The difference principle and time

Daniel Attas*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Rawls's difference principle contains a certain normative ambiguity, so that opposing views, including strong inegalitarian ones, might find a home under it. The element that introduces this indeterminacy is the absence of an explicit reference to time. Thus, a society that agrees on the difference principle as the proper justification of basic political-economic institutions, might nevertheless disagree on whether their specific institutions are justified by that principle. Such disagreement would most often centre on issues of fact: will a more egalitarian policy in fact prioritize the least well off or will a more libertarian policy do so? But facts are not the only possible points of contention. According to the fundamental indeterminacy, considering merely the sum of advantages to the least well off, the difference principle is indifferent among different flows of equal income over time. It cannot adjudicate among more or less unequal distributions across social groups when the sum income of the least advantaged group is constant. The fundamental indeterminacy lies at the bottom of three derivative indeterminacies: an adequate future discount rate, an acceptable absolute minimum, and a reasonable time interval. These might form the basis of political disagreement among self-proclaimed endorsers of the difference principle of left and right over the way the principal social-economic institutions ought to be structured and the distributions that ensue.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)209-232
Number of pages24
JournalPolitics, Philosophy and Economics
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2008


  • Equality
  • Future discount rate
  • Incentives
  • Primary goods
  • Rawls
  • Well-being


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