Croatian Journal of Philosophy

Volume 1, Issue 3, 2001

The Philosophy of John Rawls

Neven Petrović
Pages 261-282

Personal Assets and Justice
The Positive Argument

This article critically explores John Rawls’s contention that the personal assets of individuals, i.e. their mental and bodily powers, should not determine the size of their holdings. Since such an argument may have several forms, the first task is to establish which of them Rawls himself advocates. He relies, it is argued, on a version that attempts to convince us that personal assets should not play a decisive distributive role because they are undeserved. This account is then formally reconstructed, making all the relevant premises visible and preparing the ground for a critique that concentrates on the argument’s separate steps. Coming under attack first is the claim that everything should be deserved. The discussion examines next the premise urging us to find an ultimate, indisputable ground for desert-claims. Debate about this issue reveals some fundamental weaknesses in Rawls’s position: that he demands too much and is inconsistent; that some strong counter-intuitive consequences follow from his demands; and that his entire project, were such a criterion taken seriously, is undermined. Final comments are directed against the assertion that the community should own everything an individual does not deserve, showing that this does not remove moral arbitrariness, allows for the use of some persons as resources for others, and cannot plausibly limit its range of application. Most of these criticisms are not original, but are in accord with this paper’s main intention of combining as many good points against Rawls as possible.

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