John Rawls (1921-2002) – a
• Hugely influential US
“I must reconcile the firm liberal belief in freedom
• Bridge between
modern liberal and
• Best known work: A
Theory of Justice(1972)
with the need to prevent excessive inequality in
Q. What needs
A. Any measures introduced to reduce
or prevent inequality will inevitably
result in a loss of liberty for some.
If income is
must be higher
taxation for the
Try out Rawls’ thought experiment
1. Imagine humankind before society came
into being – a natural state.
Rawls calls this
2. People then asked to create a
society which decides how wealth
and goods are to be distributed.
3. However, before they make any decisions they
are placed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’...which
means they do not have any idea of how
successful they will be, or how wealthy they will
become. Life is a lottery!
So...what did Rawls think we would do?
We would reject Utilitarianism (the greatest
good for the greatest number), as we might be
the one at the bottom of the pile
We would have equal rights and respect for all
as we might be part of a minority group
We would reject Marxism, as human instinct is
to strive for reward.
However, we would create a society with a
minimum stand of living – no-one should be
allowed so much wealth that the worst off in
society would fall below that level
So, in practice this means...
• Individuals should be as free as is possible
• But these freedoms should not be enjoyed at
the expense of others
• Inequalities are allowed, but have to be
• Inequalities can be justified if it increaese the
prosperity of society as a whole.
Rawls’ ‘difference principle’
“Large inequalities can be, but are
not necessarily ‘evil’ and can be
justified if these inequalities do not
disadvantage the least well off.
Individual freedom is not universally
good – it can only be enjoyed if all
have a minimum standard of living.”
So what state intervention could you justify using Rawls’ principle?