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In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that the concepts of freedom and equality are not mutually
exclusive. His assessment of the justice system leads him to conclude that for justice to be truly
just, everyone must be afforded the same rights under the law.

In the first part of the book, Rawls asks: if everyone were stripped of their privileges and social
status and made entirely equal, what kind of justice system would they want to be subject to? He
includes that the only logical choice is to pick a system that treats people equally, regardless of
their race, class, gender, etc.

In the second part, he discusses how his theory of justice would affect institutions today. Without
pointing fingers, he makes it clear that no one is living up to his standards.

In the third part, he describes the good effects that a real justice system can have on society.

John Rawls, a philosopher who held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at
Harvard University, published several books and many articles. He is chiefly known, however,
for his book A Theory of Justice, an effort to define social justice. The work has greatly
influenced modern political thought.

Rawls was dissatisfied with the traditional philosophical arguments about what makes a social
institution just and about what justifies political or social actions and policies. The utilitarian
argument holds that societies should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. This
argument has a number of problems, including, especially, that it seems to be consistent with the
idea of the tyranny of majorities over minorities. The intuitionist argument holds that humans
intuit what is right or wrong by some innate moral sense. This is also problematic because it
simply explains away justice by saying that people know it when they see it, and it fails to deal
with the many conflicting human intuitions.

Rawls attempts to establish a reasoned account of social justice through the social contract
approach. This approach holds that a society is in some sense an agreement among all those
within that society. If a society were an agreement, Rawls asks, what kind of arrangement would
everyone agree to? He states that the contract is a purely hypothetical one: He does not argue that
people had existed outside the social state or had made agreements to establish a particular type
of society.

Rawls begins his work with the idea of justice as fairness. He identifies the basic structure of
society as the primary subject of justice and identifies justice as the first virtue of social
institutions. He considers justice a matter of the organization and internal divisions of a society.
The main idea of a theory of justice asks, What kind of organization of society would rational
persons choose if they were in an initial position of independence and equality and were setting
up a system of cooperation? This is what Rawls sees as a hypothetical original position: the state
in which no one knows what place he or she would occupy in the society to be created.
After considering the main characteristics of justice as fairness and the theoretical superiority of
this approach to utilitarianism, intuitionism, or other perspectives, Rawls looks at the principles
of justice. He identifies two principles: One, that each person should have equal rights to the
most extensive liberties consistent with other people enjoying the same liberties; and two, that
inequalities should be arranged so that they would be to everyones advantage and arranged so
that no one person would be blocked from occupying any position. From these two principles
Rawls derives an egalitarian conception of justice that would allow the inequality of conditions
implied by equality of opportunity but would also give more attention to those born with fewer
assets and into less favorable social positions.

Rawls concludes the first part of his book by looking at the idea of the original position outside
society. This hypothetical original position can be approximated by using the thought experiment
of the veil of ignorance. If no one could know what place he or she would occupy in the society
being formed, what arrangement of the society would a rational person choose? Rawls maintains
that the choice would be for a social structure that would best benefit the unknowing chooser if
she or he happened to end up in the least desirable position.

In the second part of the work, Rawls considers the implications of his view of justice for social
institutions. He discusses in detail equal liberty, economic distribution, and duties and
obligations as well as the main characteristics of each that would make up a just society. He does
not, however, identify any particular type of social or political system that would be consistent
with his theory. He deals only with the demands that his version of justice places on institutions.

In the third and final section, Rawls deals with ends or ultimate goals of thinking about social
justice. He argues for the need to have a theory of goodness, and he makes a case for seeing
goodness as rationality. Then, he turns to moral psychology and considers how people acquire a
sentiment of justice. Finally, he examines the good of justice, or how justice is connected to
goodness. Rawls argues that in a well-ordered society, ideas of goodness and justice must be
consistent with each other.

A Theory of Justice is widely recognized as an essential contribution to thought about the nature
of justice. However, even supporters of Rawls acknowledge that his work raises many questions.
One of the earliest major responses to the book came from his Harvard colleague, philosopher
Robert Nozick. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick offers a libertarian response to
Rawls. The assumptions behind A Theory of Justice are essentially redistributive: That is, Rawls
posits equal distribution of resources as the desirable state and then argues that inequality can be
justified only by benefits for the least advantaged. Nozick points out that resources are produced
by people and that people have rights to the things they produce. Thus, attempts to improve the
condition of the least advantaged through redistribution are unjust because they make some
people work involuntarily for others and deprive people of the goods and opportunities they have
created through time and effort.

Other critics have focused on the idea of the original state and the veil of ignorance used as a
thought experiment to approximate the original state. The claim that rational individuals behind a
veil of ignorance would choose the greatest possible equality has been challenged as arbitrary
and unverifiable. Rational individuals might well choose a social structure with large rewards for
the majority of people and small rewards for the minority on the grounds that one is more likely
to end up as part of a majority than a minority. Moreover, the veil of ignorance of where one will
be in a society also takes away all knowledge of what one will do. Legal justice is generally
considered a matter of appropriate responses to actions: In the version offered by Rawls, justice
is detached from anything that anyone has done and thus may have nothing to do with any idea
of what people deserve.

The reluctance of Rawls to identify any particular type of society as just, especially in the second
part of the book dealing with institutions, may leave Rawls open to the charge that he offers no
guidance for the actual content of justice. For example, proponents of a highly unequal and
competitive market economy may argue that the abundance of wealth produced by their
preferred system contributes to the absolute standard of living of the poorest people in society.
On the other hand, advocates of a highly redistributionist economy can maintain that radical
redistribution of wealth will provide the greatest support for the poorest. Because no one can
knowbehind a veil of ignorancewhich system would lead to the best possible lives for the
poor, there can be no way of deciding what kind of society should be preferred.

The fundamental idea that justice is a matter of the basic structure of society is also open to
question. To say that the basic structure of society can be made just or fair is to say that it can be
designed both hypothetically and actually. Some social thinkers argue that societies are not
designed per se; they are produced through history and by complex webs of interaction among
individuals and institutions. From this perspective, justice is a characteristic of specific acts or
processes within social systems, such as legal actions or political mechanisms, and it is
misleading to extend the concept of justice to a society as a whole.

Supporters of Rawls often look to revise parts of his argument, while opponents suggest
alternatives. Still, most political thinkers acknowledge that A Theory of Justice introduced a new
conceptual basis for debates about the core principles of social policy and action.


Possibly the most ambitious and influential work in social philosophy of the later twentieth
century, A Theory of Justice attempts to show what the principles of social justice are and why
they can be satisfied only in a liberal society that partially redistributes income and wealth for the
benefit of its least advantaged members. John Rawls revives the social contract tradition of
philosophers John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, in opposition to
Justice as a Virtue:

Justice, the author declares, is the first and indispensable virtue of social institutions, as truth is
of theories. Even the welfare of society as a whole cannot morally override the inviolability that
each person has, founded on justice. This is why utilitarianism, which examines only the sum of
welfare and permits the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many, is not a tenable moral

In this book, Rawls is concerned with social justice only, not with the justice that individuals
may display in private dealings. Society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage: If people
cooperate in the production of goods, there will be more goods than if every person produces
things only for his or her own consumption. People, however, do not merely cooperate in the
production of social goods; they also compete for them, and everyone prefers more rather than
less. These facts give rise to the problem of distributive justice: On what principles should goods
and the benefits of social cooperation be distributed?

There is scope for the operation of justice whenever many individuals coexist in a territory and
are similar enough so that no one is able to dominate the rest. Social goods must be moderately
scarce, so that there will be conflicting claims that cannot all be satisfied.

Rawls makes a distinction between the concept of justice, on which all agree, and different
conceptions of justice. The concept, he says, is that institutions are just when no arbitrary
distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the
rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.
Different conceptions are generated when people differ in their interpretations of which
distinctions are arbitrary and what balances are proper.

The social justice of which Rawls writes involves the basic structure of society: the way in which
major social institutions, chiefly governmental, distribute fundamental rights and duties and
divide up the product of social cooperation. This is the distributive aspect of the basic structure
of society, not a complete social idea. Rawls claims that his conception of distributive social
justice tallies with the traditional Aristotelian notion that justice consists of giving everyone his
or her due, because notions of what people are entitled to ordinarily are derived from social
Rawlss basic idea is that the correct principles of justice are what free and rational people,
concerned with furthering their own interests, would agree to accept as defining the fundamental
terms of their association, if their agreement were made under conditions that were fair to all
parties. This is justice as fairness. The conditions of fairness obtain when no party to the
agreement is in a position of any advantage over other participants in furthering his or her own
interests. Such a fair position, which Rawls calls the original position, demands that all
participants be equal. This corresponds to the state of nature in traditional contract theory.
Rawls requires in addition that contracting parties not know what their places will be in the
society that they are to enter, nor to what class they will belong, nor what their social status will
be, nor even their fortunes in the distribution of natural assets and abilities such as intelligence,
strength, and particular psychological traits. This is the veil of ignorance, drawn to prevent the
parties from pressing their particular selfish interests. It would not be fair if the parties could
be influenced in their deliberations by the morally irrelevant contingencies of natural chance (to
which natural endowments are due) or social circumstances. Rawls assumes, however, that all
parties know the laws of psychology and sociology and the general facts about social life.
They are also to be mutually disinterestedthat is, they take no interest in the interests of other
people. They are rational in the sense that they take the most effective means to whatever they
put before themselves as their ends. Rawls assumes, finally, that they are not motivated by envy;
that is, they will not forgo goods for themselves merely to prevent others from enjoying them.
Although the parties are not allowed knowledge of what their particular conceptions of the good
will be, they are ensured motivation by a thin theory of the good: They all want to pursue
rational plans of life, in which rights, liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases
of self-respect are primary goods, for it is rational to desire these things, and good is the object of
rational desire. Principles of justice, then, are to regulate the distribution of these primary goods.

The Original Position:

No actual person is ever ignorant in the ways specified, nor are actual persons equally rational,
disinterested, and free of envy. The restrictions of the original position, however, are not arbitrary
or fantastic but serve to rule out of discussion factors that are irrelevant to justice. The
conception of justice that results must be one that validates peoples strongest intuitionsfor
example, that religious and racial discrimination are unjust. People must aim for reflective
equilibrium in which their intuitions about justice are harmonized with their principles. This
may require adjustment in either or both. The conditions of the original position are those that
people do in fact accept, Rawls aversor that people could be persuaded to accept.

Certain formal constraints are embodied in the concept of right: Principles should be general,
universal in application, public, capable of ordering conflicting claims, and final. These
conditions are satisfied by the notion of deliberation in the original position: Because the
individuals cannot identify themselves, they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage; nor
would there by any point in their trying to strike bargains with one another. Rawls assumes,
furthermore, that because everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, each is convinced
by the same arguments. Anyoneany actual personcan enter the original position at any time
by arguing in accordance with its restrictions.

Two Principles of Justice:

The parties in the original position would agree, Rawls claims, in choosing two principles of
justice. The first is that everyone is to have equal rights to the most extensive basic liberty
(political, intellectual, and religious) consistent with equal liberty for others. The second is that
social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are (1) to everyones advantage
(this is called the difference principle) and (2) attached to positions open to all. The first principle
is prior to the secondthat is, it must be fully satisfied before the second comes into play; no
trade-offs of liberty for economic or social advantage are to be permitted.

The general conception of justice behind this is that all social values should be equally
distributed unless an unequal distribution turns out to be to everyones advantagefor example,
by providing incentive for greater production to be shared by all. Rawls defines injustice as
inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.

It is supposed to follow deductively from the specifications of the original position that the
parties will vote unanimously for the two principles. The argument is this: The voters not only do
not know what their position will be in the society they are forming, but they also do not have
any basis on which to calculate the likelihoods of alternatives. Moreover, Rawls claims, a person
in the original position will care little for what he or she might gain above the minimum that will
be given to everyone. Also, the situation is one of grave risk: If the principles of justice allow
unacceptable positions to exist in the society, every voter runs some riskthe magnitude of
which cannot be guessedof ending up in it. Under these conditions, the theory of rational
choice is said to dictate a maximin solution: Choose principles such that the worst possible
outcome for the chooser will be better than the worst possible outcome under alternative
principles. In other words, voters will choose as if their enemy is to assign them their social

The maximin strategy would lead to choice of equal distribution of all social goods were it not
for the fact that some inequalities may be such as to bring about the production of more social
goods to be distributed, so that by permitting these inequalities it will be possible for everyone,
including the worst off, to have a larger amount of goods than if the distribution were equal.
Because the choosers want more rather than less, and in addition are not envious, there is no
reason why they should not adopt such an idea, called the difference principle: Inequalities are to
be permitted when everyone, including the worst off, benefits from them. This principle, being
chosen under fair conditions of equality, is just.
Theory of Justice Liberty:

The social good of liberty is to be distributed equally. People in the original position must adopt
a principle of equal religious liberty if they are to adopt any principle at all. As for toleration, the
principle is that limitations on liberty must be for the sake of preventing even greater violations
of it and must be supported by arguments capable of convincing any rational person. Applying
this principle to the question of tolerating the intolerant, Rawls holds that it cannot be unjust for
the tolerant to suppress the intolerant in self-defense, but when the intolerant do not constitute a
real threat, they must be tolerated. Paternalismgovernmental protection of citizens against their
own weakness and irrationalityis acceptable, because rational persons in the original position
would foresee that they might become irrational and need such help.

Only in the distribution of wealth, income, and authority are inequalities to be allowed. Here,
too, equality is the benchmarkequal distribution would not be unjust, only inefficient. Rawls
recognizes that people are born with unequal natural endowments, both physical and mental, and
that social and familial conditions may accentuate them. These inequalities, however, are
arbitrary from the moral point of viewno one deserves his or her natural endowments, and
even a sober and industrious disposition is dependent on the accidents of nature and nurture. The
system of natural liberty, which rewards people in proportion to what they have the talent and
industry to produce, thus permits distribution to be improperly influenced by the natural
lottery. The difference principle represents an agreement to consider the total pool of natural
talents as a common asset in which everyone shares. Although the natural lottery is neither just
nor unjust, societies that base distribution of goods on it are unjust: There must be redress for the
undeserved inequalities of birth and natural endowment. It is unjust that people should get more
because they are born with more.

Under the difference principle, those who are less favored by nature have no ground for
complaint of inequalities, because they benefit from the existence of inequalities. The more
favored should realize that their well-being depends on cooperation, which must be obtained on
reasonable terms that the difference principle specifies. Thus, the difference principle promotes
fraternity, making society more like a family.

The only sense in which people can be said to deserve anything is this: If, in accordance with the
difference principle, it has been announced that those who produce more will get more, then the
higher producers deserve their differential, and it would be unjust to withhold it from them.
Social Institutions:

The background institutions for distributive justice may be either democratic capitalist or
socialist, but they must include a public school system, equality of economic opportunity, a
social minimum, and social security. Rawls recommends a governmental organization including
four branches. Allocation will keep prices competitive and will prevent too much economic
concentration by adjusting taxes and subsidies. The stabilization branch will guarantee full
employment. The transfer branch will correct competitive pricing (which by itself ignores need)
to ensure that total income is allocated according to need. The distribution branch, through taxes
and adjustments in the rights of property, will correct the distribution of wealth. A proportional
expenditure tax (the total amount of tax paid rises as expenditures rise, and taxes paid increase
by the same percentage of expenditure no matter the level of expenditure) is preferable to a
graduated income tax.

Rawls claims that his theory is in the spirit of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held
that moral principles are the objects of rational choice by free and equal rational beings. The
original position is devised in accordance with this conception. One acts autonomously when
action is the expression of freedom and rationality. In the original position, it is impossible to
choose heteronomous principles. Moreover, the Rawlsian principles of justice are categorical
imperatives: They do not assume that anyone has any particular aims. Justice as fairness,
however, improves on Kant by showing how, in choosing principles of justice, people are fully
expressing their natures as rational and free individualstheir noumenal selves. In justice as
fairness, moreover, the basis of equality is being a moral person, which means having the
capacity to have a conception of ones own good and a sense of justice. Moral persons are all
persons who would be capable (contingencies aside) of taking part in the initial agreement.

To give people really fair opportunities, the family ought to be abolished, but this reform, Rawls
allows, is not urgent.

The most important social good, Rawls avers, is self-respect, which he defines as a persons
sense of his own value, his secure conviction that his conception of his good, his plan of life, is
worth carrying out, together with confidence in the ability to carry it out. Justice as fairness
furthers the equal distribution of the bases of self-respect.

Although the assumption that persons in the original position are not motivated by envy is
contrary to present facts about real persons, Rawls holds that in the just society there will be little
occasion for, or incitement to, envy. It is not right to claim, as conservative writers do, that the
modern tendency toward equality is based on envy. In any case, the two Rawlsian principles of
justice cannot be so based, for by hypothesis they are chosen by envy-free people.