Some More Thoughts On Rawls’s Maximin Principle And Fairness

A week ago, I wrote a brief primer post explaining John Rawls’s maximin principle. In that post I explained that Rawls conceives of justice as being quintessentially concerned with fairness.  In order to determine what is maximally fair politically we must imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance behind which we do not know what member of society we will be and determine what we would be willing to accept if we were to wind up any member of society whatsoever.  Whatever would be most tolerable to us if we wound up in any of the different positions in society possible is what would be fair.

Rawls thinks that in the “original position”, a hypothetical state from which people were to choose the constitution and laws of their society from behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing who they would be in the society, most people would be risk averse and try to make sure that should they wind up among the worst off that they would wind up the best off that they could be.  What this means is that whatever political set up which would make the poorest in society better off than they would be in an all other alternative scenarios would be the preferred overall arrangement.  Rawls concludes this is the fairest society.

To illustrate the idea I gave my class a hypothetical scenario in which behind the veil of ignorance I offered them three scenarios to choose from.  In one scenario I told them they could possibly get as many as 6 slices of pizza or as few as zero.  In another scenario they were all guaranteed just one half of a slice.  In a third scenario they were promised a minimum of 1 slice each but the maximum they could get would be capped at 3.  The last scenario is the maximin option because it offers the best worst case scenario (1 slice, as opposed to zero or only one half).

In reply, Jamie wrote:

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.

The reason that the source of the pizza is irrelevant to the thought experiment is that we are asking about how a society should concern itself with distribution and creation of wealth in general.  The question is about this:  when we divvy up our various tasks and then work out our understanding of who owes what to whom, what are our priorities?  Not knowing who you would be in society and what tasks you will have in society or whether you will wind up one of the exceptionally talented or the less talented in different ways, what will you prefer?  Would you prefer a society which is more prosperous overall but in which you personally risk winding up getting much less than was possible for a minimally satisfying life or would you prefer a society that is less prosperous than it might be but which guarantees that even if you’re the worst off it’s better off for you?  This of course assumes only scenarios in which these goods (overall prosperity and minimal well-being) are incompatible and must be chosen between.  In cases where there is a choice between things being the best off for the greatest number or the best off for the worst off among us, which should we prioritize?  Which is it fair to prioritize?  Those are the questions.

So the question does not assume 9 free pizzas.  The question asks if we distribute our resources and responsibilities among all the people in society and it generates a total of 12 pizzas but some people get nothing should we prefer that to another set up where distributing our resources and responsibilities yields only 9 pizzas but also works out that everyone, even the worst off, gets 1 slice.  Would we choose this scenario that means only 9 pizzas overall, even though we could theoretically give all those “one slices” to the people who have 3 slices and they could invest them and get 3 whole pies more pizza for the total group?  If it means that some of us would get no slices because that minimum allotment was “spent” on 3 more full pies for the total group, is that something you would accept if you might wind up one of the unfortunate who are worst off?

The question of how those out earning the bulk of 9 pizzas should feel if their talents and hard work yield more pizza than they personally eat and some who are less talented or less hard working get eat more than they personally earn is a different question.  That question comes down to how much we think that our talents and even our hard work are things for which we can personally deserve more.  We do not have much control over whether we have natural talents or whether we are even the type of people who will have a strong work ethic.  We might feel like we do, but Rawls thinks a good deal of that is a function of factors out of our control like our genes, our upbringing, etc.

Rawls thinks we should accept that we each could just as well have wound up on either end of the talent and diligence scales due to luck.  This is the most controversial dimension of his account and I’ll admit to personal ambivalence about its moral implications.  Though I agree we are subject to luck in this way, it’s not clear to me either that we should distribute goods entirely indifferently to how much excellence someone has or, more importantly, contributes to the overall society’s thriving in numerous key respects.  I think the maximin is a good rule to assess by but I do not know if I would counsel slavishness to it if it came at the expense of some kinds of thriving in excellence at the top of various areas of human achievement.  In other words, there are some goods which are worth funding even if it means that the poor are not the best off they could possibly be.

However, there are also should be a relatively high “floor” involved where the worst off should be no worse off than a certain minimum standard.  So, my ideal would be somewhere between the maximin and the unfettered utilitarian capitalist only concerned with overall GDP.  I would be concerned personally with the maximin except at the expense of the thriving of certain cultural goods which may require more inequality than the maximin might accept.

Jamie’s next reply was the following:

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.

The question at hand is, what justice and fairness are. If you think that Rawls has indeed captured what we believe is just and fair then you really do not have a quarrel with him but with whether or not we should have a fair society.  Or do you not mean that Rawls has properly described what we believe is fair or rather, as you also say, only what we emotionally feel as fairness?  In that case, we may not really believe that what he is saying is fair but just feel it out of a misplaced feeling of not wanting to miss out.  This raises a key question about the extents to which our ideas of fairness originate in our emotions and the extents to which they originate in our abstract reasoning.  And also it raises questions about which justifies our intuitions about fairness—our emotions?  our abstract reasoning?  some combination of emotionally guided abstract reasoning?

I tend to think fairness has one component which is purely abstract and numerical.  Equality is an abstract concept that plays into fairness.  Equal worth demanding an equal consideration is a fairly abstract idea.  In Rawls’s original position, it’s equal consideration that each person wants to give each possible station in life which they could wind up with and that’s fairly abstract.  Emotionally the only interest they are presumed to have is their own rational self-interest.  This leads them to want each possible situation to be the best it could be in general and to only make a situation less great than it could be if it makes sure that another position is not worse than it has to be in any way.  People are being fairly abstract and rational when they say, “I’ll give up my shot to have 6 slices and accept a maximum of 3 because I’m worried about the shot I wind up with none and would rather that worst off prospect be at least 1 slice.”  That trade off is rather abstract and calculative and the only emotion involved is concern to make sure that the worst off scenario is not miserable.  To translate that judgment and consider being fair to others on that kind of thinking is not to be overly emotionally sentimental about the poor but to think it only what would be abstractly fair enough to be something you would agree to were your personal bias that knows your actual situation in life to intrude.

Now, you might ask, but is it fair that we all get equal consideration in calculations of what is fair?  Should I consider you and I equal and interchangeable hypothetically so that I can say, “what is fair for all of us behind a veil of ignorance is what’s fair”?  Should I say rather that not only are we not behind a veil of ignorance but that a veil of ignorance would distort things.  Behind a veil of ignorance we might inadequately value different contributors to society out of our fear of not being them and overprotect those who don’t deserve it because behind the veil of ignorance we would fear being them.  Might we say that there is no “me” that possibly could have been someone else and so to imagine myself and all others as equal with equal consideration as though we were all inter-exchangeable in places is to do violence to the real distinctions between us, which make us decidedly not equal and so meriting decidedly different things in accordance with fairness?

That meritocratic view of situations might see the veil of ignorance as something that distorts reality and teaches us to judge the worth of particular contributions in society as mere fictions rather than objective.  One might say that behind the veil of ignorance assessing worths of different states of affairs by their material benefits and drawbacks distorts their inherent worth.  It could be that some just deserve more even if that means a great disadvantage to others who deserve less.  Who deserves what or what contributions to humanity deserve what might be objectively determinable according to some criteria that is indifferent to whether the poor are fed or not.

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.

Rawls is not saying that everyone should be paid equally.  That’s the communistic/absolute egalitarian option.  He is saying that if and to the extent that the capitalist markets increase the lot of the worst off by generating inequalities which create greater overall benefits of prosperity that lift even the worst off to a higher standard of living, then those markets are preferable.  But, at the same time, to the extent that redistribution of wealth or re-assessment of market values for various jobs, etc. would raise the conditions of the worst off then those things are necessary too.

It’s very simple for Rawls, if more inequality has the net effect of raising the standard of living for the worst off, then he’s all for it.  But any inequality which has the net effect of lowering the standard of living for the worst off, then he’s against it.  To lump him in with communists who demand full equality even when it is economically impractical to the point of making even the worst off suffer is simply to attack a straw man and ignore the force of his middle alternative to both unfettered capitalism and absolutist communism.

I seems like a nice idea – a world where everyone is equal, everything is “fair”.

Rawls does not think a world where everyone is equal is necessarily fair.  Do you think a world where everyone is equal is fair?  If so, why so?  And if so, why did you put the word in scare quotes as though you don’t literally mean it.  Are you saying that you do believe universal equality is fair but that we shouldn’t be fair?    Why shouldn’t we be fair?  Rawls argues that since even the worst off among us most likely would not be better off with universal equality that that means it is not 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.

In Rawls’s scenario some people can have more than others and than they are “given” if some having more and acquiring more than they start with benefits even the worst off on the long run.  Similarly for those who want a greater degree of “independence.”  But he is not going to tolerate the worst off suffering just for the sake of some getting as much as they want. And why should he?  Why should any of us tolerate an economic system in which a few become completely parasitic on the rest of us by reaping benefits of our labor and resources to an extent that leads us to any more suffering than we must necessarily have?  Why would we continue to participate in a system that does not in the long run favor us all over another alternative?  Just because some people are insatiable?  Well, some people would rather have the chance to eat for themselves than simply acquiesce to a system in which they starve so that others can gorge themselves without limit.  So, there must be limits on capitalism and concessions to the poor on whose back it runs.  And it seems everyone wins if those concessions are kept to the maximin, rather than if they go all the way to the counter-extreme of communism, in which all suffer equally.

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.

We are neither inspired, compassionate, nor grateful if we make our economic system any more systematically harmful to people than is justified by intrinsic goods.  It would be perverse to economically stack the deck any more against the poorest in society than it needs to be merely so we could have occasions to feel compassion.  People who would prefer others impoverished that they might have a chance to have compassion are people with no real compassion (or are people who give compassion the awful name Nietzsche thinks it deserves).  The question is not whether there are some good things that come out of the misery of the impoverished.  It’s whether we want to make things systemically favor the worst off as much as we can or whether we are indifferent to their plight being worse than it has to be.

Perhaps people who are given much and are not generous, teach us how we should not behave and why.

That is an incidental benefit of freedom—that we can learn from bad people what badness looks like.  But that’s not something we should at all design our economic distribution around.  If the choice is to provide health care to even more poor people or to have the opportunity to point at a rich person who does not give generously while those same poor people die and be able to say, “he’s a bad man” then I will take the option where poor people get health care over the walking moral object lesson, thank you very much.

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

True.  Inequality of various kinds are inevitable and valuable to human life.  But that’s not the question—it’s about minimum standards of prosperity for those who are worst off.

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.

It’s true that insofar as there is inequality it should be used for as much good as possible.  But some of the goods you cited do make it sound like the poor should remain so for our benefit.  Some of those goods are entirely incidental and not at all worth pursuing for their own sake (like the ungenerous wealthy who can provide the aid of a bad example to teach us).  Those are not examples of why we should not do our best to achieve the maximin.

Your Thoughts?

  • George

    Perhaps it comes from living in your “socialist” neighbor to the North, but the maximin principal seems to make perfect sense to me. The American debate over health care seems absolutely absurd. How anyone could possibly find fault in offering universal health care is unfathomable. Our social safety net in Canada seems to be more substantial in general, and I would love to hear a reasoned argument why the same system could not or should not exist south of the border.
    I’m sure Canada has its fair share of hard right wingnuts, but you would be hard pressed to fill a room with Canadians opposed to universal health care or even willing to argue for unfettered capitalism.
    Yet I, like many other people in Britain, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Australia, and even evil countries like Saudi Arabia, China, France, and Switzerland manage to have universal healthcare with varying degrees of capitalism.
    Capitalism is not an all or nothing choice. Anything short of unencumbered “free market” economics is not socialism. You can make a boatload of money and still provide for everyone.