A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Context


Key Concepts


The concept of justice is woven throughout culture and throughout the ways individuals think about the world. People constantly evaluate situations in terms of their fairness or unfairness, speak of individuals or causes as "deserving," and when we do, we are thinking in terms of justice. Justice is crucial to the concept of law and is the center of the discussion in ethical and political philosophy. Whether we use the word or not, we condemn or are outraged by those whom we find unjust, whether they are persons, practices, nations, or institutions; we feel pain or anger when what is deserved is not gotten or when what is gotten is not deserved. Even though the idea of justice is an integral part of how individuals relate to the world, we might not think about there being a theory behind our ideas of justice, or even try to consider what principles constitute our conception of justice. Having some knowledge of how justice has been conceived of throughout history, how it is formally considered by scholars as having different types and attributes, will sharpen our critical faculties and our ability to act for what we believe in by making explicit the connections between ideas of justice and the expectations and outcomes of what happens in our own lives and around the world.

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theories of justice claim that the obligations of an individual to society are the outgrowth of an agreement, or contract. The social contract theory has been used to justify an individual's social and moral responsibilities since philosopher Socrates used it in ancient Greece to explain why he would submit to the death penalty for the charge of corrupting the youth through his teachings. This theory of justice has held a primary place in Western thought. The first philosopher to give an extended account of a social contract theory of justice was English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who was followed in this thought by the Englishman John Locke (1632–1704) and the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78.)


Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory, meaning that it judges actions as good or bad based on their consequences. In utilitarian theory, justice is equated to the state of affairs that produces the maximum benefit for society as a whole. It is not concerned with the welfare of individuals beyond how that welfare factors into the sum of all individual well-being within a social group. The more utility, which refers to satisfaction of desires, in a society, the more correctly arranged that society is. A common strand of utilitarian thought is hedonistic utilitarianism, which defines utility in terms of (and therefore seeks to maximize) pleasure. This early formulation of utilitarianism was put forth by one of the fathers of the concept, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that his theory of justice is superior to utilitarian theories because it produces a more stable society.


A central feature of all variants of ethical intuitionism is the claim that morality is self-evident. Moral propositions cannot be understood through argument or justification but are understood intuitively. That is, they are grasped by the understanding in the same immediate way that sensory data are grasped by the senses. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls uses the ideas of ethical pluralism, embraced by some intuitionists, as a contrast to his theory of justice as fairness. Pluralism holds that these self-evident moral properties are numerous and incapable of being reduced or prioritized. Rawls argues that justice as fairness overcomes this "priority problem" through the way that his primary principle of basic equal liberties for all is justified. Intuitionistic theories were popular in Britain from the beginning of the 18th century through the mid-20th century.

Influential Philosophers

Throughout A Theory of Justice, Rawls invokes ideas belonging to other philosophers and other classes of ethical theories both as foils to highlight the distinctive or preferable features of his own theory and as supports that provide alternate points of view into justice as fairness. These ideas reflect his deep and broad knowledge of historical philosophy. Rawls was especially influenced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Scottish philosopher David Hume, English philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), known for his virtue-based ethics and his ideas about maximizing human excellence, considered justice the indicator of all other virtues and, in fact, the measure of all things. In his Nicomachean Ethics (c. 335–325 BCE), Aristotle delineates the difference between universal and particular justice. By universal justice he means all the virtues that exist to describe relationships between people and entities, which is to say, giving that which is owed. By particular justice he means something narrower. Early in A Theory of Justice Rawls's assertion that his distributive take on justice is in harmony with Aristotle's notion of justice as refraining from taking undue advantage (or failing to grant what is due) signifies the importance of Aristotle's ideas as foundation of Western ethical theory.

Later in the text Rawls repeatedly refers to what he terms the "Aristotelian principle" and "companion effect" to support the idea that justice as fairness fosters community and the development of individual capacities. The Aristotelian principle holds that humans enjoy the realization of their abilities increasingly as skill develops and as the tasks become more complex. Its companion effect states that the individual's desire to develop his own abilities is aroused when he witnesses skill or excellence in another. In the final pages of Rawls's argument for justice as fairness, the Aristotelian principle is offered as a partial justification for Rawls's theory over others. Rawls's statement that "the collective activity of justice is the preeminent form of human flourishing" is also based on his understanding of the Aristotelian principle and companion effect.

A classic, enduring, and simple definition of justice is from a 6th-century Roman law book, Institutes of Justinian: "the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due." This definition accords nicely with Rawls's description of the way justice works to regulate the conduct of individuals who have acquired a mature conception of "the justice of principles."

David Hume

The ideas of early modern philosopher David Hume (1711–76) were enormously influential on the development of the thought of John Rawls, providing Rawls a foil to develop his own opposing ideas. Hume was an empiricist, meaning he believed all knowledge originated in sense experience, and all philosophical claims must be justified on the grounds of sense experience. His theory of ethics was groundbreaking in part for being one of the first to completely avoid reliance on conceptions of God. In addition to presenting a theory of the mind, Hume advanced significant positions in aesthetic theory, economic theory, and political theory, including important criticisms of social-contract theories of justice and a defense of monarchy as the best political system.

Hume's ethical theory was contained primarily in three works: Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), and Essays (1741–42). One of Hume's best-known ideas is his insistence that ought cannot be derived from is: moral obligation cannot be derived from facts. Hume's four main ethical principles were:

  1. The will is controlled by the passions or emotions and not by reason alone.
  2. Morality is not a product of reason nor is it congruent with reason.
  3. Morality arises from the "moral sentiments" occasioned by the approval and disapproval of others.
  4. The virtues and vices may be divided into the categories of natural and artificial.

Hume counted justice as an artificial virtue, meaning the sense of justice was a result of "the circumstances and necessities of mankind" but also that it was necessary for humans to cooperate. By contrast, natural virtues are those humans value separately from social convention or circumstance. Hume's thought was the starting point for the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to develop the ideas that came to be known as utilitarianism. The term utility became part of the common language of philosophy as a result of Hume's work.

John Stuart Mill

Rawls was deeply influenced by John Stuart Mill (1806–73) as a young man, although he would later question much of Mill's philosophy. In his essay Utilitarianism (1863), Mill put forth his own version of the utility principle first stated by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Mill wrote that this principle he calls "utility, or the greatest happiness principle," states right actions tend to produce a proportionate happiness, while wrong actions "tend to produce the reverse of happiness." By happiness, Mill elaborated, he meant pleasure and pain in the hedonistic sense. Noting a conflict between utility and justice, he proposed that proper understanding of the terms would eradicate any semblance of concept. There are five situations of justice in his conception: respecting others' moral rights, respecting others' legal rights, giving what is deserved, keeping faith with others, and impartiality in some circumstances. He distinguished justice from mere right and wrong by pointing out that justice concerns one individual's claim upon another in the context of moral rights. Justice was the highest of all "social utilities" and primary to any others. By drawing an equivalence between justice and utility, he reconciled the conflict between the two ideas. He then considered the problem of society constraining individual freedoms, and this contemplation gave rise to his conception of liberty, which has two parts. Interference with the freedom of action of others may be done as a matter of "self-protection," and force can be used only to stop its recipients from using force to harm others. Mill believed there ought to be absolute protection to freedom of lifestyle, peaceable association, and thought and expression.

Immanuel Kant

In the 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) proposed a theory of justice as an answer to Hume's ideas. Kant's theory was revolutionary at the time because it was deontological, meaning it viewed the right separately from and prior to the good. Seeking to establish an absolute conception of the right, he left behind the empirical approach based on observation and circumstance, and approached the problems of justice from "pure practical reason," a point of view divorced as much as possible from bias and contingencies. Kant posited as his foundational principle the "categorical imperative," which describes that which ought to be done unconditionally. This "categorical imperative" functioned to separate right from wrong. Kant suggested thinking of it in terms of universality, respect that treats people as "ends in themselves." Being that human beings are autonomous, one should act as if one's actions would become the foundation for a just society.

From this foundation Kant fleshed out his theory of justice. His primary concern was obligations that compel persons to act with regard to the rights of others. Kant thought all persons had a basic, innate right to freely follow their own will as long as this did not intrude on other's rights to follow theirs. From this idea he formulated his central principle of justice: "Every action is just that in itself or in its maxim is such that the freedom of the will of each can coexist together with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law." Kant's social-contract theory interpreted the initial situation as a hypothetical, rather than an actual, agreement, much like Rawls. He believed the motivation for justice is duty: we have a duty to do what is right. Rawls repeatedly evokes Kant's ideas of autonomy and the categorical imperative throughout A Theory of Justice. He uses Kant's notion of autonomy to support the claims of justice as fairness in what he calls the "Kantian interpretation."

Types of Ethical Theories

While justice is itself a part of the theory of ethics, the term justice is far from singular. Major categorical distinctions within the overarching concept of justice include questions of scope (when does justice apply, and to whom), conceptual contrasts, and various theories that attempt to provide coherent frameworks for understanding and applying justice.

The discipline of ethics may be divided into three major categories. Normative ethics is concerned with describing a theory of how humans ought to live. Meta-ethics investigates the nature of morality itself. Applied ethics investigates the application of ethical principles to real-world situations. Rawls's theory of justice as fairness is a normative ethical theory.

Normative Ethical Theories

There are three components to any normative ethical theory: a moral standard from which all principles are derived, general principles, and particular principles. This categorization appears in A Theory of Justice, where the moral standard of the primacy of equal individual liberties generates the general principles: the difference principle and the fair equality of opportunity. These in turn give rise to particular principles, such as the natural duties and the just savings principle.

Normative ethical theories fall into one of several broad categories. Deontological theories such as justice as fairness are concerned with duties and obligations, which derive from the primary concept of the right. Teleological theories (as opposed to deontological theories) are focused on the good instead of the right. The good, which may be defined in various ways, arises from the consequences of actions. (Utilitarian theories are teleological.) Virtue theories of ethics locate morality in the system of virtues, which offer specific guides to behavior. Virtue theories are concerned with developing moral character in persons through the process of moral education.

Conceptual Aspects of Ideas about Justice

Ideas about justice can also be categorized on a conceptual basis. There are conceptual distinctions concerning an idea's scope (application) and intention.

Conservative and Ideal Justice

Conservative justice concerns the rights of persons within their particular social structure. Ideal justice is justice that is oriented toward reform or critique of existing conditions, often considered in the light of a hypothetical or ideal situation. Rawls's theory of "justice as fairness" is a type of ideal justice. It is based on a hypothetical and, in fact, impossible situation—the original position—and depends on hypothetical or schematic descriptions of situations throughout. However, the ideal is presented as a device for improving, assessing, or clarifying actual conditions.

Corrective and Distributive Justice

This distinction refers to justice as it applies in cases of wrongdoing between persons or entities (corrective justice), and justice as it applies to the distribution of various socially important goods, values, or conditions among persons. Rawls is explicitly concerned with distributive justice, and he asserts that a society's structure is determined by the way it distributes goods. Each of his two principles of justice as fairness contains significant distributive aspects. The first principle ensures the equal distribution of liberties while the second addresses the unequal distribution of primary social goods. Rawls does touch on issues of corrective justice within his theory, and these discussions are usually framed according to the term partial compliance theory, which stands opposed to strict compliance theory.

Procedural and Substantive Justice

Justice may be considered as an aspect of a process or of an outcome of a process. Procedural justice and substantive justice seem as if they would be correlated precisely, but a little inquiry reveals it is not the case. A just end may be achieved by unjust means, or vice versa. There are even different types of ways of thinking about the justice of procedures, which Rawls details in A Theory of Justice. There is a difference between a procedure that is guaranteed to produce a just outcome and one that is likely but not certain to do so; there are also procedures where the justice of the outcome has no meaning apart from the procedure itself, and so it is only the procedure (not the outcome) that can be judged as just.

Responses to Rawls's Theory of Justice as Fairness

Rawls's ideas of justice as fairness have had a continuous presence and lasting effect in academia, beginning even prior to its release in book form in 1971. Rawls began formulating his ideas in 1951 and, during the intervening years leading up to the book's publication, released a series of papers building his theory. The ideas were already topics of conversation in academic circles when the book came out.

In the decades since the initial publication of A Theory of Justice, a large body of secondary and critical literature has been generated, and the attitudes of academic philosophers on the whole have done an about-face. Furthermore, the ideas in A Theory of Justice have worked their way into the intellectual culture and policy decisions of the world beyond academia. Before A Theory of Justice, both academia and public policy were decidedly devoted to the principle of utility. The idea of rights, if considered at all in certain circles, was merely a useful convention of capitalism, an economic system wherein the basis of social organization is economic competition within a free, or unregulated, market. However, according to one commentator writing in 1989, since A Theory of Justice, it is now utilitarianism that has become suspect both in academic and non-academic circles. Rawls ushered in a return to contract theory, a type of ethical theory that holds the origin of ethical and social obligations to be the result of a contract, or agreement, and an embrace of the notions of rights and tolerance as central to morality.

While many embrace Rawls's ideas, criticism of his theory to varying degrees is plentiful. The response to Rawls's ideas has occasioned a vigorous deliberation among individuals widely positioned throughout society. In short, the response to Rawls's admittedly flawed yet highly compelling and even beautiful theory falls into Rawls's own conception of that good which is fundamental to the full expression of the nature of humans and stabilizing to the democratic order of society.

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