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Downward mobility and Rawlsian justice


Technological and societal changes have made downward social and economic mobility a pressing issue in real-world politics. This article argues that a Rawlsian society would not provide any special protection against downward mobility, and would act rightly in declining to provide such protection. Special treatment for the downwardly mobile can be grounded neither in Rawls’s core principles—the basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle—nor in other aspects of Rawls’s theory (the concept of legitimate expectations, the idea of a life plan, the distinction between allocative and distributive justice, or the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory). Instead, a Rawlsian society is willing to sacrifice particular individuals’ ambitions and plans for the achievement of justice, and offers those who lose out from justified change no special solicitude over and above the general solicitude extended to all. Rather than guaranteeing the maintenance of any particular individual or group’s economic position, it provides all of its members—the upwardly mobile, the downwardly mobile, and the immobile—a form of security that is at once more generous and more limited: that they will receive the liberties, opportunities, and resources promised by the principles of justice.

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  1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 85.

  2. Lukas H. Meyer and Pranay Sanklecha, “Individual Expectations and Climate Justice,” Analyse & Kritik 2 (2011): 449–471, at p. 468.

  3. Nien-hê Hsieh, “Moral Desert, Fairness and Legitimate Expectations in the Market,” Journal of Political Philosophy 8 (2000): 91–114, at p. 103.

  4. Aaron James, Fairness in Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 207.

  5. See F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 33.

  6. Allen Buchanan, “Distributive Justice and Legitimate Expectations,” Philosophical Studies 28 (1975): 419–425, at p. 425.

  7. Joshua Cohen (with Seth Resler), “Occupation as Fairness: What John Rawls Would Make of the Occupy Movement,” Boston Review (Nov. 17, 2011),; Steven Mazie, “Rawls on Wall Street,” The New York Times (Oct. 21, 2011),

  8. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 53.

  9. Alexander Brown, “Rawls, Buchanan, and the Legal Doctrine of Legitimate Expectations,” Social Theory and Practice 38 (2012): 617–644, at p. 634.

  10. Ibid., p. 637.

  11. Contrary to ibid., pp. 637–643. Buchanan, “Distributive Justice and Legitimate Expectations,” 422, agrees with me that the “rule of law itself appears too lean to provide what is required” for the protection of legitimate expectations.

  12. Ellen Frankel Paul, “The Just Takings Issue,” Environmental Ethics 3 (1981): 309–328, at p. 326.

  13. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 209. Christopher Bertram similarly worries that Rawlsian justice will conflict with the “norm of prospectivity,” though Bertram—like me and unlike Paul—ultimately prioritizes justice over prospectivity. Bertram, “The Problem of Rawlsian Transition,” posting to Crooked Timber, Aug. 7, 2012,

  14. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 207; ibid., 51.

  15. On this point, see, for instance, Christine Swanton, "Is the Difference Principle a Principle of Justice?" Mind 90 (1981): 415–421, at p. 418.

  16. Ibid. at 51–52.

  17. See, for example, Rawls, A Theory of Justice, at 241. I thank Samuel Freeman for helping me to see this point.

  18. On this point, see also Jeremy Waldron, The Rule of Law and The Measure of Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 36–41.

  19. For the procedural interpretation, see H.L.A. Hart, “Rawls on Liberty and its Priority,” University of Chicago Law Review 40 (1973): 534–555, at p. 540; Jeremy Waldron, “Nozick and Locke: Filling the Space of Rights,” Social Philosophy and Policy 22 (2005): 81–110, at p. 84; for the minimal interpretation, see Samuel Freeman, “Capitalism in the Classical and High Liberal Traditions,” Social Philosophy and Policy 28 (2011): 19–55, at p. 3.

  20. Contrary to James W. Nickel, “Economic Liberties,” in The Idea of Political Liberalism: Essays on Rawls, eds. Victoria Davion and Clark Wolf (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 155–175, at p. 166.

  21. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, pp. 43–44.

  22. See the discussion in Clare Chambers, “Each Outcome Is Another Opportunity: Problems with the Moment of Equal Opportunity,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 8 (2009): 374–400.

  23. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 73.

  24. Ibid., p. 155.

  25. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 410.

  26. Cf. Robert S. Taylor, “Self-Realization and the Priority of Fair Equality of Opportunity,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 1.3 (2004): 333–347, at p. 338.

  27. Buchanan, “Distributive Justice and Legitimate Expectations,” 423–424.

  28. John Rawls, Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 364.

  29. Buchanan, “Distributive Justice and Legitimate Expectations,” 423–424.

  30. For example, Joshua Cohen, “Taking People as They Are?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.4 (2001): 363–386.

  31. Cohen describes the aim of preserving one’s current privileges in order to maintain social distance between oneself and those worse off as much more objectionable than a simple desire to gain in absolute terms. Ibid. at pp. 369–371.

  32. Hsieh, “Moral Desert, Fairness and Legitimate Expectations in the Market,” p. 103.

  33. Ibid., p. 103. Hsieh also states, at p. 104, that Betty’s “expectations are legitimate… because they arise within the context of following institutionally specified rules.”.

  34. See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 252.

  35. Ibid., p. 207.

  36. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 175–176.

  37. Ibid., p. 180.

  38. See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 68 (“A scheme is unjust when the higher expectations, one or more of them, are excessive. If these expectations were decreased, the situation of the least favored would be improved.”).

  39. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, pp. 47–48.

  40. Buchanan, “Distributive Justice and Legitimate Expectations,” p. 421.

  41. Ibid. See also the similar claim in Joel Feinberg, “Rawls and Intuitionism,” in Norman Daniels, Reading Rawls (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 117. Feinberg complains that “[t]o change the rules in the middle of the game, even when those rules were not altogether fair, will disappoint the honest expectations of those whose prior commitments and life plans were made in genuine reliance on the continuance of the old rules.”.

  42. Andrei Marmor, "The Rule of Law and Its Limits," Law and Philosophy 23 (2004): 1–42, at p. 23.

  43. Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 265.

  44. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 80.

  45. Ibid., p. 359.

  46. Ibid., pp. 369–370.

  47. Ibid., p. 374.

  48. Ibid., p. 394–395.

  49. Ibid., p. 131–132.

  50. Ibid., p. 373.

  51. Ibid., p. 380.

  52. Ibid., p. 3.

  53. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, p. 50.

  54. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 175.

  55. David Schmidtz, Elements of Justice (New York: Cambridge, 2005), p. 200.

  56. For different approaches to the reconciliation of redistribution and pure procedural justice, compare Joshua Cohen, “Pluralism and Proceduralism,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 69 (1993), 589–618, at p. 597 n. 44, with Jeremy Waldron, “The Rule of Law in Contemporary Liberal Theory,” in G.W. Smith (ed.) Liberalism: Rights, Property and Markets (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 103.

  57. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, at p. 76.

  58. Schmidtz, Elements of Justice, p. 200.

  59. See Waldron, “The Rule of Law in Contemporary Liberal Theory,” 103, and more generally Andrew Lister, “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (and for) Rawls,” Critical Review 25 (2013): 409–444.

  60. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 150–51.

  61. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 285.

  62. Ibid., p. 401.

  63. Cf. Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue, p. 265 (“Once we accept that the best life means a life responding well to the right circumstances, and that the right circumstances are circumstances of justice, we become aware of how difficult it is to lead anything like the right life when circumstances are far from just.”).

  64. Rawls, Collected Papers, p. 251.

  65. Marcus Arvan, “First Steps Toward a Non-Ideal Theory of Justice,” Ethics and Global Politics 7 (2014): 95–117, at pp. 104–107; Leslie Pickering Francis, “Age Rationing Under Conditions of Injustice,” in Rosamond Rhodes et al. eds., Medicine and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 274.

  66. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 215–216. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this reference and for prompting me to attend more closely to the case of downward mobility within ideal theory.

  67. See Christopher Bertram, “Cosmopolitanism and Inequality,” Res Publica 12 (2006): 327–336, at p. 334.

  68. See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 218.

  69. Andreas Føllesdal, “Union Citizenship: Unpacking the Beast of Burden,” Law and Philosophy 20 (2001), 329.

  70. Hsieh, “Moral Desert, Fairness and Legitimate Expectations in the Market,” 103; Schmidtz, Elements of Justice, 200.

  71. Buchanan, “Distributive Justice and Legitimate Expectations,” 425, discusses the “stability of legitimate expectations so essential to us as rational agents.”


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I am grateful to Debra Satz, Joshua Cohen, Eamonn Callan, Mark Kelman, Jorah Dannenberg, Collin Anthony, RJ Leland, Samuel Freeman, Nien-hê Hsieh, Shim Reza, and an anonymous referee at Philosophical Studies for written comments and detailed discussion. Thanks also to audiences at the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on Liberty, Equality, and Justice; the 2012 Harvard Graduate Conference in Political Theory; and the 2014 Ethics and Politics, Ancient and Modern workshop at Stanford University.

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Correspondence to Govind Persad.

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Persad, G. Downward mobility and Rawlsian justice. Philos Stud 175, 277–300 (2018).

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  • Social mobility
  • Economic mobility
  • Legitimate expectations
  • Trade
  • Automation
  • Social change
  • John Rawls