The difference principle: Incentives or equality?

Abstract
1.1.1 In a recent series of papers, G.A. Cohen has presented an egalitarian interpretation of the Difference Principle (hereafter, DP).1 According to this principle—first introduced by Rawls in A Theory of Justice2—inequalities in the distribution of primary goods3 are legitimate only to the extent that they maximize the prospects of the least advantaged members of society. Cohen argues that, once it is properly applied, DP does not legitimate any departure from equality. According to him, the distribution that maximizes the prospects of the least advantaged is the equal distribution. Cohen has offered two kinds of argument in support of the egalitarian conclusion. According to the first argument, differential incentives are not necessary in order to maximize efficiency. According to the second argument, principles of distributive justice apply not only to the basic structure of society but also to the choices made by individuals within those rules. Therefore, talented people should not seek to maximize the gains they can get on the market, thereby making more social product available for the less well off. 4 In this paper, I focus only on Cohen’s first argument. The interesting feature of this argument is that it is presented as an internal criticism of Rawls’ theory of justice. My present concern is to understand to what extent the DP embodies an idea of equality and it is thus amenable to the egalitarian interpretation. I will argue that the first argument fails and that DP allows for the inequalities generated by the use of incentives. The assessment of the second argument merits a separate discussion that I intend to take up in a sequel to this paper. For the time being, I take not stance on the effect of the refutation of the first egalitarian argument on the success of the second one. In this work, I am rather concerned with articulating a novel..
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