society says nothing about just distribution within that society which is so important to Rawls. Just distribution is essential if we could expect all rational, self-interested representative citizens to freely consent to living under the state. So while it is clear that utilitarianism is not the basis of Rawls’ system, it is also not superior to Rawls’ system, if we hold justice to be important.
In the end, all Hubin has proved is that Rawls undervalued the joy someone might get from living in excess of the minimum. This error on the part of Rawls does not necessitate a change in the system since maximizing overall happiness is the intent of the system, or crucial to fairness in society.
Maximin is able to survive objections and remain the best principle in guaranteeing fairness and the basic needs of all, while retaining the needed flexibility to redefine what primary goods are in the context of evolving societies which will undoubtedly lead us to reinvent our conceptions of possible rational life plans. The principle also allows us as a society to determine a fair floor, as opposed to a floor determined arbitrarily by people in positions of power. While there are numerous objections made against Rawls, they can all be adequately responded to within Rawls’ system, or if irrefutable, they only manage superficial damage against Rawls’s thinking which does not require any fundamental revision to his system.
Crocker, Lawrence. “Equality, Solidarity, and Rawls’ Maximin”. Philosophy of & Public
Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 3. Spring, 1977. Pages 262-266. Wiley.
Hubin, Clayton. “Minimizing Maximin”. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for
Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 37, No. 4. May, 1980. Pages 363-372.
Langtry, Bruce. “The Maximin Rule Argument for Rawls’s Principles of Justice”. Australasian
Journal of Philosophy, 63:1. 1985. Pages 64-77.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1999. Print.