Philosophical Ethics: Rawls’s Maximin Principle

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here. The text we are using and from which all citations will be taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). This post briefly explains Rawls’s maximin principle and compares it to alternative ideals of full equality and maximum, utilitarian prosperity.

Rawls argues that justice is characterized primarily by fairness and that fairness is determinable primarily by abstracting ourselves from the peculiarities of our individual circumstances with our specific personal advantages and interests.  Only if we imagine circumstances formally in such a way as to imagine how we would judge them if we did not know which party we would be within it can we judge them fairly.  In the case of determining principles of political and social justice which should be enshrined in a constitution and in particular laws we must imagine ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance”, behind which we do not know anything about ourselves and our individual interests in the situation.  Behind this “veil of ignorance” we do not know anything about our economic status, our social class, our race, our sexual orientation, our religious views or lack thereof, our beliefs about what makes for a good life,  our economic origins, our sex, our gender, our race, our ethnicity, our color, our talents or lack thereof, our looks, or any other sources of particular advantages, disadvantages, preferences, or interests we might have that would distinguish us from anyone else.  When we imagine ourselves behind this “veil of ignorance” we are able to abstract away from everything which would lead us to biasly prefer what serves those who are in our particular position and who have our particular interests over those in other positions and those who have competing interests to our own.  Only to the extent that we reason as though behind a “veil of ignorance” can we suspend our self-interested prejudices and consider what is fair accurately.

In Rawls’s hypothetical “original position” we are to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance creating a constitution for governing our society.  As we make this constitution, we must imagine that we will not know who in society we will wind up being.  We do not know if we will be rich or poor, male or female, straight, gay, bi, or transsexual, black, white, yellow, red, or brown, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Sikh, atheist, or agnostic, born into high social status or into low, etc.  We do not know what we will care about, what our conception of the good life will be, how naturally talented we will be, how hard working or not we will be, how well or poorly raised by our parents we will be.  We know nothing about our state in this society.  The way I like to put this in class is to ask students to imagine tomorrow having to swap places with any random other person in the country whatsoever in our country.

When imagining ourselves behind the veil of ignorance, not knowing the particularities of our station or interests in life, and thinking of ourselves as though we were in the original position, determining what is just according to the standard of what would be tolerable to us regardless of who we wound up being in society, Rawls thinks we would be able to determine the most genuinely fair principles for society.  And when it comes to determining principles of distributive justice by which we were to allocate goods within society, behind the veil of ignorance we would each be risk averse and would have as our first priority that the political order guaranteed that if we wound up the very worst off which we could be in terms of wealth and ability, etc. that we would want that state of impoverishment to be the least bad that it could be.

Rawls’s idea of the “maximin” is of the maximum minimum possible. Making the maximin the priority from behind the “veil of ignorance” would mean setting up the economic system in such a way as to maximize the well being of the worst off within society. From behind the veil of ignorance, not knowing if one would be the worst off within society, Rawls believes everyone would prefer this principle to a principle that maximizes the overall economic well being of the entire society at the risk of great suffering for the worst off. Rawls would allow significantly curtailing the overall economic flourishing if it means making the worst off the best off they could be. There can be inequalities within society, some may be better off than others, only if this inequality has the effect of making those lesser off better off than they would have been in another scenario wherein all were equal.

To illustrate Rawls’s claim about our priorities and what they would be behind the veil of ignorance, imagine that you are in my class of 35 students and 1 teacher and tomorrow I will be bringing in pizzas.  I give you and the entire class three options for how much pizza I will bring and how I will distribute slices the next day.  The three options are as follows:  Option A, I will bring 12 pizza pies, containing 96 slices.  One random student will receive 6 slices, a few will get 5, a few will get 4, a few will get 3, the majority will get 2 slices, a few students will get 1 slice, and four students will get nothing.    Option B, I will bring 9 pizza pies, containing 72 slices, and all 36 of us will be guaranteed at least 1 slice, most of us will get 2 slices, and a few of us will get 3 slices.  Option C, I will bring 2.5 pies, containing just 18 slices.  I will then divvy up all 18 slices equally among the 36 people present, giving each of us exactly half of a slice.  Not knowing what your random slice assignment will be tomorrow, which pizza purchase and distribution scheme would you vote for today?

In considering your options, you might consider your possible best payoffs:  In option A you have a shot at 6 slices, in option B you have a shot at 3 slices, and in option C you have a shot only at one half of a slice.  On the other hand, you may also consider your possible worst payoffs:  In option A you might wind up with nothing at all, in option B you might wind up with only one slice, and in option C you are guaranteed no more than one half of a slice.

If you would vote for option B because it means you are guaranteed at least one slice whereas the other options leave you with nothing or just one half of a slice, then you calculate that the maximin is your preference behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls thinks that choosing our schema of distributive justice we should think in this way.  If economic realities are such that a totally equal distribution scheme would make the poor poorer (only getting “one half of a slice”) than they would be in another (wherein they get “one slice”), unequal distribution scheme, then equality is not their highest preference behind the veil of ignorance but rather the unequal distribution scheme that gives them a better outcome is.  If economic realities are such that total happiness may go up (we can get 12 total pies for the class rather than 9) and the rich can be as maximally rich as possible (get 6 slices each for themselves) but the cost is that the condition of the worst off is worse (0 slices) than in another scenario (in which there are only 9 pies total but the worst off are guaranteed at least 1 piece), then in the original position, behind the veil of ignorance, we would choose the better fate for the worst off over the greater overall prosperity and possibility of twice as many slices for the top receivers.

This is essentially how Rawls wants us to reason about economic systems and distribution principles:  if we can maximize the well-being of the worst off with a certain amount and kind of inequality, we should allow precisely that amount and kind of inequality.  If the worst off begin to wind up with less when there is a certain amount and kind of inequality, then that inequality is unacceptable and must be counter-balanced for the maximum benefit of the worst off, even at the expense of overall prosperity.

What do you think?  Is Rawls’s maximin principle the best way to determine a fair society?  Is it really fair of him to treat our talents and hard work as things we are merely lucky to have and not as things which rightfully earn us greater prosperity that does not also benefit the worst off but allows them to suffer so we can get whatever we can in a completely unfettered market? On the other hand, is inequality tolerable as long as everyone’s material conditions are better than they would be in a more equal society?  What distribution scheme would you vote for in the pizza scenario?  What kinds of constitutional provisions for distribution would you vote for in the original position?  If you agree that the maximin principle as essentially fairer than both unfettered meritocratic or capitalistic utilitarianism and than extreme communist egalitarianism, then what policy implications for our own laws do you think it this principle might make necessary?  How do you think a maximin approach would affect the health care debate for example?  Do you think it would mean reconsidering the push for total equality?  Do you think it would mean, on the other hand, a greater willingness than any politician will currently acknowledge to consciously risk the overall economy suffering if that is what is necessary for the sake of the well-being of the worst off?

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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