Maximin principle

Rawls's maximin principle does not seem at all obvious to me. (As stated in A Theory of Justice, this principle holds that rational actors choosing from behind the veil of ignorance will choose social arrangements that maximize the welfare of the least well off.)

Imagine I have a choice between two societies, Society One, in which I have 99 chances to be very wealthy, and one chance of being quite poor, versus Society Two, where I have one chance of being very wealthy, and 99 chances of being somewhat less poor than the unfortunate loser in Society One. Why in the world would anyone choose Society Two from behind the veil of ignorance? Rawls posits that people are risk averse: fine, I accept that. But risk aversion is surely a matter of degree: is anyone really that risk averse that they would choose to avoid the minimal risk they face of being the worst off in Society One at the cost of giving up the huge potential upside of that choice?

Or consider a somewhat more realistic example: from behind the veil of ignorance, agents are choosing between a laissez-faire society in which a small group of homeless people will be very badly off, and a completely egalitarian society in which everyone will be just slightly better off than the homeless in the laissez-faire scenario. Again, why would any rational actor choose the egalitarian option?


  1. These aren't balanced choices. Most would prefer to dwell in wealthier societies, but in societies of equal wealth would you prefer a more or less equal division? There aren't any societies both wealthy and equal but there are wealthy societies with more or less inequality. Most would not prefer total equality but they would prefer to not risk starving. I agree they would not choose to maximize the welfare of the least well off but would want to put a floor under them, but that is because we like to think effort should be rewarded. It is hard to think behind the veil though because if our very traits and talents are up to chance, we are no longer ourselves.

  2. I once posed this very question to the local teachers union rep; she unhesitatingly chose society two. She basically posited that everything in society should be arranged around eliminating poverty even at the smallest of margins and no matter the cost.