A Theory of Justice
1 Objective 2 The "original position" 3 The Two Principles of Justice
3.1 The Greatest Equal
4 Influence and reception 5 See also 6 References 7 Further reading
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation
of liberty and equality that is meant to apply to the basic structure
of a well-ordered society. Central to this effort is an account of
the circumstances of justice, inspired by David Hume, and a fair
choice situation for parties facing such circumstances, similar to
some of Immanuel Kant's views. Principles of justice are sought to
guide the conduct of the parties. These parties are recognized to face
moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor
purely egoistic. They have ends which they seek to advance, but prefer
to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable
terms. Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation (the original
position with its veil of ignorance) within which parties would
hypothetically choose mutually acceptable principles of justice. Under
such constraints, Rawls believes that parties would find his favoured
principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over
varied alternatives, including utilitarian and right-libertarian
The "original position"
Main article: Original position
Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition, although he takes a
different view from that of previous thinkers. Specifically, Rawls
develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of
an artificial device he calls the
"...no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."
According to Rawls, ignorance of these details about oneself will lead to principles that are fair to all. If an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is likely not going to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly. In particular, Rawls claims that those in the Original Position would all adopt a maximin strategy which would maximise the prospects of the least well-off.
"They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association." (Rawls, p. 11)
Rawls bases his Original Position on a "thin theory of the good" which he says "explains the rationality underlying choice of principles in the Original Position". A full theory of the good follows after we derive principles from the original position. Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two such principles, which would then govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society. The difference principle permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. Rawls believes that this principle would be a rational choice for the representatives in the original position for the following reason: Each member of society has an equal claim on their society’s goods. Natural attributes should not affect this claim, so the basic right of any individual, before further considerations are taken into account, must be to an equal share in material wealth. What, then, could justify unequal distribution? Rawls argues that inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of those who are worst-off. The agreement that stems from the original position is both hypothetical and ahistorical. It is hypothetical in the sense that the principles to be derived are what the parties would, under certain legitimating conditions, agree to, not what they have agreed to. Rawls seeks to use an argument that the principles of justice are what would be agreed upon if people were in the hypothetical situation of the original position and that those principles have moral weight as a result of that. It is ahistorical in the sense that it is not supposed that the agreement has ever been, or indeed could ever have been, derived in the real world outside of carefully limited experimental exercises. The Two Principles of Justice In chapter forty-seven, Rawls makes his final clarification on the principles of justice in one paragraph:
"First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged
so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least
advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b)
attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair
equality of opportunity."
These principles are lexically ordered, and Rawls emphasizes the
priority of liberty. The first principle is often called the greatest
equal liberty principle. The second, until (b), the difference
principle and the final addendum in (b) the equal opportunity
The Greatest Equal
"First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others."
Mainly concerned with distribution of rights and liberties, the basic liberties of citizens are the political liberty to vote and run for office, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest. However, it is a matter of some debate whether freedom of contract can be inferred to be included among these basic liberties:
"liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g. means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle."
The Difference Principle
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle.
Rawls' claim in (a) is that departures from equality of a list of what he calls primary goods—"things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants" [Rawls, 1971, p. 92]—are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst-off under that distribution in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution. His position is at least in some sense egalitarian, with a provision that inequalities are allowed when they benefit the least advantaged. An important consequence of Rawls' view is that inequalities can actually be just, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off. His argument for this position rests heavily on the claim that morally arbitrary factors (for example, the family one is born into) shouldn't determine one's life chances or opportunities. Rawls is also keying on an intuition that a person does not morally deserve their inborn talents; thus that one is not entitled to all the benefits they could possibly receive from them; hence, at least one of the criteria which could provide an alternative to equality in assessing the justice of distributions is eliminated. Further, the just savings principle requires that some sort of material respect is left for future generations, even though Rawls is ambiguous about what should be left for them, it can generally be understood as "a contribution to those coming later" [Rawls, 1971, p. 255]. The Equal Opportunity Principle
(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity
The stipulation in (b) is lexically prior to that in (a). This is
because equal opportunity requires not merely that offices and
positions are distributed on the basis of merit, but that all have
reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills on the basis of which
merit is assessed, even if one might not have the necessary material
resources - due to a beneficial inequality stemming from the
It may be thought that this stipulation, and even the first principle
of justice, may require greater equality than the difference
principle, because large social and economic inequalities, even when
they are to the advantage of the worst-off, will tend to seriously
undermine the value of the political liberties and any measures
towards fair equality of opportunity.
Influence and reception
A Theory of Justice
American philosophy Ken Binmore Lottery of birth Redistribution of wealth Social liberalism
^ a b Voice, Paul (2011). Rawls explained: from fairness to utopia.
Open Court. pp. 41–48. ISBN 0812696808.
^ Follesdal Mertens, Andreas (2005). Real world justice: grounds,
principles, human rights, and social institutions. Dordrecht:
Springer. p. 88. ISBN 9781402031410.
^ a b c Rawls, John (1971). A theory of justice. p. 266.
ISBN 0674000781. OCLC 41266156.
^ Rawls, p. 53 revised edition; p. 60 old 1971 first edition
^ Rawls, p. 54 revised edition
^ Marshall Cohen. "The social contract explained and defended".
^ Nozick, Robert (1993). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers. pp. 183–231. ISBN 0-631-19780-X.
^ Bloom, Allan (1991). Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990. New York:
Simon & Schuster. pp. 315–415.
^ Wolff, Robert Paul (1977). Understanding Rawls: A Reconstruction and
Critique of A Theory of Justice. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press. pp. 3–212. ISBN 0-691-01992-4.
^ Sandel, Michael (1998).
Freeman, Samuel. "Rawls". New York: Routledge. 2007
Allan Bloom, "Justice:
v t e
A Theory of Justice
The Law of Peoples
Liberalism Political philosophy Justice
WorldCat Identities VIAF: 175762359 GND: 4134574-5 SUDOC: 027572757 BNF: