Does desert matter to social justice?

Would a just society be more equal, economically? John Rawls’s theory of justice is famous for three principles that speak to this question. First, economic inequality can compromise political liberty if it gives some more opportunity for influence than others. Second, equal opportunity means a real chance to develop one’s abilities during childhood and adolescence, not just the right to compete for positions based on the abilities you’ve managed to develop by age 18. Third, inequalities between positions have to benefit the least advantaged.

Why do we need this third principle, Rawls’s “difference principle”? If we had sufficiently equal opportunity to occupy unequal positions, wouldn’t that be enough? No, because equal opportunity doesn’t mean that everyone has a literally equal chance of becoming CEO, chief surgeon, or leader of the country. Those positions demand special talents, which are partly innate. We don’t want just anyone to be chief surgeon, even someone fully committed to the job, but someone who has the required abilities. No one does anything to deserve being born with scarce productive potential, however. And no one could specialize in being a doctor, if others didn’t take care of other essential tasks (building, cleaning, teaching, cooking, caring for children, etc). Hence the difference principle, which is roughly that inequalities between positions must benefit everyone, even the worst off.

This first claim about desert – that having inherited scarce talents does not by itself make one deserving of greater income and wealth – is not too controversial. But Rawls also defended a more amibitious claim – that desert was not a fundamental principle of social justice. He conceded that individuals become entitled to rewards by acting in ways permitted by social rules; for example, if you work more hours, you get more pay. But he denied that individual deservingness was relevant to designing the rules. The purpose of having rules governing property and contract (for example) is to allow for fair, peaceful cooperation in the pursuit of our various goals, not to promote virtue or discourage vice. Thus, from the point of view of justice, the idea of desert can only refer to entitlement resulting from choices made under rules designed without regard to desert.

Is that really true, though? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a competitive economic system tended to encourage competitiveness, selfishness, and materialism, whereas a system that made greater use of sharing and reciprocity would encourage citizens to think of each other more as partners and less as obstacles. Would that be irrelevant? Why did Rawls think that? Should we?

In *The Theology of Liberalism,* Eric Nelson argues that the origins of Rawls’s scepticism about desert are to be found in the particular kind of Christianity Rawls espoused as a young man. Salvation was the consequence of god’s unmerited grace, not any deservingness on our part. It was the sin of pride to think that one could deserve to be saved based on having made good choices. Same for worldly success. In his undergraduate thesis, Rawls posed a series of questions to man of good social standing looking back on his success: who paid for your education? who taught you good manners? who provided for you? who loved you? All that you have, Rawls said, is ultimately a gift, therefore “be thankful and cease your boasting”. Rawls’s egalitarianism is thus rooted in a particular theology, according to Nelson – an illiberal theology of original sin that denied human freedom, and the possibility of merit based on free choice.

Recognizing these origins reveals a philosophical problem for egalitarianism. How do we know that the distribution of “native endowments” is morally arbitrary? Doesn’t this imply that a just god could not have created such a world? If so, justifying the difference principle entangles us in religious debates. If there is uncertainty about how much inequality is deserved, we should refrain from engaging in equalizing redistribution, Nelson argues, on the liberal principle that we should avoid coercion unless clearly justified.

My paper addresses three main questions raised by Nelson’s book.

What exactly was the content of Rawls’s religious thinking, in his undergraduate thesis? I suggest his position on salvation was not that we can never be deserving enough to merit salvation, but that because salvation equals reintegration to community, it is not something that can be deserved by an individual alone.

Where did Rawls get this idea that the distribution of natural talents is morally arbitrary? From a broad range of thinkers from right as well as left, who assumed that people were born with unequal capacities to produce things others want, which did not by itself give them any claim to superior reward. This thesis is not theologically innocent; it denies that people are assigned talents as rewards or punishments for deeds in previous lives, for example. But it is not rooted in an illiberal form of Christianity, and it implies no general rejection of desert.

Is it a problem that a theory of justice for a pluralistic democracy should draw on controversial religious ideas? In later years, Rawls made clear that his liberalism wasn’t meant to be the whole truth about how to live. Rawls thought that we needed to recognize the uncomfortable fact of “reasonable pluralism” – that even people willing and able to reason sincerely with others will persist in having serious disagreements about important religious, philosophical, and moral questions. His theory was meant to be a doctrine that people with different religious and philosophical convictions could accept as the basis for their common democratic life.

Conceptions of desert need not be highly controversial, however, or at least not more controversial than other ethical notions. In the *Restatement* of his theory (2001), Rawls asked “Do people really think that they (morally) deserved to be born more gifted than others?” (Rawls 2001, 74-5). If we are prepared to admit this claim about desert, why not others? For example, if it were true that a competitive economic system tended to reward those who are competitive, with a streak of ruthlessness, and a willingness to bend or sidestep rules when necessary to get ahead, would this not count as a strike against it? Of course, there may not be an alternative system that does better, in terms of encouraging reciprocity, and other basic moral values. And it’s possible to do worse.

This blog piece is based on the article Theology, Desert, and Egalitarianism” by  Andrew Lister,  forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, Volume 84, Issue 3.

About the author

Andrew Lister is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University. He earned his PhD in Political Science from UCLA. Previously, he taught at Concordia University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre de recherche en éthique de l’Université de Montréal. He has been an academic visitor at Oxford University and the Université Catholique de Louvain. He works on public reason and distributive justice. His current project is about reciprocity and egalitarianism.

You can find more information on his work here and check out his blog.