The difference principle is not action-guiding

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Utilitarianism would allow any degree of inequality whatsoever productive of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But it does not guide political action, because determining what level of inequality would produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number is opaque due to well-known psychological coordination problems. Does Rawlsian liberalism, as is generally assumed, have some superiority to Utilitarianism in this regard? This paper argues not; for Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ would allow any degree of inequality whatsoever that best raises up the worst off, and similar psychological coordination problems apply. It concludes that Rawlsian liberalism, designed to solve the problem that Utilitarianism will not give us stable rules and will counsel their violation, and giving us in the process a contract and rights within a semi-consequentialist framework, repeats (in the difference principle) that very problem of Utilitarianism. It fails substantively to guide the level of inequalities permitted in such a framework.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)487-503
Number of pages17
JournalCritical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2011


  • envy
  • inequality
  • John Rawls
  • relative poverty
  • Thomas Pogge

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