In this post, I want to consider whether a conception of well-being matters for John Rawls' Difference Principle. Rawls' notion of the least advantaged is aggregative; it uses economic class rather than particular individuals to identify who the least advantaged are. For a person to be disadvantaged she has to be not only financially insecure but also she has to be unhappy with herself or her position in society. A person's happiness is a matter of the state of her well-being. Since it is possible for those people who are fiscally disadvantaged to be well off on account of some other more perspicuous criterion of well-being, economic class is not a sufficiently reliable index of whether a person is more or less advantaged.
Let me begin by explaining the principles of justice and offer a reason for why they are the correct principles, according to Rawls. Rawls' argument from the Original Position asserts that people in the initial situation would agree to two principles of justice: (i) equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties ("Equal Liberty Principle") and (ii) social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that (a) they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons ("Difference Principle") and (b) they do not proscribe anyone from developing whatever socially useful
talents they innately possess ("Fair Opportunity Principle"). According to the Difference Principle, the just society is one in which the social and economic position of the least well off should be maximised. Anyone who finds herself in the Original Position cloaked by a veil of ignorance will choose the equal liberty principle and the difference principle because that is what they would want if they found themselves in the most disadvantaged social and economic position.
In the argument from the Original Position, Rawls (1999) fails to articulate a criterion of well-being in his exposition of the principles of justice. He presumes the counterfactual - if we were the least well off, then we would choose these principles of justice - is correct. Anytime a theory appeals to some standard on the basis of which the benefits and sacrifices of different people can be compared in order to measure the equality or inequality of shares, a criteria of relative well-being will have a central place in that theory if it fails to begin with a system of rights taken as standing in no need of defense. Rawls's argument is compelling, but it is deeply flawed because it fails to address well-being.
What Rawls asserts about the least advantaged or least well off does not address well-being. He sketches a characterisation of the `least advantaged' as follows:
Now it seems impossible to avoid a certain arbitrariness in actually identifying the least favored group. One possibility is to choose a particular social position, say that of the unskilled worker, and then to count as the least favored all those with approximately the income and wealth of those in this position, or less. Another criterion is one in terms of relative income and wealth (sic) with no reference to social positions... Either of these criteria would appear to cover those most disfavored by the various contingencies and provide a basis for determining at what level a reasonable social minimum might be set and from which, in conjunction with other measures, society could proceed to fulfill the difference principle. (Rawls 1999, p. 84)
There are two important points about Rawls' conception of the least well off. First, the least advantaged is an aggregative principle which does not identify any least advantaged individual. The definition depends on those in a given class or segment of society. That a person falls in a certain income bracket fails to say anything about the state of that person's well-being. Aggregative principles are too general to account for individual difference. Second, the characterization is an economic index that fails to take into consideration causal, genetic, or moral factors in identifying the least advantaged. If a person is financially unstable and physically or mentally challenged, then this person
probably qualifies as someone who is at a disadvantage. Financial instability alone tells us nothing about a person, unless the person sees money as an end in itself. Since there are few Scrooge-like misers, we may discount the economic index as a reliable means of determining the most and least advantaged.
Rawls' characterisation of the least advantaged presumes that monetary value preempts all other things people consider valuable. People do not share the same views on the relative importance of income and wealth. While we may all want to become wealthier, the levels at which each person thinks that she is wealthy differs for different persons. For example, some person may have a relatively high priority for leisure over income; on security above income; on health and wellness above income and so forth. Assessing a person's real well-being requires more than just her income. It is necessary to consider the relative importance of income to her and the extent to which she is able to attain what she prefers.
Thus the problem with Rawls' principle is that it singles out an arbitrary group as a goal of economic and social policies and prescribes that we maximize the income and wealth of that group without attending to the real needs and well-being of that group. Rawls' use of the term "least advantaged" has misled him into believing that people are overly handicapped because of their income level. The fact is that those with a relatively low income are not all equally disadvantaged. They may not be in any real sense disadvantaged at all. There are too many reasons for a person's
having a low income. The poor are too heterogeneous a group to be a defensible object of economic policies.
Some people are poor because they prefer other things to income and wealth. These people exchange income for leisure. This does not mean that they are disadvantaged in any way. They prefer their free time to do what they want over working diligently toward attaining a higher income. Insisting that those with a lower income are more disadvantaged fails to take stock of a person's preferences. The belief that the least advantaged ought to be made more well off is
not relevant to any real problem.
I have tried to show that economic class has little to do with well-being. Rawls might argue that there is a danger to our
self-esteem or self-resepect if we receive less income than another. All inequalities need to work to the advantage of those with less. Therefore, this makes it possible for these persons to regard the wealthy as serving their interests and thus not to feel inferior to them.
Rawls gives tremendous attention to the idea of self-esteem and self-respect (cf. Rawls 1999, pp. 386-392). There are two points I want to address in Rawls's counterargument. First, there does not seem to be a reliable connection between monetary worth and personal worth. A person does not judge their personal worth, the main contributor to someone's self-esteem, against someone else's income. People respect themselves if they think that they are doing well for themselves, and not for anyone else. A person who is able to do what she wants has more self-esteem than someone who
is unable to do what she wants. Having more financial assets does not render a person more or less able. Thus personal worth and monetary worth are two distinct values.
Second, a person might think that someone with more money needs the money to maintain her self-esteem. The more money one has should not determine personal worth. Personal worth is a reflection of how one feels about oneself. If a person needs more money to like herself, then she likes herself because she has the money. She does not like herself for herself. So, the person with more money has little self-esteem because she needs the money to respect herself. In this case, the poorer person would not want the wealthy to serve her interests, and she would not feel inferior to them. The poorer person does not require more money as a means to self-respect. She respects herself for herself. Therefore, income and wealth ought not to be a measure of personal worth, and it is not a proper measure of real well-being.
This post has tried to illuminate a problem in thinking that we may view the least advantaged solely in terms of economic class. The poorer economic class does not necessarily mean they are the least advantaged because they may have interests that do not require financial means to satisfy their preferences or they may not see money as an end in itself. Economic status fails to indicate whether a person is more or less advantaged. Therefore, Rawls' Difference
Principle must include a conception of well-being.