My aim in this essay is to discuss, and defend against some frequent objections, John Rawls's rejection of a global principle of distributive justice. As is well known, Rawls's A Theory of Justice argues for a principle of distributive justice, the difference principle, that is to be applied within different societies but not among them. According to A Theory of Justice, each society has the duty to set up its economic and legal institutions in such a way that they make the least advantaged among its own members better off than the least advantaged would be if that society were structured according to any other distribution principle. But each society does not have a duty to structure its system so as to maximize the position of the least advantaged in the world at large. Though it is a universal principle that is to apply severally, or within every society, the difference principle is not global in reach, applying jointly to all societies simultaneously. To critics of many political persuasions, this seems a peculiar position. Why should principles of justice be domestically rather than globally applied?
Rawls's position in A Theory of Justice becomes even more complicated in Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples, where he is guided by questions of political legitimacy, and feasibility (or “stability”) of liberal regimes. In Political Liberalism and later works, Rawls appears to give up on the idea that a well-ordered society of justice as fairness is feasible (such a well-ordered society is one where every rational and reasonable citizen affirms, for moral reasons, justice as fairness, including the difference principle).
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