7 Sep 2022


John Rawls’ Difference Principle of Justice

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The difference principle is the second principle of John Rawls’ that explains the theory of justice. Rawls states that Justice should be fair in society. He uses the two Principles to explain that in pursuance of justice, which is liberty, and equality should be followed. In a just and fair society, equality of opportunities should universally accept and comply with the principle of justice (Rawls, 2009). Rawls explains the difference principle that should be put in practice to ensure that inequalities are regulated. He advocates for some inequalities such as a talent that someone is born with like sport, and argues that they occur naturally and everybody can have talent. Rawls focuses on justice as fairness as he argues that every individual in the society are entitled to equal basic rights. The principle of Justice ensures that fairness and equality are maintained. Cohen disputes that Rawls introduction of entitling talented people to have the power to demand more pay, Cohen disputes it as inequality. According to Cohen, justice is justice whether possible to achieve or not. I fully support Cohen criticisms of Rawls’ arguments, first, Rawls’ argument of justice only applies to institutions, and not how people conduct their affairs. Second, in any society, talented people do not need incentives or motivation to perform a socially beneficial service; they should work for benefit of the least advantaged. Third, people in market economy will always act to maximize their profit and not in accordance to the just system. Finally, Rawls’ arguments were inconsistent and as much as some of Cohen’s text have never been clear in meaning I think he was explicit in his criticism. 

The difference principle advocates for a civilized, fair, and just society that gives every individual similar set of fundamental liberties or rights such as freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of worship and the right to life among many rights and freedoms. Equality provides the ground for all citizens to enjoy equality in opportunities in that process (Wolff 1979). Rawls argues that people should avoid getting rewards for a position they have through unjustifiable means. The central idea in the principle is clear, the earnings or output of practice is, to equally distribute resources unless another pattern of unequal distribution proves to work for the benefit of all members of society. 

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Rawls’ arguments 

In his theory, Rawls takes fairness as the principal virtue of social institutions. He defines the kind of moral values that administer the foundational structure of a democratically fair and just society. Rawls asserts that one comes to a rational decision on the principle of justice if the decision he/she chose come from an original position without ignorance. The central ideas of the theory are "justice as fairness." Here the intrusive idea in his theory is between fairness and ignorance (Brock 2005). He argues that people deprived of particularizing knowledge make them rational in choosing ethical principle than letting that knowledge influences their choice in their interests. He asserts, for example, that whenever one does not know the piece of cake they are going to take, makes them cut that cake fairly than when one already knows the piece he/she will take. 

John Rawls’ first principle requires citizens to enjoy equal liberties in society. The second principle in the theory of justice is the difference principle where the initial part demands fair equality of opportunity. The distribution of positions of responsibility, respect, income, and wealth is governed by the difference principle (Brock 2005). The principle holds that inequalities in the distribution of resources are acceptable only if the distribution benefits the least advantaged in the society. In his principle, Rawls’ asserts that citizens hold in the highest interest two moral powers. The first power is a preposition and acting on the principle of justice that everyone agrees with. The other ability is holding, revising, and pursuing a good concept. The principle affirms that any principle of justice including the one that regulates economic and social inequities must be to the benefit of all and everyone should accept the principle because it allows pursuing peoples’ conception of the good. The first principle of justice is equality in the assignment of basic liberties. The other principle is concerned with economic and social inequities. The first part of the social and economic inequalities is further sub-divide into the principle of fair and equality in opportunities. The principle asserts that differences in social and economic environments can be justifiable when it is to the full benefit of least advantage members. 

Rawls asserts that people are concerned to exercise and protect just powers that would guarantee equal essential rights and resources needed in pursuance of their good; this is in support of his first principle of justice. All citizens would do better by allowing inequalities that support economic growth hence citizens would not choose a rule requiring absolute equality. The difference principle supports self-respect to least advantaged in the society compared to other principles (Bell 2004). By offering self-respect of the less advantaged, supports them in maximizing their express of the commitment to better share their fate. All people must have self-respect whenever they are pursuing their good. Rawls further argues that principles that allow talented people advantages and do not profit the less disadvantaged in the society are not important being embraced. 

Cohen’s criticism of Rawls’ arguments 

Initially, Rawls claimed of inequalities being justified given that they were to benefit the least well off in the society. Furthermore, argues that so long an individual or group abides by the set structure by the difference principle then the outcome of their activities are just even the stark inequalities in the society. Cohen criticizes both arguments, and I fully support him. The principles of justice apply to the choices that individuals make within the said and not only the societal instituted rules are that Rawls’ arguments based on. The difference principle is not a guarantee of equality because even in cases where the principle is universally affirmed and complied, inequalities are still observed. Rawls’ request for a measure of fairness and equality as he articulated in the first principle is denied through allowance of inequalities in the second principle asserts Cohen. 

People need incentives to make socially beneficial products according to Rawls’ argument of rational thinking in the difference principle (Rawls 2009). Cohen criticizes the need for people to get extra compensation for socially beneficial services. He argues that the less advantaged still benefit even when the talented have no extra compensation for their services and Cohen is right in his argument. According to Cohen, the talented individual can still provide their services, and if they cannot provide, they have decided to extort the society. Cohen believes that when talented individuals refuse to offer their services to the society they holding society hostage in choosing not to provide their services, which he has clearly explained, and I agree. 

In the Rawlsian society, the market economy is presumed to be motivationally operative among individuals. Cohen argument is that individuals in the system only work with the intent of maximizing their economic needs without regard to acting in a just manner. Cohen thinks that if self-interest is the motivating factor to individuals, then inequalities are likely to be experienced in this system. He goes on that ethos of justice should be responsible for individual choices than the ethos of maximizing one economic ends. It is true when Cohen says well designed just rules are not enough and economic choices cannot be outside the purview of justice. Who cannot refute this claim. Personally, I believe people are driven by self-interest to their acts. 

Cohen justifies that Rawls’ difference principle of justice applies to institutions only and not how individuals conduct their affairs. The difference principle does not extend to non-societal institutions such as individual association, for example, a family. The principle only covers societal institutions such as tax policies and property rights. For instance, society is unjust as women are at a disadvantage for being women and discrimination of women is due to inadequate access of women to education and jobs than men have. The situation arises even though the coercive institution and laws are against the acts. Another instance, in family parents, encourages their sons in pursuance of their dreams and shuts down the ambitions of their daughters; in this manner, injustice in the society is penetrated. Cohen argues that if Rawls' principle of justice does not apply to individual institutions, then the burden of married women cannot be evaluated by the difference principle. Given a chance that the principle applies to individual institutions then Rawls’ argument was wrong in making individual distinction demarcating the scope of justice. Cohen finishes by saying that the principle of justice would apply to free choices that individually make in a just system. 

Cohen accuses Rawls as he is essentially inconsistency; incentives are only necessary due to choices and attitudes of better-off citizens. The options and opinions made are inconsistent. Like Rawls, Cohen assumes that talent supports difference principle and wants to benefit the position of the disadvantaged in the society. The question according to Cohen remains that if people are articulating the theory how comes, they are rich, and yet they claim to be egalitarian (Kukatha & Pettit 1990). Through Cohen's theory, there seems to be a conflict between Rawls’ reasoning that justice needs equity of primary goods for all people. According to Cohen, Rawls’ argument a situation where primary goods are unequally distributed which is a move away from equality. Rawls maintains that equality is a starting point in the distribution of primary goods. Cohen argues that distribution of talent is morally arbitrary and hence no reason to reward talented individuals more than untalented in the initial stage. 

John Rawls’ difference principle is held to be a major liberal egalitarian solution to a societal problem that has been debated for a long time by politicians and philosophers since the time of immemorial. The solutions help a society organize a just and fair system that allows individuals to enjoy and flourish fully. Rawls’ theory offers a society with functioning equality in trade for minimal inequalities (incentives). By Rawlsian theory focusing on wealth is the downfall of the theory because people do not need incentives to understand the needs of our fellow human and at the same time, individuals do not need incentives either to value equality. On the other hand, Cohen emphasizes on a society that allows equal moral responsibility. A community that all individuals work and lives to their maximum capabilities and one that allows equality of opportunity to all. The conditions allow and can satisfy the capacity of flourishing and living precious human lives. 


Bell, D. (2004). Environmental Justice and Rawls’ Difference Principle . Environmental Ethics, 26(3), 287-306. 

Brock, G. (2005). The Difference Principle, Equality of Opportunity, and Cosmopolitan Justice

Kukathas, C, & Pettit, P. (1990). Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics . Manchester: Stanford University Press. 

Rawls, J. (2009). A Theory of Justice . Washington DC: Harvard University press. 

Wolff, R. P. (1977). Understanding Rawls : A Reconstruction and Critique of a Theory of Justice

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