Considering this issue requires considering two essentially contrasted concepts which are equality and justice. In a great part of the world, it is taken for granted that all individuals are of equal moral worth, no matter their gender or ethnicity. All individuals therefore are treated equally by the law and should be granted equal fundamental rights, such as liberty of expression or the right to vote. However, there are great (and increasing) inequalities in terms of wealth between the poorest and the richest. This essay will focus on wealth inequalities by summarising the key debates on this issue. What one understands the concept of equality to be depends on ones conception of distributive justice which can be defined as the distribution of “benefits and burdens of social cooperation to individuals across society” (McLean and McMillan 2009, 286). In this essay, it will be presented key conceptions of distributive justice and considered how each, if at all, justifies certain inequalities. The utilitarian argument, Rawls' conception of justice as fairness, Nozick's conception of the minimal state, as well as a socialist conception of justice will be discussed. Finally, Dworkin's attempt to overcome the contradictions between all these theories will be explored.
For utilitarians, a just society is one that maximises the average well-being or utility of its citizens in order to maximise the return. Utilitarianism would be advocating for an equal distribution of welfare if all human beings were equally satisfied with the same amount of goods and thus had equal utilities. However, human beings are all different and with the same amount of goods, for instance income, they achieve a different level of utility. Since utilitarianism finds just what maximises the consequence of redistribution, it is obvious that if an individual A, with the same income, is only half as satisfied as another individual B, then society would give B a greater income than A because the result of B's satisfaction would be of greater utility to the society (University of Valencia 2004, 202-203).Utilitarians, by focusing on the greatest good for the greatest number, forget to consider each individual's well-being and seem to use individuals as means to maximise what is best for society as a whole. This aggregative conception of justice can lead to the greatest inequalities between the majority and the minority of a population but these disparities are just according to utlitarians. Rawls criticises this conception of justice as a means to maximise utility and proposes a conception of justice as fairness in which he tries considering the whole rather than the majority. At the heart of his theory of justice is the claim that because man is not responsible for his natural and social characteristics he should neither be advantaged, nor disadvantaged because of them (Rawls 1999, 13-14). Establishing principles of justice thus requires that arbitrary distinctions between human beings should not be taken into account. Rawls imagines an “original position” where everyone is equally situated and disregards their arbitrary characteristics such as their social status or intellectual capacities. Only in this hypothetical position will men be completely rational and agree on a conception of justice that shall be to the advantage of all (Rawls 1999, 15-19). Rawls establishes two principles of justice that he believes would result from such an exercise : “First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) at the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” (ibid., 53, 72). The first principle guarantees that basic liberties, among which we