Res Publica

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 263–280 | Cite as

How Does the Difference Principle Make a Difference?



The paper examines the relationship between the two parts of Rawls’ second principle of justice. More specifically, it explores the ways in which the Difference Principle (DP) may constrain the range of acceptable social arrangements in light of the stated lexical priority of the requirement of fair equality of opportunity (FEO) over the DP. The paper discusses two possibilities. First, it examines the role the DP may play within an institutional scheme that satisfies the requirement of FEO. Second, it discusses the role the principle may play in selecting among different institutional schemes that satisfy FEO. The paper argues that the DP has an important role only if there is a range of institutional arrangements that are equivalent from the point of view of FEO but non-equivalent from the point of view of the DP. Next, it explores the possible sources of the variation among the different FEO-equivalent institutional schemes, and argues that on the most satisfactory reading of the requirement of FEO, there will not be much variation that is relevant from the point of view of the DP. The paper concludes that the role of the Difference Principle is at best very limited in constraining the range of social arrangements that are acceptable from the point of view of justice.


Arbitrary inequalities Difference principle Fair equality of opportunity Lexical priority Rawls 



I want to thank Janos Kis and Andres Moles, my colleagues at the Department of Political Science, Central European University, for their detailed comments on earlier versions of this paper. I would like to acknowledge the comments of several participants at the ‘Equality of Opportunity’ conference held at Lisbon between October 29–31, 2009, including Richard Arneson, Matthew Clayton, Francois Hudon, Andrew Williams, and Jonathan Wolff, where a version of this paper was presented. I am also grateful for the helpful suggestions made by two anonymous referees.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceCentral European UniversityBudapestHungary

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