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Rawls' Maximin Principle

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Rawls' Maximin Principle: Is It Really The Most Rational Solution?

Political philosophy aims to reflect the normative and conceptual dimensions of political life. American philosopher John Rawls is widely recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the twentieth century. His A Theory of Justice (1971) is one of the primary texts in political philosophy and proposes two principles of justice. The first, the liberty principle, defines basic liberties and the second, the difference principle, regulates disparity within rights, powers, and privileges through what is known as a maximin strategy . The difference principle and underlying maximin strategy, as any theory, has several credible components as well as some that cause for criticism.

Rawls argues that the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position. These principles determine a society's basic structure; political constitution, economy, and property rules. Rawls takes a fair agreement situation to be one where everyone is impartially situated as equals. In this so-called "original position" everyone is equally situated by a hypothetical "veil of ignorance". This veil requires individuals to set aside their knowledge of their particular differences, including knowledge of their talents, wealth, social position, and religious views. People in the original position are rational; they desire a set of primary goods and they know and understand general laws and principles that govern a society . Rawls asserts that in the hypothetical original position everyone would unanimously accept justice as fairness. This conception of justice consists mainly of two principles, the second of which is most imperative and will be discussed in great detail.

Rawls's second principle of justice, the difference principle, defines the limits of inequalities in wealth, income, powers, and positions that may exist in a just society. It says first, that social positions are to be open to all to compete for on terms of fair equality and opportunity. Second, that the inequalities listed are permissible only if they maximally benefit the least advantaged class in society . The difference principle implies that a just distribution of income and wealth is to make the class of least advantaged persons better off than they would be under any alternative circumstance. This principle is said to be consistent with the main concern of the first principle which requires that equal basic liberties cannot be traded for other benefits .

Rawls' argument is that people facing a choice of principles under the conditions set out by the original position would agree to his two principles. Setting aside the liberty principle, the difference principle, according to Rawls, represents what he calls a "maximin" solution to the choice situation faced by persons in the original position. The maximin solution can be described as maximizing what you would get if you wound up in the minimum or worst-off position. It emphasizes that the right decision is that which makes the worst outcome as good as it can be. Kymlicka uses the example of three possible distribution schemes, each of varying average utility and the lowest of which yielding the highest utility for its worst possible outcome. According to the maximin principle the scheme that holds the greatest utility for its minimum outcome is the ideal choice because even if you end up in the worst position, it gives you more than you would get at the bottom of the other distribution schemes. This strategy is often described as risk-adverse meaning that those who choose it prefer security over risk-taking .

There are three conditions under which it is rational to choose a maximin solution. The first condition is that one has no knowledge of probabilities of outcomes. If you knew it was unlikely that you would end up in the least-favored position, it might be rational to go for an alternative that has a minimum which is worse than the others but a maximum which is better. The second is that one has no reason to try for anything above the minimum possible outcome. If you have a strong desire to get more than the minimum outcome, then it will be rational to go for the option with a greater maximum possibility, even if it has a minimum which is worse than the others. The final condition is that the alternatives have unacceptable worst-possible outcomes. If the alternatives had acceptable minimums, then one might be willing to take a blind chance, and opt for principles that may result in a system in which you have less than you could have Ð'- since the least isn't so bad .

In theory, the difference principle and maximin solution seem quite plausible but after close scrutiny one begins to notice the loopholes that arise and are cause for criticism. These loopholes can be found in many aspects of the theory, in particular the definition of the original position, the influence of natural talents on inequalities, and the risk-adverse specification.

The description of the original position is rigged to yield the difference principle as Rawls will admit . Those who object to the conditions of the veil of ignorance purpose that people in the original position will not opt for a maximin solution because it is not a rational principle to follow under conditions



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