10th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Penny

Richard Penny

Interpreting the Difference Principle through the Lens of Self-Respect

Rawls believes that the social provision of self-respect is a ‘fundamental interest’ of individuals, and a criterion by which his account of justice may be judged. As such, one way to address the interpretation of Rawls’s principles of justice is to ask how competing interpretations might differentially affect citizens’ self-respect. In this paper I will apply this method to the question raised by G.A. Cohen over whether the difference principle ought to be interpreted in a ‘strict’ or ‘lax’ manner. I note that for Rawls, parties in the original position would view the difference principle as a potential basis for the self-respect they seek for citizens. As a result I claim that upon being confronted with different possible interpretations of the difference principle, these parties would have strong reasons to endorse the reading which was most effective in supporting citizens’ self-respect. I then claim that a lax reading of the difference principle acts as an inferior source of self-respect for citizens in two important ways. Firstly, a lax interpretation would unnecessarily limit the availability (to the least-advantaged) of the resources necessary to fully develop citizens’ self-respect. Secondly, I claim that a lax reading would permit not only greater material inequality, but also generate inequalities with a character that was much less compatible with the self-respect of those least-advantaged. I defend both claims against some basic Rawlsian responses, particularly the idea that self-respect might itself be included as an aspect of the difference principle. I conclude that parties in the original position concerned with their self-respect would reject a lax interpretation of the difference principle given that it provided a markedly inferior basis for self-respect in comparison to a strict interpretation. This constitutes a strong (though non-decisive) reason for these parties to favour a strict reading of the difference principle.