post by Bill Gardner
Paul makes an acute observation about my defense of employers' rights to discriminate against smokers in hiring. Because the most disadvantaged persons are those who are most likely to smoke and least able to stop, discrimination based on smoking makes the worst off even worse off. The Rawlsian difference principle says that "social and economic inequalities … are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society." My policy is the mirror image of that, delivering the greatest harm to the least advantaged.
Unfortunately for me, he's right. That's Rawls in the tie. The anti-Rawls is the evil looking shaved head in the right hand column.
So what to say? First, isn't anti-Rawlsianism a feature of any rational employer hiring practice? If you select for skills, you will be least likely to hire those least able to acquire them. So won't that also make the worst off worse off? Framing it this way shows that the issue is general and important: low-skilled jobs are quickly disappearing in the developed world, but low-skilled people are not. Second, isn't compassion toward the worst off likely to conflict with the employer's duties toward her existing employees? If hiring the worst off makes your firm less productive, you may need to layoff people who already work for you. I can tell you first hand that telling someone you can no longer afford to employ them feels worse -- I doubt that it is worse -- than telling someone that you can't take them on.
More generally, I doubt that the difference principle is a guide to individual decision making. I think it is meant to guide the design of fundamental social institutions. The difference principle tells us that we should have a social welfare system, that all mothers should have the right to prenatal care, and so on. I do not think it is a guide for micro-decisions like employer hiring.