Difference Principle Indifferent to History

A historical principle says that the justice of a distribution depends upon how the distribution came about.  So, this means that a distribution is just, if it comes about by all just transfers, and it is unjust if it involves any uncorrected unjust transfers.  This is the sort of principle that Nozick’s entitlement theory is meant to follow.  His entitlement theory gives principles for acquisition, holding, and transfers, which if all are met, say that a distribution is just.  A large point of a historical principle is that the distribution doesn’t need to look a certain way.  There isn’t a specific pattern or structure the distribution needs to take in order to be just.  All a distribution needs in order to be just, is for it to have come about through all just transfers.

Rawls’s principles are not historical principles.  Rawls has two principles.  The first one states that everyone needs to have equal liberties, and to the fullest extent of liberties.  The second one says that positions of office need to be open in the sense of fair opportunity, and that primary goods are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution brings more advantage to the least advantaged.  Neither of these principles are taking into account the manner of which a distribution is accomplished.  Rather, they are concerned with the results looking a certain way.  A distribution is just if everyone is equal with full liberties, and if positions of office are open in a way that satisfies fair opportunity and if goods are distributed in a way that benefits the least advantaged as best as possible.

Here, Nozick points out how Rawls’s principles don’t allow for a historical principle to be considered.  Nozick’s contention is with the second part of the second principle, which is referred to as the difference principle.  The difference principle doesn’t allow any conception of a historical principle because the difference principle has an end-result it wants the distribution to look like.  There is a specific form or structure the distribution should follow, that the distribution be equal, unless an unequal distribution provides more advantage for the least advantaged.  In contrast, a historical principle doesn’t put any constraints on what sort of form or structure the distribution of goods should take, only that it comes about through just transfers.  The difference principle is an end-result principle, distributions are just only if they take a certain form, whereas a historical principle is not.  This means that the difference principle precludes the consideration of any type of historical principle because the difference principle has a goal for how a distribution should look, while a historical principle will not.  Nozick would also add that the fact that an end-result principle has a goal in mind, this means that somewhere along the way freedoms will be violated.  Nozick will claim that in order for the end-result to be accomplished, we can’t do it by allowing people to always do whatever it is they want with their things, we will need to infringe on their freedoms in some way so we can ensure the distribution will be structured a certain way.

Nozick’s contention is deeper than this though.  He contends that even the method itself that Rawls uses to come to his principles of justice preclude the consideration of historical principles.  Specifically, he suggests that it’s the thickness of the veil of ignorance that doesn’t allow for the consideration of a historical principle, but actually is tailored towards end-result principles like that of the difference principle.  While in the original position and behind the veil of ignorance, you have absolutely no idea about what sort of society you will live in, what position in this society you will take, or what your own personal characteristics will be.  This extreme uncertainty pushes people to think about what their life would be if they were the worst off in society, and so think of principles of justice that will protect against that.  It’s this sort of concentration on the worst off that will prevent someone from considering any conception of a historical principle.

Nozick claims that this concentration on being the worst-off pushes someone towards an end-result principle over a historical principle.  The reason is because you want to protect yourself if you end up being one of those worst off in society, and so will accept principles of justice which make that situation the best as possible.  The best way to give certainty to that protection is to suggest that society must end up looking a certain way.  If you go with a historical principle, you have no idea what the distribution could look like and so you don’t have any sense of what sort of distribution the least advantaged will be given.  Also, this principle doesn’t give any protection or special attention to the least advantaged.  However, with an end-result principle, you at least have some sort of understanding of what the distribution will be structured like, and you can put features into it to ensure the principle is helping the least advantaged as much as possible.  So, Nozick would like us to see that the thickness of the veil of ignorance wouldn’t even let us consider a historical principle because of how it will have us focus on the situation of the worst off, which will push us to only see end-result principles as acceptable.

A Rawlsian could respond by first defending the method Rawls gives us, and then more specifically defending the thickness of the veil of ignorance.  They would point out that the point of the veil of ignorance is to make sure people can’t prejudice principles of justice to benefit their particular situation.  By stripping away all the personal characteristics of a person’s life, it doesn’t let them tailor the principles of justice to benefit any particular type of person, but only to ensure consideration and assistance to the worst off.  This is because before you come from behind the veil of ignorance, you have no idea who you will be, what sort of society you will be in, or what position you will be in in that society.  Given that, people will want to choose principles that will not benefit any type of person more than any other type, because they don’t know which person they will be.  However, it could be said that as much as we shouldn’t prejudice any sort of person, we should at least try to make the situation of the worst off as least bad as possible, and this is also motivated by the fact that you could be one of the worst off once coming from behind the veil.  So, it would make sense why you would want to protect that position.

Now, after this defense of the veil of ignorance, the Rawlsian can then turn to the claim that the veil doesn’t allow consideration of a historical principle.  The Rawlsian can respond quite bluntly and straightforwardly and say that claim is just false.  There is nothing in Rawls’s method that doesn’t allow conversation about accepting a historical principle.  Rather, Rawls’s method would suggest that after considering a historical principle you would reject it.  The people in the original position behind the veil very well can discuss and think about some sort of historical principle.  However, it’s just that they wouldn’t accept a historical principle at that point.  And the fact that they wouldn’t accept a historical principle should be seen as evidence that it wouldn’t be a good kind of principle.  If you wouldn’t accept it behind the veil of ignorance where you are completely unaware of personal information, this shows that a historical principle will be biased by some sort of personal feature and will prejudice some type of person over others.

Given what has been said, I think we should be inclined to agree with Nozick that Rawls’s method doesn’t allow consideration of historical principles. If Rawls’s method is meant to strip us away of all our own personal characteristics and the sort when behind the veil of ignorance, and that a historical principle of justice would only be accepted if we knew somewhat more information than what we are allowed behind the veil of ignorance, then Rawls’s method precludes considerations of historical principles.  I think when we look at the veil of ignorance and what decisions we would make from behind it, it really will prevent us from considering a historical principle.  Strictly speaking, the people behind the veil have the freedom to discuss the pros and cons of a historical principle, so in this sense they could actually consider it.  However, it seems to me that the veil really does push those behind it to put most, if not all consideration about how the worst off would fair, and in being able to best protect the position of the worst off because of possibility of being one in that situation, the only principles that will be appealing will be those that have a specific goal or end in mind. 

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