- The book proposes two principles of justice that would be chosen by rational and impartial individuals in a hypothetical situation called the original position, where they are behind a veil of ignorance.
- The book defends these principles against various objections and compares them with other theories of justice, such as utilitarianism, intuitionism, and libertarianism.
- The book applies these principles to various issues, such as civil disobedience, democracy, the rule of law, and international justice.
A Theory of Justice (1971) is a seminal work of political philosophy, in the social contract tradition. One of the most widely debated philosophical works of the twentieth century, it provides a framework for evaluating societies and social outcomes in terms of justice, fairness, and rights.
Table of Contents
John Rawls’s landmark 1971 treatise transformed political philosophy by offering a systematic alternative to the utilitarianism that had dominated the field for more than a century. By turning the focus of political philosophy to the welfare of the least advantaged – while offering a bold argument for the inviolability of fundamental civil and political rights – Rawls influenced the thinking of generations of philosophers, lawyers and legislators. Closely reasoned, dense, often technical but brightened by the warmth of Rawls’s compassion and the brilliance of his intellect, A Theory of Justice belongs on the required reading list of every student of law, politics or philosophy.
- “Justice as fairness” offers an individualistic alternative to utilitarianism.
- Society needs a shared conception of justice so that people can live together.
- Justice as fairness results from applying contract theory to the question of how to choose a conception of justice.
- The “veil of ignorance” ensures that a society’s founders will choose a fair system of principles.
- Under the first principle of justice, all members of society will receive an equal distribution of primary social goods.
- Under the second principle of justice, any social or economic inequalities should inure to the benefit of everyone, particularly the least advantaged.
- Justice as fairness applies the “difference principle” to achieve distributive justice.
- Justice as fairness provides a basis for a democratic society in which all members can thrive.
Introduction: Meet one of political philosophy’s key thinkers.
What is fairness? What makes a just society? And how should resources and opportunities be distributed? Philosopher John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice attempts to answer these fundamental questions.
Published in 1971, it’s one of the most widely discussed works of twentieth-century political philosophy. It gives us a framework for analyzing and critiquing social structures, and helps us sharpen our views about what’s fair and unfair.
In this very short summary, we’ll focus on the book’s most influential idea – that a truly just society must be founded on principles that unbiased individuals would collectively accept.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
How should we organize society? How can we reconcile diverse interests and help people live harmoniously?
For John Rawls, the answer to this question is related to the most fundamental building block of all our social institutions: justice. Society and its rules must, above all else, be fair. After all, people don’t get to choose which society they’re born in. And yet, despite the arbitrariness, we expect people to follow society’s rules – on pain of imprisonment.
This expectation is part of what’s known in philosophy as a social contract. A social contract isn’t a real historical contract. It’s a kind of foundational story that rationalizes how society works and specifies what individuals and society owe each other.
For example, seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously held that human life in our original “state of nature” – that is, without government – was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It stood to reason, then, that people would willingly give up some of their freedom to a sovereign authority if it meant they could ensure their own safety and lead decent lives. For Hobbes, this implicit bargain is what gives the state its legitimacy.
Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice centuries later, during the Cold War, and the book speaks to the times. It was an era in which democratic societies faced geopolitical conflict between capitalism and communism, social upheaval, and raging ideological debates.
So what social contract does Rawl propose? What are his specific criteria for justice? Let’s look at that next.
Justice is blind
Imagine you’re writing a tax code, and you want it to be fair. You conduct a poll, asking who should pay and how much, and let people pick from various schemes. You get the answers back – and it’s discouraging. Rich people say the poor should pay. The poor say the rich should pay. Landowners say that stockholders should pay, and stockholders say the landowners should pay. In short, everybody picks the scheme that’s in their own best interest. Back to the drawing board.
The phrase “justice is blind” conveys our basic intuition that a fair judgment is one that’s impartial and unbiased – one that puts aside personal interests and considers the bigger picture. Rawls draws on this. For him, the question is this: What principles would we use to organize a society if we didn’t know in advance what our place in it would be?
Rawls calls this principle the “veil of ignorance.” Picture a statue of lady justice who holds a set of scales in one hand and wears a blindfold, representing impartiality. Or think about how we cut cake. One person holds the knife and determines how big the slices are; somebody else chooses. Since the person cutting doesn’t know which slice they’re getting, they’re incentivized to cut as fairly as possible. According to Rawls, they’re wearing a veil of ignorance.
So what does this mean in terms of organizing society?
Imagine you’ve been given absolute power to determine how society is arranged. But here’s the catch: you haven’t been born yet. You have no idea what part of society you’ll occupy. Will you be rich? Poor? No idea. What gender? Ethnicity? Who knows! You don’t even know what talents or gifts you’ll have – if you’ll be born with a knack for music, words, athletics … or none at all. Rawls calls this the “original position,” and it’s the equivalent of Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature.”
Alright, so say your veil of ignorance is firmly in place and you can’t see a thing. Now, how will you organize society?
Rawls thinks the rational choice (and the fair one) is a society which ensures the best outcome for those who are worst off – those who happen to be unlucky in wealth, privilege, or talent. In other words, we should judge society based on how it treats its least fortunate members. So how does this play out in practice? Would you pick laissez-faire capitalism, which makes sure markets operate but otherwise lets the chips fall where they may?
No, you wouldn’t, says Rawls. Such a system produces tremendous inequality. Some are born into wealth while others enter the world in poverty. And not everyone possesses the talents that could help them better their economic situation; it’s pure luck. From behind our veil of ignorance, laissez-faire capitalism is too risky a bet.
So then, would you pick a communist system – one that guarantees equal outcomes for everyone?
Rawls also says no to this option. Why? Total equality robs people of the incentive to work hard, and to apply their talents in the best way possible. Market systems, despite their inequality, generate wealth that can benefit everyone. Therefore, allowing some level of inequality makes the cake bigger, says Rawls.
This means, if we go back to square one, that it’s rational to pick market societies over communist ones – as long as the wealth produced also benefits the least fortunate. The smallest slice of cake you get should still be bigger than what you get under perfect equality.
There you have it. It’s a defense of liberal capitalist societies, but not an unconditional one. Rawls’s contract, like every social contract, has two sides. The individual is compelled to accept the social order, yes – but society’s institutions are also morally compelled to substantially help those who are worst off. In the end, those who are better off can justify this inequality only by strongly helping and empowering the less fortunate.
“Justice as fairness” offers an individualistic alternative to utilitarianism.
Classical utilitarianism holds that a just society should aim to create the greatest possible total satisfaction – or “utility” – for all members of the society, considered collectively. Utilitarianism takes an anti-individualistic stance; it fuses all members of society into one entity. Under this conception of justice, a society can violate some members’ liberty or deny the desires of some individuals for the sake of the collective good.
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
Thinkers have noted utilitarianism’s disadvantages, agreeing that certain basic liberties and rights of individual members of society should not fall under a utilitarian calculus. A new theory, justice as fairness, provides an alternative to utilitarianism. Justice as fairness returns to the view of the social contract articulated by philosophers John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, but sets it in a new framework, one more appropriate to a democratic society.
Society needs a shared conception of justice so that people can live together.
A shared conception of justice makes it possible for people to live together in a stable, efficient and coordinated society. A theory of social justice consists of principles that offer a basis for deciding on social arrangements: the rights and duties of the members of a society, plus the strategy for distributing the benefits that arise from living in a society. A conception of justice doesn’t define a social ideal – the latter provides a more complete definition of a social structure, whereas a conception of justice only offers a standard for assessing a society’s basic distributive aspects.
“One may think of a public conception of justice as constituting the fundamental charter of a well-ordered human association.”
When people come together in a society, they experience both an alignment of interests – because social cooperation offers benefits for all – and conflict over the distribution of those benefits. Conflicting claims on the benefits of social cooperation necessitate a system of social justice. A system of social justice also helps bind a society into a social union, fosters its members’ full expression of their moral nature, and endows its adherents with self-respect and dignity. A society implements a conception of justice through its major institutions, its political constitution, and the design of its economic and social spheres – aspects such as private property and monogamous marriage.
Justice as fairness results from applying contract theory to the question of how to choose a conception of justice.
Locke, Rousseau and Kant posit a theory of social contract by which members of a society agree to join that society or establish a government of a certain kind. In the theory of justice as fairness, this original agreement pertains to the society’s basic structure and the principles that define it. To arrive at these principles, free and rational individuals, beginning from a position of equality, would consent to certain specific principles of social cooperation and government because they find them fair. From these first principles, these individuals would then establish a constitution, a legislature and laws.
Justice as fairness doesn’t conflate what is right with maximization of “the good” – the satisfaction of desires – as utilitarianism does. Under utilitarianism, the good takes precedence, and the right follows from the good. Under justice as fairness, the right takes precedence. In fact, the principles of justice as fairness imply that certain desires – such as a desire to discriminate against another person – have no value. As a consequence, justice as fairness attributes moral worth to certain qualities of character and encourages people to become certain kinds of individuals.
“In justice as fairness, society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.”
Because justice as fairness doesn’t aim at any particular outcome, only the just functioning of the system, this theory describes a form of pure procedural justice. Under this system, justice results when institutions undertake their roles according to fair rules.
In justice as fairness, the term “original position” refers to a specific interpretation of what contract theory calls “the initial situation.” In traditional contract theory, the initial situation describes a hypothetical set of circumstances in which hypothetical people consider the kind of society in which they would agree to live. Traditional contract theory posits the initial situation to be a state of nature. Under justice as fairness, the original position includes specific circumstances and requirements that reflect widely held presumptions about the conditions required for choosing principles of justice. In Kantian terms, the original position represents a way of interpreting autonomy and the categorical imperative procedurally.
“In justice as fairness, men agree to share one another’s fate.”
In addition to choosing principles of justice under which they will agree to live, people in the original position also will try to agree on how to balance and prioritize those principles. Although the original position exists only hypothetically, it has relevance and validity because its conditions reflect those that people accept as reasonable and fair. The individuals work to promote and prioritize the principles they see as the best means of attaining social goods, yet in doing so, they are motivated by neither benevolence nor vanity. Their decision must be final and for all time: The individuals will have to abide by it, regardless of its unforeseen consequences for their lives.
“The veil of ignorance” ensures that a society’s founders will choose a fair system of principles.
In a crucial feature of the original position, a veil of ignorance limits the individuals’ knowledge: They have no information about their social status or place in society, their abilities or assets, their psychological propensities or even their conception of what is good. Thus, the veil of ignorance prevents individuals in the original position from choosing principles of justice to suit their specific situations. It ensures that the principles of justice they agree to will reflect fairness.
People in the original position must consider that they might have obligations to their moral and religious convictions – but, until the veil lifts, they don’t know the content of those convictions. This aspect of the original position will lead to their affirming equal liberty of conscience. They know they will want to live by a particular concept of the good but that others will hold different concepts of the good. This aspect would also lead them to reject the principle of utility on the grounds that, among other reasons, it could result in restrictions on their liberty of conscience.
“The veil of ignorance prevents us from shaping our moral view to accord with our own particular attachments and interests.”
The veil of ignorance eliminates the allure of principles that, without the veil, would offer advantages that have nothing to do with justice. For example, individuals in the original position who knew they possessed wealth might agree to a principle that led to certain unjust taxes. The veil of ignorance excludes these kinds of considerations. It prevents the parties from engaging in bargaining and makes it possible for them to come to a consensus on principles of justice.
Under the first principle of justice, all members of society will receive an equal distribution of primary social goods.
The individuals in the original position would select two foundational principles of justice. Both principles apply to the society’s basic structure – its institutions – and not to individuals. These principles ensure the fundamental rights of all members of the society and minimize the worst possible outcomes for each person.
“The rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”
People in the original position cannot expect to find themselves as having more than others, and they have no reason to agree to less, so they would opt for a system that provides equality. Hence, the first principle of justice under justice as fairness holds that all members of society should receive an equal distribution of primary social goods. Exceptions would apply only when an unequal distribution would result in advantages to everyone. The term “primary social goods” refers to those things that any rational person would like to have in as great a quantity as possible. These include rights, liberties, opportunities, powers, wealth, income and the bases for self-respect – such as the equal recognition of persons as citizens.
The liberties considered as primary social goods include political liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought or liberty of conscience, personal freedom and the right to hold property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure. Under the first principle, every individual has an equal right to the greatest possible degree of basic liberties that allows for equality.
Under the second principle of justice, any social or economic inequalities should inure to the benefit of everyone, particularly the least advantaged.
The second principle under justice as fairness holds that for people to consider any social or economic inequalities to be just, they must result in benefits for everyone – particularly for the less advantaged members of the society. The second principle follows the first serially – meaning a just society must apply the first principle first, and only after satisfying that principle can it apply the second. The second principle cannot override the first. Hence, a just society cannot restrict the liberty of any person except when liberty itself requires it.
Both principles of justice mitigate against placing burdens on a few people for the sake of a greater collective good. However, justice could allow a few people to obtain greater benefits than others if, as a result, less advantaged people could also benefit. In essence, the arrangement should be one that everyone in the society would willingly accept. Both principles reflect egalitarianism in justice.
“It is conceivable that a social system may be unjust even though none of its institutions are unjust taken separately.”
Since each individual must gain from any permissible inequality, justice as fairness doesn’t hold that a gain to some people could outweigh a loss for others – as the utilitarian conception allows. The principles of justice as fairness will encourage stability in the social system because the system will benefit everyone, thereby gaining the support of all members.
Justice as fairness applies the “difference principle” to achieve distributive justice.
According to the difference principle, a just system should provide equal distributions unless an unequal distribution would benefit everyone. A system of justice based on the difference principle avoids many of the difficulties of implementing utilitarianism. It obviates the need to quantify the welfare of every individual, because the system only has to rank individuals with respect to their well-being.
“It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others should prosper.”
Whether a change would benefit the least advantaged members of the society is all that matters – not the amount of the benefit. Justice as fairness eliminates the need to measure individuals’ or even groups’ satisfaction.
Justice as fairness provides a basis for a democratic society in which all members can thrive.
Justice as fairness provides a moral foundation for a democratic society. The first principle of justice as fairness guarantees the liberties that form the basis of a democratic society, and this conception of justice better secures those liberties. Although a liberal socialist government could, under certain conditions, enact the two principles of justice as fairness, the use of market mechanisms appears to offer the only means of handling distribution procedurally. A market economy also ensures free choice of occupation – an important liberty. Hence, a market-based democratic society accords best with justice as fairness.
“A society satisfying the principles of justice comes as close as a society can to being a voluntary scheme.”
A system founded on justice as fairness also regards people as ends in themselves, worthy of respect. This sense of self-respect facilitates social cooperation. It underpins people’s abilities to pursue plans for their lives and enjoy undertaking them. By complying with the principles of justice as fairness in the environment of a just society, all members can best express their own moral nature and most fully achieve their good – both as individuals and as a collective.
For centuries, political philosophers have struggled with how to forge stable societies and communities, and how to find the right ideals to strive for. Rawls’s theory provides an account of one such ideal: a notion of justice as fairness.
Within this framework, a fair system is what a rational, self-interested person would choose from behind a “veil of ignorance” that forces them to be impartial. We find that their choice – and thus a just society – guarantees the maximum set of social goods for those who are least fortunate.
Rawls deepens our understanding of the concept of justice and challenges us to hold society up to this ideal.
John Rawls (1921–2002) was an influential American moral and political philosopher. He taught at Harvard University for more than 30 years.
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Table of Contents
Preface for the Revised Edition
Part 1. Theory
Chapter I. Justice as Fairness
1. The Role of Justice
2. The Subject of Justice
3. The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice
4. The Original Position and Justification
5. Classical Utilitarianism
6. Some Related Contrasts
8. The Priority Problem
9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory
Chapter II. The Principles of Justice
10. Institutions and Formal Justice
11. Two Principles of Justice
12. Interpretations of the Second Principle
13. Democratic Equality and the Difference Principle
14. Fair Equality of Opportunity and Pure Procedural Justice
15. Primary Social Goods as the Basis of Expectations
16. Relevant Social Positions
17. The Tendency to Equality
18. Principles for Individuals: The Principle of Fairness
19. Principles for Individuals: The Natural Duties
Chapter III. The Original Position
20. The Nature of the Argument for Conceptions of Justice
21. The Presentation of Alternatives
22. The Circumstances of Justice
23. The Formal Constraints of the Concept of Right
24. The Veil of Ignorance
25. The Rationality of the Parties
26. The Reasoning Leading to the Two Principles of Justice
27. The Reasoning Leading to the Principle of Average Utility
28. Some Difficulties with the Average Principle
29. Some Main Grounds for the Two Principles of Justice
30. Classical Utilitarianism, Impartiality, and Benevolence
Part 2. Institutions
Chapter IV. Equal Liberty
31. The Four-Stage Sequence
32. The Concept of Liberty
33. Equal Liberty of Conscience
34. Toleration and the Common Interest
35. Toleration of the Intolerant
36. Political Justice and the Constitution
37. Limitations on the Principle of Participation
38. The Rule of Law
39. The Priority of Liberty Defined
40. The Kantian Interpretation of Justice as Fairness
Chapter V. Distributive Shares
41. The Concept of Justice in Political Economy
42. Some Remarks about Economic Systems
43. Background Institutions for Distributive Justice
44. The Problem of Justice between Generations
45. Time Preference
46. Further Cases of Priority
47. The Precepts of Justice
48. Legitimate Expectations and Moral Desert
49. Comparison with Mixed Conceptions
50. The Principle of Perfection
Chapter VI. Duty and Obligation
51. The Arguments for the Principles of Natural Duty
52. The Arguments for the Principle of Fairness
53. The Duty to Comply with an Unjust Law
54. The Status of Majority Rule
55. The Definition of Civil Disobedience
56. The Definition of Conscientious Refusal
57. The Justification of Civil Disobedience
58. The Justification of Conscientious Refusal
59. The Role of Civil Disobedience
Part 3. Ends
Chapter VII. Goodness as Rationality
60. The Need for a Theory of the Good
61. The Definition of Good for Simpler Cases
62. A Note on Meaning
63. The Definition of Good for Plans of Life
64. Deliberative Rationality
65. The Aristotelian Principle
66. The Definition of Good Applied to Persons
67. Self-Respect, Excellences, and Shame
68. Several Contrasts between the Right and the Good
Chapter VIII. The Sense of Justice
69. The Concept of a Well-Ordered Society
70. The Morality of Authority
71. The Morality of Association
72. The Morality of Principles
73. Features of the Moral Sentiments
74. The Connection between Moral and Natural Attitudes
75. The Principles of Moral Psychology
76. The Problem of Relative Stability
77. The Basis of Equality
Chapter IX. The Good of Justice
78. Autonomy and Objectivity
79. The Idea of Social Union
80. The Problem of Envy
81. Envy and Equality
82. The Grounds for the Priority of Liberty
83. Happiness and Dominant Ends
84. Hedonism as a Method of Choice
85. The Unity of the Self
86. The Good of the Sense of Justice
87. Concluding Remarks on Justification
The book is a work of political philosophy and ethics that aims to provide a moral theory alternative to utilitarianism and that addresses the problem of distributive justice (the socially just distribution of goods in a society). The author proposes two principles of justice that he argues would be chosen by rational and impartial individuals in a hypothetical situation called the original position, where they are behind a veil of ignorance that prevents them from knowing their own identity, social status, talents, preferences, etc. The two principles are:
- The first principle of justice: Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
- The second principle of justice: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b) they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
The author defends these principles against various objections and compares them with other theories of justice, such as utilitarianism, intuitionism, and libertarianism. He also applies them to various issues, such as civil disobedience, democracy, the rule of law, and international justice.
The book is a landmark in the history of political philosophy and ethics. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential and original works of the 20th century. It offers a comprehensive and systematic account of justice that challenges the dominant utilitarian paradigm and provides a compelling alternative based on the ideas of fairness, equality, and liberty. The author’s use of the original position and the veil of ignorance is an ingenious method to derive universal principles of justice from a hypothetical contract among rational agents. The author’s arguments are clear, rigorous, and persuasive, and his style is elegant and accessible.
The book is not without its flaws, however. Some critics have pointed out that the author’s conception of the original position and the veil of ignorance is unrealistic and arbitrary, and that his principles of justice are too vague and indeterminate to be applied in practice. Others have argued that the author’s theory is too idealistic and ignores the realities of human nature, social conflict, and historical contingency. Still others have challenged the author’s assumptions about rationality, impartiality, liberty, equality, and democracy, and have offered alternative or complementary perspectives on justice from different philosophical traditions or disciplines.
Overall, the book is a masterpiece of political philosophy and ethics that deserves to be read by anyone interested in the fundamental questions of justice. It is a rich source of insight, inspiration, and debate that has shaped the discourse on justice for decades. It is also a testament to the author’s intellectual courage, creativity, and vision.