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Understanding The Character of Luck In, Development of Fair Principles of Justice by Rawl

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  1. Not Radical enough
  2. Incentive
    Bad choices

What role does luck play in Rawls’ development of fair principles of justice? How could someone argue that Rawls’ critique of luck is too radical? Do you find this argument credible? In your answer, you may also engage Nozick’s views on luck.

“On some accounts, luck nullifies responsibility. On others, it nullifies desert. It is often said that justice requires luck to be ‘neutralized’ ” (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2005). Rawls is of the belief that, indeed, luck must be neutralized in order to attain justice. He holds luck accountable for three things: 1) social circumstance, 2) natural-born talent and 3) what the market determines as being of high monetary value. It would be unfair to reward someone with more social primary goods when the paths leading to this were not of their own choosing. The difference principle aims to rectify this. My first paragraph is dedicated to understanding Rawls’ development of fair principles of justice based on his beliefs about luck. Secondly, I analyse the criticisms of this understanding of what luck is responsible for by making reference to incentive, effort, bad choice and then Nozick’s engagement with luck. This discussion then leads me to conclude that, although Rawls’ views on luck are radical and have some credible criticisms, but he does not over-estimate the role of luck to the degree that one should discard the difference principle, but in fact reform it so that it includes natural primary goods.

Rawls’ critique of luck plays a significant role in his development of the difference principle. The difference principle attempts to ‘neutralize’ Rawls’ belief that “only if everyone begins at the same starting line can it be said that the winners of the race deserve their rewards” (Sandel, 2015) and that “people’s starting positions cannot be justified by appeal to merit or desert” (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2005). Despite a free market’s emphasis on freedom, not everyone is free to access and use the market to the same degree based on their starting point. Rawls says that a libertarian free market is better than a feudal or caste system, but only marginally so. (Sandel, 2015) The latter system explicitly dictates wealth based on the arbitrariness of birth into a specific family. Although the former system allows for everyone to compete and endeavor, their ability to do so is directly hindered or helped by the sort of circumstances into which they are born. Rawls believes that this arbitrariness- the luck which dictates one’s starting point- should be remedied through his principles of justice. The principles of justice are also based on the belief that whether your desired vocation corresponds with what society deems worthy of high pay is also down to luck. This third factor of what Rawls believes to be at the hands of luck means that social primary goods should not be allocated arbitrarily, according to luck. 1) Social circumstances, 2) natural-born talents and 3) what occupations are highly paid in society are all determined by luck, according to Rawls (Sandel, 2015). All of these are determinant of one’s ability to pursue the conception of the good through the maintenance of justice. Rawls says that well-being and social primary goods should not be allocated arbitrarily and that “luck raises questions about the significance of desert in the sphere of distributive justice” (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2005) because one’s quality of life should not be coordinated by circumstances which are out of one’s control. “The fundamental distinction for an egalitarian is between choice and luck in the shaping of people’s fates” (Cohen, 2011:4) and Rawls believes that it is unjust for a person’s fate to be determined by chance. Rawls’ understanding that these three factors are all determined by luck results is remedied by the difference principle which aims minimize inequality so that only those inequalities which are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and are attached to positions which are open to all are allowed (Sandel, 2015).

Now that I have established how luck influences Rawls’ principles of justice through the consequences of the difference principle, I will criticize his evaluation of luck as being, for the most part, too radical, while paying attention to Nozick’s response, or lack thereof, to the Rawlsian critique of luck. But first, I will criticize Rawls for being inconsistent in his difference principle.

Not Radical enough

Rawls’ definition of being worst-off and having bad luck is entirely determined by the ownership of social primary goods and not natural primary goods (Kymlicka, 2015). The difference principle does not remove the burden of having a health-related handicap. Even if a physically disabled person has more social goods than an able-bodied person, they are deemed as having a greater advantage even if their wealth is not enough to cover the cost of their needed medical care. In this way, I would say that perhaps Rawls’ perception of the role of luck is not radical enough because it does not extend to the random allocation of all primary goods at birth.

On the other hand, Rawls’ critique of luck is too radical because of the implications of the difference principle.


The first objection is that of rewarding work with wealth as an incentive in order to benefit the community. Perhaps overestimating luck does a disservice to the ambitious, hardworking individuals as well as society as a whole: “If tax rates are high or pay differentials small, won’t talented people who might have been surgeons go into less demanding lines of work?” (Sandel, 2015) and hence society will be at the loss of a potentially excellent surgeon. This is a reasonably convincing objection to Rawl’s radical view of luck because it does not only look at fairness between a well-off and less well-off person, but also at the general well-being of society as a whole.


The second objection to over-compensating for perceived luck is that of effort, and is less convincing. This objection says that effort is also a factor in gaining wealth and should be rewarded (Sandel, 2015). Rawls response to this is that the effort a person is willing to expend is also influenced by their upbringing and hence, by luck. Rawls’ response to this is sound and therefore the criticism is not strong enough.

Bad choices

Furthermore, “the difference principle does not make any such distinction between chosen and unchosen inequalities” (Kymlicka, 2015). It is unfair to subsidize the bad choices of one person with the gains of another person who has made good choices. This argument is credible but I would respond to it by saying that luck still plays a role in the factors which influence someone to make a specific choice.


Nozick generally ignores Rawls’ critique on luck altogether and fails to engage on the matter. Without a principled view on the role and significance of luck, Nozick’s absolutism about ‘holdings’ rights remain vulnerable. However, the main thing that is achieved by this lack of engagement is that it seems to be that Nozick is suggesting that luck is hardly relevant; Nozick thinks that Rawls totally overestimates the role of luck. By doing this he succeeds into tapping into a deep-seated intuition shared by most that one should work for oneself, despite Rawls’ belief that the basis of ownership over one’s talents is entirely undeserved.

These criticisms have some merit but overall it would seem that Rawls’ critique of luck is stronger than the criticisms of it being too radical.

I have deconstructed the difference principle and explained how it is based on the Rawlsian perception that luck is responsible for our social circumstances, natural talents, and whether our chosen career path is deemed as worthy of reaping high financial rewards. It is, indeed, necessary to rectify scenarios upon which luck is based in order to attain fairness, equality and justice. I then analyzed the criticism that the Rawlsian beliefs surrounding luck are too radical and proved them to be mostly insubstantial. However, the strongest criticism was that the difference principle subsidizes bad choices and should perhaps make a greater distinction between chosen and unchosen inequalities. In fact, I found that the difference principle should also be inclusive of inequality determined by natural primary goods. Nozick’s lack of response to Rawl’s critique on luck is a criticism in its own right because it implies that luck is not nearly as important as Rawls suggests. It can be concluded that the difference principle should not be discarded, but adapted to:

Include natural social goods.

Make a greater distinction between choices and given circumstances which lead to inequality.

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