Res Publica

, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 335–351 | Cite as

Incentives, Inequality and Self-Respect

  • Richard Penny


Rawls argues that ‘Parties in the original position would wish to avoid at almost any cost the social conditions that undermine self-respect’. But what are these social conditions that we should so urgently avoid? One evident candidate might be conditions of material inequality. Yet Rawls seems confident that his account of justice can endorse such inequalities without jeopardising citizens’ self-respect. In this article I argue that this confidence is misplaced. Unequalising incentives, I claim, jeopardise the self-respect of those least advantaged—at least under a Rawlsian schema—by undermining the very processes by which Rawls hopes to make distributional inequalities and self-respect compatible. I begin by setting out Rawls’s distinct account of self-respect before moving to describe how Rawls expects the difference principle to support citizens’ in this regard. I then draw upon GA Cohen’s distinction between ‘strict’ and ‘lax’ interpretations of the difference principle to argue that the presence of unequalising incentives undermines both the direct and indirect support that the difference principle can offer to citizens’ self-respect. As such, I claim that Rawls must either weaken his endorsement of unequalising incentives, or risk violating his ‘prior commitment’ to avoiding social conditions harmful to citizens’ self-respect.


John Rawls G.A. Cohen Justice Self-respect Inequality Incentives 



I am grateful to Chris Armstrong, Andrew Mason, David Owen, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Further thanks are due to participants at the ALSP 2012 Conference at Queens University Belfast, the Vejle II Political Philosophy Conference and the 10th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PoliticsUniversity of SouthamptonSouthamptonUK

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