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.

  • George

    If we apply pizza scenario A to life in the US then we can bet the Republicans in your class will at least offer up their crusts to the poor folks who got none. They wouldn’t EVER give them a whole slice, even if they had six slices because that would diminish the reward to those who were given one slice in the first place.
    This logic game should be required learning for everyone involved in the health care debate…except for one important error.

    How does this test work when you make a list of the people in your class and show them how many pieces each gets? Or better still, show which students get six or five slices and which get none. Then hand out the list and let them vote. This is the framing of your health care debate. We already know if we are winning, losing, or heading out into the great unknown.

  • Jamie

    As to George’s comment, I would disagree that those with six slices would never give a whole slice to someone else. There are a lot of very generous very wealthy people in the world.

    Also, I wonder how the experiment would change if students knew that they would all have to perform the same type of task to earn the slices of pizza? It seems like the premise of the experiment is faulty because it assumes that there are 9 free pizzas. Where do these pizzas come from? In real life, things (like health care and other government programs) cost money and the money must come from somewhere. Maybe you should start with the assumption that everyone is paying an equal amount.

  • sendaianonymous

    Oh, maximin principle, how I love thee!

    But then, I’m, um, moderately social democratic. By, um, USian standards, this would be, um, left-wing extremist, I suppose.
    (it’s like Obama, who is, sort of, right-to-centre by European standards, and, as far as I remember, more to the right than Angela Merkel).


    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?

    But talent *is* luck! Also, a hard-working plumber will always make less money than a hard-working tabloid journalist, for instance. One can argue that the journalist worked harder to get his education, but than, the plumber needed an education, too, and maybe she simply wasn’t that good with words. Which brings us back to talent, again. Which *is* luck, so. Or the plumber could have worked even harder, if her parents were poorer and had less education than she got in the end.
    Which brings us back to, maximin principle, how I love thee!

  • sendaianonymous

    Also, I basically learned about maximin in detail in a statistics-in-gender-and-family-studies class at Tohoku University. When the prof asked which principle (there was a bunch, with the egalitarian and strict meritocracy included) we think is best for the society, everybody, seriously everybody, voted for maximin. There were about 100 people in the lecture.

    This was one of the awesomest things ever :D

  • George

    I was poking fun at Republican “generosity”, which they like to trumpet out every time anyone suggests we help the less fortunate. There are, as you said some very wealthy, very generous people. But should society leave the poorest and most needy at the feet of a few wealthy philanthropists?
    Money for things like health care does have to come from somewhere. All universal health care proponents are saying is that everyone should pay into the system and then everyone has equal access to the system. Now you pay taxes instead of a premium and noone files for bankruptcy because their three year old got cancer. I would drive through twice as many potholes on my way to work if one family didn’t have to make that choice. Our roads are paid for with taxes. Why not your health care?

  • sendaianonymous

    @ Jamie

    The first wrong assumption, though, is that you *will* get those slices. You might not. A perfect meritocracy doesn’t esist; people don’t always get what they deserve.
    If you remember that you might *not* actually get those slices, you realise that nobody is taking anything from you.

    This is what anti-tax people (or monarchists, too) usually forget: they just assume they will be in the upper echelon of a society that is constructed in such a way that it really really sucks if you’re in the lower one.

  • Jamie

    I did get your tongue in cheek humor. :) And I certainly am not suggesting that we leave the wealthy few to attend to the less fortunate. And Senda…, I did, believe it or not, understand what the exercise is trying to do. The reason everyone gravitates to the maximin choice is because the question is rigged. At least in this case. I don’t know how it was presented in your class. It seems to play on our emotional responses to what we believe is just and fair, but the conclusion (I believe) is not realistic. Is it fair for the plumber to be paid less than the journalist if they both work hard? I suppose not. But the market, over time has placed values on those jobs for various reasons. (In that specific example, I suppose we have decided that we would much rather spend a little money often on a tabloid than pay a plumber for services that may or may not be necessary in a given situation. Therefore the tabloid can afford to pay the journalist more than the plumbing company can pay the plumber…or something like that.) On the other hand, is it fair to give everyone the same pay no matter how little or hard they work? No, I don’t believe so.

    I seems like a nice idea – a world where everyone is equal, everything is “fair”. But the human experience tells us that there will always be people who want more than what they are given. There will always be people who strive for independence and have a need to do what is within their power to improve their circumstances. And in a way, I am thankful for the spectrum. People who do much with little and rise above their circumstances inspire us. People who are less fortunate drive us to compassion and help us to be grateful for what we have. Perhaps people who are given much and are not generous, teach us how we should not behave and why. Like it or not, inequality helps us grow and learn how to live with one another relationally. I don’t mean to say that the poor should remain so for our benefit. I’m just saying that I think a world without inequality is not realistic, but it doesn’t have to be demonized and dismissed as a failure…it should be used as a tool to make us better human beings.

  • sendaianonymous

    @ Jamie

    And Senda…, I did, believe it or not, understand what the exercise is trying to do.

    No, you did not.

    I seems like a nice idea – a world where everyone is equal, everything is “fair”. But the human experience tells us that there will always be people who want more than what they are given.

    This is not what the maximin principle is about. What you’re talking about is centralised communism, where everybody does different jobs, and is then paid more or less the same amount of money by the government that redistributes the goods. Maximin and cetralised redistribution are two completely different things.

    I suppose not. But the market, over time has placed values on those jobs for various reasons.

    So, tradition, therefore, no taxes? FUN.
    How about outhouses? They are traditional, too.
    Also, please stop anthropomorphising the market lest I think you pray to it every evening before you sleep.

    People who do much with little and rise above their circumstances inspire us.

    I hope they will inspire you to spell people’s names correctly in the future.
    Especially when all you have to do is Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.

    Like it or not, inequality helps us grow and learn how to live with one another relationally.

    Haha. This is just a fancy way of saying NONE OF MAH MONIEZ WILL GO TO THE LAZY POOR PEOPLE NO WAI. And by the way, this assertion has no basis in reality.
    Please compare:
    “We shouldn’t be helping those starving children in (insert developing country). We should just respect their culture. It’s all about diversity!”
    It’s nice and easy to enjoy the diversity when you’re not the one paying the price for it.

    You should maybe check this book out:

  • Jamie


    I originally posted because I was interested in a candid conversation with differing viewpoints on the subject.

    I am saddened by your choice to berate me for my stupidity rather than explain your position in a civil manner. It seems a rather immature response coming from an otherwise intelligent person. I would have been very interested in what you had to say.

  • http://camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    sorry for your bad experience here in the comments section of the site, Jamie. I have meant to reply to some of your challenges myself but have not gotten around to doing so adequately and won’t until Thursday. I hope you’ll still be reading by then.

  • Jamie


    No worries. You output more than I could ever possibly have the time to read, but I do drop in from time to time. I look forward to your response!


    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Jamie!

  • George

    I think Sendai was harsh with the tone but absolutely correct that we are arguing about two different things. The maximin principal never says one thing about equality, or parity, or even fairness. It explicitly states that some will get much more, some much less, but that the least will always be getting something.
    It is not rigged in that it does not explicitly reward anyone for hard work. If Dan was going to divvy up the slices of pizza so that it was merit based then this would seem outwardly fair, but quite less so under the first scenario and third scenario. The maximin principal only illustrates that no matter how Dan chooses to give the slices away, either by lottery or by merit, everyone gets fed.
    It is not a pipe dream to live by the maximin principal. The plumber can still make less than the tabloid journalist. The tabloid journalist can have less than the lazy heir to a large corporation. The 128 employees that heir tells a CEO of his company to lay off so that he can buy a private jet without liquidating assets are the ones who benefit from this maximin principal. They still get to take their kids to a doctor, put food on the table, keep their house, etc.
    We COULD limit shareholder greed; we COULD ensure that every person has access to quality medical care; we COULD ensure a proper safety net for those who need it. We CHOOSE not to.
    We then turn around and try to create the best “spin” on the decisions we do make, like learning something from peoples misfortune. Or letting the few people who do overcome adversity inspire us.
    You are right to assume that this would not be an easy task. Multinationals could close up shop and move to countries that allow outright exploitation of workers. People would need to be convinced that paying $900 does not give you the right to get your head cold treated faster than a the homeless kid across from you in the waiting room with a broken arm. There are many hurdles to making these principals happen.
    Making excuses about why everything is fine as it is hardly serves to feed constructive dialogue.
    I would love to get your feedback Jamie, this is a very interesting subject.