Rawls on Natural Inequality

  • Michael Gorr


One of the fundamental tenets of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice1 is the claim that we should seek ‘a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment… as counters in quest for political and economic advantage … ‘ (p. 15). This contention that the unequal distribution of natural assets (such as intelligence, talent, and so on) calls for some form of ‘nullification’ on grounds of justice I shall term the ‘Natural Inequality Theses’ (NIT for short). An important issue that I think has been thus far largely ignored concerns the place of NIT within the overall structure of Rawls’ theory. As is well known, that theory is essentially a form of contractarianism: the principles of justice are what rational persons would unanimously agree to if forced to choose under a set of constraints definitive of what Rawls calls the ‘original position’. Although NIT would not itself be chosen through this process, Rawls does observe that one of the principles that would be selected, the difference principle (which states, roughly, that socio-economic inequalities are justified only to the extent that they maximize the expectations of the least advantaged class in society), ‘represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of that distribution whatever it turns out to be’ (p. 101). What this implies, I think, is that it is through the adoption of the difference principle that those in the original position would in fact satisfy the requirements of NIT.


Original Position Moral Theory Difference Principle Essential Nature Moral Personality 
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  1. 1.
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971). All page references in the text are to this work.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ronald Dworkin, ‘The Original Position’, in Reading Rawls, ed. N. Daniels (New York, 1975) pp. 26ff.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    There are some passages in TJ which suggest that Rawls may have other reasons for endorsing NIT. In particular he argues that natural inequalities are (1) ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view’ (p. 72) and thus should not be permitted to influence the deliberations of those in the original position and (2) ‘undeserved’ and therefore in need of redress (p. 100). In as far as these arguments are intended to be independent of the one I shall consider (something which is not at all clear) they seem quite unconvincing. See, for example, the criticisms in Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York, 1974), pp. 213–31,Google Scholar
  4. Lance Stell, ‘Rawls on the Moral Importance of Natural Inequalities’, The Personalist, 59 (1978): 206–15.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Particularly in ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’. An excellent critical account of these matters is found in Norman Daniels, ‘Reflective Equilibrium and Archimedean Points’, The Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 10 (1980): 83–103.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    For an elaboration of this argument see William Frankena, ‘Natural and Inalienable Rights’, Philosophical Review, 64 (1955): 212–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 21.
    Indeed, Rawls has argued at length that moral theory can and must proceed independently of the other main branches of philosophy. See ‘The Independence of Moral Theory’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 67 (1975): 5–22.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Bernard Williams, ‘The Idea of Equality’, in Problems of the Self (Cambridge, 1973), p. 247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 24.
    For one attempt to develop a self-realization theory along the general lines I have suggested, see David Norton, Personal Destinies (Princeton, 1976).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • Michael Gorr

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