The Aspirations of Immigrant Parents from Takapuna to Paris: Against the Dogmatic Application of Rawls’ Principles of Justice

I feel that many first-generation immigrants to democratic countries often do not have their life goals taken seriously. This issue can stem out of the philosophical pedestal on which we place principles of justice such as that of John Rawls. The goal of this post is to show that there is egalitarian grounds to push back against policies endorsed by John Rawls’ principles of justice. John Rawls is arguably the most important egalitarian thinker in our time, whose thought underlies many policies in democratic countries. He gives an eloquent case for two principles of justice upon which society should be structured.

I argue that when we take Rawls’ principles of justice as the only important principles in constructing an egalitarian society, we risk the inegalitarian consequence of precluding conceptions of the good life of certain members of a community.

I ground my argument in the tension between inheritance tax and the wish of first-generation immigrants to pass down wealth. I hope to highlight, through the example of assimilation of French immigrants, what is intuitively unfavourable when individual life goals are subordinated by a higher principle, even if this principle aims at respecting individual conceptions of the good life.

I, sharing a similar story to many second-generation immigrants over the word, was born on 27th January 1999 to two beloved Chinese Immigrants to New Zealand at North Shore Hospital, Takapuna, Auckland, New Zealand. We still live in Takapuna, my parents, two younger siblings, and I.

Before going overseas to university my dad told me one night, in his non-native Cantonese (mum’s tongue), that from then on my future was up to me; that regretfully despite their years of hard work they would have nothing to leave me but the person I am today. What he meant was that they would have no wealth to pass down to me.

Of course, this did not faze me at all — they have worked tirelessly all their lives for us to be where we are today. What it did highlight to me was the dreams and aspirations of immigrant families all over the world. Facing a language and cultural barrier, as well as attempting to put behind them the lower standard of life they used to live, many immigrants dedicate their conception of the good life as a life of hard work that aims at transferring wealth to their children. For many, due to their lack of social capital in the host country as a result of the language and cultural barrier, they conceive of wealth transfer as the only viable option to set their children up to succeed.

Inheritance tax, therefore, is in conflict with the wishes of immigrant parents because it opposes the life goals of these immigrants.

Rawls endorses inheritance tax on grounds that it would prevent the intergenerational accumulation of capital which is detrimental to “equality of fair opportunity.” Rawls’ second principle of justice holds that social and economic inequalities are justified only if they “[improve] the expectations of the least advantaged members of the society,”­1 or what he terms the “difference principle;” and only if it results from career options that are in accordance with equality of fair opportunity,2 defined as “similar chances of education and culture for persons similarly motivated and […] positions and offices open to all on the basis of qualities and efforts reasonably related to the relevant duties and tasks.”3 Crucially, “concentrations of power [resulting from concentrations of wealth, are] detrimental to […] fair equality of opportunity.”4 In short, everyone should have equal opportunity to secure careers that they want — allowing for social mobility. More specifically, despite your social and economic background, the access an individual has to education and culture must level the playing field,5 and the hiring process for jobs must not discriminate. Since Rawls sees the intergenerational accumulation of capital as a major threat to equality of fair opportunity, he therefore endorses inheritance tax to “gradually and continually correct the distribution of wealth.”6

What is problematic about this inheritance tax is that it precludes certain conceptions of the good life. Yes, the positive argument for Rawls’ inheritance tax presupposes equality of fair opportunity, which is favourable for many egalitarians. However, there is a competing claim: that inheritance tax is problematic in presupposing that having a life goal focused on transferring wealth to your children is unfavourable. If, for example, inheritance taxes were at 60% and significantly higher than other forms of tax (income tax, consumption tax, to name a couple), it would preclude to a large extent the possibility of an immigrant’s life goal to be that of wealth accumulation and transfer to their children. Crucially, the underlying premise here is that to be egalitarian is to not presuppose the good life. For Rawls, each person has “interests of a self that regards its conception of good as worthy of recognition and that advances claims in its behalf as deserving satisfaction.”7 To be egalitarian is to value each person’s conception of the good life with equal respect.

From the analysis so far we can draw two competing claims that egalitarians would endorse . That these two claims are in conflict is the heart of the problem.

The first claim is that the principles of justice should be applied universally. For Rawls, social institutions that arrange society should thereby be set up in accordance to principles of justice. The inheritance tax is then part of the tax system, an institution created to facilitate wealth redistribution, and this tax is justified by Rawls’ second principle of justice — equality of fair opportunity and the difference principle. For Rawls, these principles are universal because all individuals would agree upon exclusively these principles if they knew nothing about their position in society and what society looked like.8 However, what I argue to be problematic is when we take the principles of justice to be the only important justification when it comes to policy. This view is also what I term the dogmatic application of principles.

The second claim, that runs counter to the first, is that these institutions should not, insofar as it is possible, preclude conceptions of the good life—let’s call this the “claim to non-preclusion.” Notably, however, it seems that in some cases there are grounds for principles to override individual life goals, as we see in the example of income and consumption (also known as sales) taxes. In disincentivising working and spending respectively, they make these activities more unfavourable for the individual as the tax rates increase. So, for example, if I were a workaholic, working long and hard hours may not be feasible anymore if my wage was taxed too much. These taxes therefore preclude certain conceptions of the good life. However, they are commonly accepted within the egalitarian tradition, justified by principles of justice.

But just because we allow some conceptions of the good life to be overridden does not mean that we should always subordinate individual life goals to principles of justice. I contend that egalitarians must take the claim to non-preclusion seriously lest their views lead to inegalitarian consequences. I argue that the idea of assimilation of immigrants in modern-day France is an example of the unsavoury consequences arising from the domination of individual life goals by principles. Although there are notable differences in the inheritance tax and assimilation examples, I will highlight the similarities in, firstly, the tension between principle and the claim to non-preclusion and, secondly, the value aimed to be upheld by the principle. Through this parallel I emphasise the intuition that both the principles of justice and the claim to non-preclusion should be given weight.

French immigration politics since the 1980s have asked the question of assimilation or intégration. Sociologists9 define assimilation as the process by which immigrants acquire the culture of the dominant social group. In its strict sense, it requires immigrants to cease to be a socially visible group.10 This is in contrast to intégration, where immigrants participate in society without having to renounce the cultures and values of their country of origin.11 We could imagine intégration as immigrants staying “in touch” with the culture and values of their country of origin, and that these values be accepted as equal by the receiving country and thereby shape the values of the receiving country in a two-way process.

The problem of assimilation lies in the fact that it excludes the conceptions of the good life of immigrants. The spirit of assimilation is captured by ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who endorsed assimilation saying “it’s not a possibility offered to those who choose France, it must be a condition of any long stay and any naturalisation.”12 Assimilation imposes the values of the dominant social group on immigrants, and as a common result requires one to renounce one’s culture. It blatantly endorses a certain world view and unequivocally imposes a specific conception of the good life. It explicitly it tells immigrants that their conception of the good life is not welcome insofar as it does not resemble that of the dominant social group. What this looks like in an example is the ban of religious symbols in French schools in 2004, which commentators have described as disproportionately affecting Muslims who wear headscarves.13

Assimilation stems from the republican conception of equality. The idea of assimilation finds its origins in fraternité, the third ideal of the tripartite motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. This motto stands for the values of republican equality. It describes a conception of equality where the “political and social system [is] opposed to any exclusive devotion to the interests of particular groups” made up of citizens “defined solely through the notion of equal political rights and duties, and not, for example, through ethnic or territorial ties.”14 It is important to note that fraternité— “a brotherhood that erases all differences to create the “French people””15 — is interdependent on liberty and equality, with commentators16 noting that “liberty and equality depend on fraternity to flourish.”17 Therefore, the importance of fraternité rests on the fact that it is a crucial component of the republican conception of equality.

The tension in the assimilation and in the inheritance tax examples is therefore of the same type. If the principle of fraternité is upheld dogmatically, immigrants are assimilated and their individual conceptions of the good life are likely to be excluded. Although a prominent example is the secularism imposed upon Muslim immigrants, we can similarly imagine their powerlessness against any other status quo, much less inheritance tax. Similarly, if Rawls’ principles of justice are upheld dogmatically, then immigrants have no claim against an inheritance tax that precludes their conceptions of the good life. By extension, we risk the consequences that arise in the assimilation case.

Moreover, we must not discount the that in both examples the principles upheld aim towards some idea of equality. Recall that the principle of fraternité contributes towards the tripartite motto which aims towards equality. Similarly, Rawls’ principles of justice aims towards equality in an egalitarian sense. This matters because we cannot dismiss the republican case to be one that fundamentally has no regard for individual life goals. Under both conceptions of equality, the claim to non-preclusion can have weight. Therefore, the reality that faces proponents of assimilation is one that an egalitarian society could plausibly face.

Since there is no doubt that egalitarians would like to avoid the consequences highlighted in the assimilation case, we see that we cannot take Rawls’ principles of justice as the only ones of importance in application, even if they aim at values we hold close to our hearts. We must provide weight to other egalitarian claims—such as that of the respect for life goals that run counter to the principles of justice. What this means is that there is egalitarian grounds to push back against Rawlsian inheritance taxes when if we place importance on what is truly important to first-generation immigrations.

So ultimately, I, a child of a well-off suburb on the North Shore of Auckland, may not be concerned with what my parents could leave for me, and I for my children. But I speak for the immigrants whose aspirations — like my parents’ — I have seen not taken seriously, and to those of the egalitarian tradition who want to take these claims seriously.



1 Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005, 65.

2 Ibid, 57, 63.

3 Ibid, 245.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 63.

6 Ibid, 245.

7 Ibid, 110.

8 Ibid, 11-40.

9 Bolzman, Claudio. Sociologie De L’exil : Une Approche Dynamique. L’exemple Des Réfugiés Chiliens En Suisse. Zürich: Editions Seismo, 1996, 88.

10 Planchette. “Intégration ou assimilation.” Feburary 13, 2017. Accessed November 20, 2020.

11 Ibid.

12 Chemin, Anne. “Intégration Ou Assimilation, Une Histoire De Nuances.” Le November 11, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2020. France, la notion juridique,élaborés par ladministration coloniale.

13 Fredette, Jennifer. “Examining the French Hijab and Burqa Bans through Reflexive Cultural Judgment.” New Political Science 37, no. 1 (February 26, 2015): 48-70. doi:10.1080/07393148.2014.995396

14 Taylor, Abigail. “Crimes of Solidarity: Liberté, égalité and France’s Crisis of Fraternité.” The Conversation. August 20, 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020.

15 Gest, Justin. “To Become ‘French,’ Abandon Who You Are.” Reuters. January 16, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2020.

16 Gilbert, Jeremie, and David Keane. “Equality versus Fraternity? Rethinking France and Its Minorities.” I•CON 14, no. 4 (2006): 900. doi:10.1093/icon/mow059.

17 Charles D. Gonthier. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: The Forgotten Leg of the Trilogy, or Fraternity: The Unspoken Third Pillar of Democracy.” McGill L.J. 45, no. 3 (2000): 567, 570.



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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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