The main focus of today's discussion is Rawls's third and most problematic principle, the difference principle, which states that income and wealth is to be distributed "to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged individual." This stems from the logic that what is good for the least advantaged individual will be good for the second-least advantaged, and the third, and so on. But what if slightly benefiting the least advantaged person comes at a huge cost to others? Professor Shapiro explores Rawls's defense. It is important to note that Rawls is not trying to give marginal policy advice, or even determine whether socialism or capitalism benefits the least advantaged (which he leaves to empirics), but trying to determine the basic structure of society. However, Professor Shapiro shows that the difference principle is not necessarily radical in the redistributive sense when compared with Pareto or Bentham, but it is radical in a philosophical sense. Rawls argues that the differences between individuals are morally arbitrary--it's moral luck that determines the family one is born into, what country one is born in, or one's capacities. However, some of the consequences are unsavory. Although Rawls tries in vain to exclude what one chooses to make of one's capacities, could not effort, or capacity to work, fall into this sphere as well? What is to be said of two equally intelligent people, one of who works hard and gets A's while the other lies on the couch and watches ESPN all day?
Rawls, A Theory of Justice
- Chapter 3: sections 20-27, 29-30
- Chapter 4: section 40
- Chapter 5: sections 41-43
- Chapter 9: section 79
Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 183-231 [optional]
Shapiro, Moral Foundations of Politics, chapter 5 [optional]
This course explores main answers to the question, "When do governments deserve our allegiance?" It starts with a survey of major political theories of the Enlightenment—Utilitarianism, Marxism, and the social contract tradition—through classical formulations, historical context, and contemporary debates relating to politics today. It then turns to the rejection of Enlightenment political thinking. Lastly, it deals with the nature of, and justifications for, democratic politics, and their relations to Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment political thinking. Practical implications of these arguments are covered through discussion of a variety of concrete problems.
This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 50 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Spring 2010.