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  1. Rational Self-Interest + Veil of Ignorance = Theory of Distributive Justice.

Distributive Justice, in turn, is captured by two principles: the Equal Liberties Principle (ELP) and the Difference Principle (DP)

  1. ELP = Equal Liberties Principle: “First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” “The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office), together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 60-61)
  2. DP = Difference Principle: “Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage [most especially to those most disadvantaged] and, (b) attached to positions and offices open to all….” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 60-61) One further point on the difference principle requires emphasis: “social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the ;least advantaged members of society.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 14-15.)

The Equal Liberties Principle has priority over the Difference Principle so that equality becomes the default pattern of distribution; any departure from an equal pattern of distribution must have a strong, overriding justification. Moreover, the equal distribution of political liberties is, for Rawls, absolute and cannot be overridden. (Rawls, thus, overcomes what he sees as a weakness of utilitarianism that allows the overriding of basic rights and liberties to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number.) But, under the Difference Principle, a departure from equality can be justified in the economic sphere if all stand to benefit, most especially the disadvantaged. In this way, Rawls works toward a synthesis that captures the strengths of three patterns of distribution: equality, merit, and need.

Rawls’ theory of justice has been intensely debated and scrutinized. From the libertarian standpoint, Nozick criticizes Rawls for developing a system of justice that sacrifices liberty for equality. Nozick argues that a patterned system of justice (like Rawls’) must continually interfere with a distribution voluntarily reached to maintain a privileged pattern of distribution. (To put it crudely, Nozick argues that Rawls’ system of justice would require continual transfer of wealth and goods from those who have more to those who have less. One such mode of transfer is, of course, taxation. So Nozick points out that under Rawls’ system we would pay loads of taxes.)

Nozick provides an interesting example of how patterned systems of distribution interfere with liberty. Suppose we voluntarily transfer our money to Michael Jordan to see him play. We enjoy the show but now Jordan has a disproportionate share of the total wealth, as judged by our ideal pattern of distribution, namely, equality. So to restore justice, we take back some of Jordan’s money—through taxation—and redistribute it to those who gave it to him in the first place. Overriding the initial, voluntary transfer by a second involuntary transfer doesn’t make sense to Nozick. Moreover, he finds it wrong because it sacrifices liberty to equality (or some other privileged pattern of distribution). For Nozick, the current pattern of distribution is not important. What matters is how it came to be. If the current pattern was produced by a just process, then it is a just distribution no matter how unequal it may be. Nozick defines this just process as repeated applications of justice in acquisition (we made it or added value to it) and justice in transfer (somebody bought it from us or received it as a gift without force or fraud). (This analysis loosely follows R Nozick. (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia , New York: Basic Books, pp. 149-154, 156-157, 159-163, 168, 174-5, 178-179, 182.) These selections can be found in Beauchamp and Bowie. (1988). Ethical Theory and Business, 3rd Ed . Upper Saddle, NJ: McGraw-Hill, pp. 567-570. The Wilt Chamberlain example has been updated to the Michael Jordan example.)

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