Rawlsian Theory

Another contemporary theory that is contract based in its approach was formulated by the late professor John Rawls.

Rawls proposed two principles of justice that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, are never to be violated. These principles are the liberty principle and the difference principle.

The liberty principle states that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

The difference principle states that social and economic equalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the most disadvantaged.

The liberty principle is fairly understandable in light of the American political tradition. It implies that people have inherent rights  such as freedom of speech, to vote, to due process of law and to own property, and that they have a right to exercise these liberties to the extent that they do not infringe on the fundamental liberties of others.

The US Patient’s Bill of Rights (incorporated in the McCain-Kennedy Bill), represents a good illustration of the liberty principle. All patients have the right to the following:

  • To choose their own doctors
  • To independent, external reviews of medical decisions made by their health plans
  • To sue their health plans in state court for medical decisions that result in injury or wrongful death
  • To sue their health plans for up to $5 million in punitive damages over decisions resulting in injury or death

The difference principle is a bit more complicated. Basically, it states actions should not be taken that will further disadvantage those groups in society which are currently the least well off.

In other words, corporate actions should be formulated in such a way that their social and economic effects are of most benefit to the least advantaged.

This somewhat controversial principle is basically a call for affirmative action on behalf of the poor and politically underrepresented groups in society, comparable to the preferential option for the poor, enunciated in recent papal pronouncements.

Overtime, it is an egalitarian principle that should make those least well off better off. The difference principle also emphasises that it would be unethical to exploit one group for the benefit of others.

In the example of a public relations firm considering whether to accept a foreign government with a questionable civil rights record as a client, the difference principle would suggest the agency should forgo that opportunity because the implementation of a public relations campaign could add legitimacy to the (presumably corrupt) ruling foreign government.

Furthermore, it might exacerbate the position of a worse-off group, namely, citizens in a country where human rights are systematically violated. More generally, it suggests that business people have superordinate duties to consumers who are illiterate in the workings of the marketplace.


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