Research on income inequality in the United States, generally, neglects the subject’s inherent philosophical content because of economics’ propensity to avoid evaluative judgments. In result, John Rawls’s theory of justice, a better conception of justice than those often presumed by economists, is disregarded in policy conversations about income inequality. This thesis has two objectives: 1) to demonstrate that economics fails to acknowledge the link between theories of distributive justice and income inequality, and in consequence, economists are settling for a weaker theory of justice. 2) To examine what Rawls’s theory of justice implies for the United States’ current income distribution.

I achieve the first objective in two parts. In Part One I illustrate the link between distributive justice, politics, and income inequality by examining income inequality’s causes, impacts, and current and historical statistics. In Part Two, I present three theories of justice – utilitarianism, Robert Nozick’s libertarianism, and John Rawls’s liberalism. I achieve my second objective in Part Three, where I examine what Rawls’s theory implies for income inequality in the United States. I find that Rawls’s principles of justice, specifically the difference principle, calls for policy that equalizes opportunity.


Thomson, Garrett

Second Advisor

Burnell, Barbara


Economics; Philosophy


Economic Theory | Ethics and Political Philosophy | Income Distribution | Macroeconomics | Political Economy


income inequality, United States, John Rawls, political philosophy

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



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