thinking makes it so

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Michael Sandel on Justice #2

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So what about incentives? And what about effort?

Michael J Sandel

Michael J Sandel

This is the second part of a series on Michael J Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? which started with Michael Sandel on Justice #1.

Last time we introduced John Rawls’s ‘difference principle’, the version of egalitarianism Rawls claims people would agree to adopt if they chose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. The difference principle states that the only social or economic inequalities which are fair are those which would benefit the least fortunate individuals.

Sandel then evaluates a couple of familiar objections to the difference principle, and draws a significant implication for Rawls’s theory. The objections can be summarised as ‘What about incentives?’ and ‘What about effort?’

On incentives:

Rawls’s reply is that the difference principle permits income inequalities for the sake of incentives, provided the incentives are needed to improve the lot of the least advantaged.

[It is] not because [for example] CEOs or sports stars deserve to make more money than factory workers.

On effort:

Rawls replies that even effort may be the result of a favorable upbringing. … Like other factors in our success, effort is influenced by contingencies for which we can claim no credit.

[Indeed] although proponents of meritocracy often invoke the virtues of effort, they don’t really believe that effort alone should be the basis of income and wealth.

Sandel gives the example of two construction workers, one so big and strong he can do in a day, and without breaking a sweat, what his hard-working but puny co-worker can only do in a week. No meritocrat would really say the puny worker deserves more pay than the muscular one. It is contribution which matters, which depends at least in part on natural endowments for which we can claim no credit.

Scales of justice

Scales of justice

Rawls concludes that distributive justice is not about rewarding moral desert. But if not, what is it about? Here comes the significant distinction. Distributive justice does not reward moral desert, but it can honour what Rawls calls ‘entitlements to legitimate expectations’. The key thing is that an entitlement can only be in terms of the pre-existing rules of whatever game is being played. It cannot determine what the rules should be in the first place.

Rawls’s basic rights and difference principle (agreed on from behind a veil of ignorance) are ethically prior to any entitlement based on achievement, whatever combination of features (including effort, talent, inheritance and luck) were responsible for it. So the difference principle itself cannot be judged in terms of what people may or may not deserve as a result of what they contribute.

Sandel underlines this distinction:

[W]hile we are entitled to the benefits that the rules of the game promise for the exercise of our talents, it is a mistake and a conceit to suppose that we deserve in the first place a society that values the qualities we have in abundance.

This seems to me a firm foundation. Sandel goes on to test it on cases involving affirmative action and institutional fairness – which we will pursue next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


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