A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Theory (Justice as Fairness) | Summary



1. The Role of Justice

In Part 1, Rawls establishes the conceptual ground against which he will build his theory of justice as fairness and provides an overview of the main lines of this theory.

Because "justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought," unjust institutions and laws must be reformed. Justice means each individual has equal rights and liberties, which cannot be diminished or denied for the benefit of any other person or even for society as a whole. He calls this "an inviolability founded on justice." Injustice is permissible only when it offers protection from a still larger injustice. These ideas constitute the notion of "the primacy of justice."

Rawls defines a society as "a cooperative venture for mutual advantage." It is an association of persons bound by rules of conduct and who work together for their mutual benefit. Because people in society work cooperatively toward advantageous ends, there is an "identity of interests" among citizens. However, a "conflict of interests" arises with regard to the important matter of how society's duties, burdens, benefits, and advantages are to be distributed among citizens. Because it is natural for each individual to desire fewer burdens and more advantages, principles of social justice are necessary to determine a fair scheme of distribution.

While societies and individuals almost always have some concept of justice, there is usually disagreement between their various conceptions of justice. In other words, everyone agrees it is important to uphold justice, but there is much disagreement about the specific principles that define what is just and what is unjust. This lack of agreement on what constitutes justice is no trivial matter. A society's structure reflects its conception of justice, and so the idea of justice has significant effects on the life of each citizen. When there is a shared public conception of justice in a society, that society is said to be well ordered.

Still, a shared public conception of justice is not the only element necessary for a society to function well. There must be coordination among the various plans of individuals, and the outcome of these plans should be efficient and just. The society must possess the quality of stability, which arises when individuals comply with its laws and cooperative schemes. These three issues of coordination, efficiency, and stability are some of the consequences of the sense of justice.

2. The Subject of Justice

Inequality among individuals is a feature of every society. The distribution of advantages and burdens among citizens determines the very structure of society by shaping its political, economic, and social institutions. The principles of social justice should address these fundamental inequalities by regulating the distribution of advantages and burdens, creating "distributive justice."

Rawls imagines a hypothetical society, isolated from other societies, whose members each do their best to behave justly. It is from the perspective of this well-ordered society that Rawls will derive principles for the just distribution of social burdens and advantages. These principles will allow Rawls to infer the structure of a perfectly just society. The degree of justice of actual societies can then be assessed by comparison with this hypothetical society. Such analysis belongs to what Rawls calls strict compliance theory because it is based on an assumption that all members of a society comply with the dictates of justice. In contrast, partial compliance theory is concerned with the nature of and response to injustice.

Rawls's approach to justice as a matter of distribution is in harmony with the conception of justice put forth by the Greek philosopher Aristotle during the fourth century BCE. For Aristotle, justice existed when individuals did not seek an unfair advantage, either through theft or through failure to give what is owed. This idea implies the violation of an individual's rightful claim to something valuable. Rawls seeks principles that will establish a basis for such claims.

3. The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice

Rawls's theory of "justice as fairness" takes the form of a social-contract theory. Historically, philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Kant advocated founding societies on the basis of an agreement, or contract, which specified the principles of the government. In justice as fairness, the foundational idea is not specific principles but rather the conditions under which people arrive at these principles. These conditions are for a hypothetical situation known as the "original position." Persons in the original position hold a meeting to choose the principles that will specify the basic structure of society.

The persons in the original position are rational, mutually disinterested, and under a "veil of ignorance." The veil of ignorance means they have general knowledge about humanity and society but are completely ignorant about themselves. They do not know what their particular interests, goals, psychological makeups, talents, and difficulties are, nor do they have information regarding their own social class, ethnicity, sex, or any other distinguishing characteristic. They know they each have beliefs, interests, and goals, but not the specific content. This veil of ignorance creates a condition of equality that ensures personal bias will not influence their choices. The persons are rational, meaning they wish to pursue "the most effective means to given ends." Their mutual disinterest means they are not moved by benevolence but rather seek to advance their own interests, whatever those may be.

Rawls asserts that these limitations ensure the persons in the original position will agree on only principles that are fair. These fair principles, in turn, will act as instructions for the creation of a truly just society. He argues that the persons under the veil of ignorance will first choose a principle that "requires equality in the assignment of basic rights of duties." Second, they will choose a principle specifying that "social and economic inequalities" are just only as long as they benefit all members of society, but especially the "least advantaged" members.

4. The Original Position and Justification

A conception of justice is justified when it would be favored by the persons in the original position. These persons are equal, moral persons, meaning they possess "a conception of their good" and are "capable of a sense of justice." Because these persons are disposed to choose rationally, "this connects the theory of justice with the theory of rational choice."

While the original position is hypothetical, it provides a perspective that can be adopted by anyone for the purpose of checking if their own convictions about what constitutes justice are indeed justifiable. It is easy to see that certain ideas are unjust, such as slavery, but not every conviction is so obvious. Rawls recommends checking such convictions against the point of view of the original position. If the original position would not permit a certain conviction, the conviction can be modified and rechecked against the perspective of the original position. This process of modification and rechecking can be repeated until the conviction falls into line with the principles of justice. This end point is a state known as "reflective equilibrium," wherein "at last our principles and judgments coincide."

5. Classical Utilitarianism

Rawls intends for his theory of justice as fairness to provide an alternative to utilitarianism. There are many variations of utilitarianism, but the specific conception Rawls criticizes is the classical doctrine proposed by Henry Sidgwick in the early 20th century. The principle of utility claims society is just when "its institutions maximize the net balance of satisfaction." Utilitarian theories are teleological because of the way they construe the relationship between the two primary ethical concepts: the right and the good. Teleological theories define the right as "that which maximizes the good." The good is defined independently of the right and is variously held to mean pleasure, or happiness, or the "realization of human excellence." For the purpose of his argument, Rawls takes the classical definition of the good as "the satisfaction of rational desire."

An individual person acts rationally by choosing to maximize what he or she considers to be good for him or her. This "principle of choice" or "principle of rational prudence" for the individual is extended, in utilitarianism, to be the "principle of choice for an association of men." In utilitarianism, it is unimportant how satisfactions are distributed among various members of a society. Equality or fairness is not a consideration; what matters is that the sum of satisfaction of society as a whole is maximized. A few individuals may suffer a loss of liberty as long as the situation brings a greater satisfaction to the majority.

In classical utilitarianism, the mass of individuals comprising society are "fused into one" person, an imaginary "impartial spectator." This spectator is perfectly rational and sympathetic to a degree that he experiences the satisfactions of other people as his own satisfaction. It is the impartial spectator who quantifies the satisfaction felt by each individual and arrives at a sum that reflects the total satisfaction of society. Then, an "ideal legislator" adjusts the structure of society in order to maximize this sum. Rawls criticizes utilitarianism for failing to "take seriously the distinction between persons."

6. Some Related Contrasts

Rawls asserts "persons in the original position would reject the utility principle," illustrating his assertion through comparisons between justice as fairness and utilitarianism. "Justice as fairness begins with the idea" that each individual has an inviolable "natural right" to justice. In utilitarian theory, the natural rights of individuals are respected inasmuch as they are useful to the maximization of total satisfaction. But when they do not maximize that satisfaction, they are subordinate and not guaranteed. In fact, because utilitarianism does not place any restrictions on the definition of the "good," a utilitarian society would permit a situation in which people find satisfaction in discriminating against one another. Because this would be the "good," society would therefore seek to maximize it. Such a situation is not possible in justice as fairness, where the veil of ignorance ensures that a foundation principle of equal liberty is the only rational choice. In contrast with utilitarianism, in justice as fairness "the concept of right is prior to that of the good."

7. Intuitionism

While justice as fairness takes as its first principle that of equal liberty, intuitionism holds that there are a multitude of contradictory first principles and no way to assign priority between them other than relying on intuition. To illustrate the problems with intuitionism, Rawls uses the example of the "aggregative-distributive dichotomy." This conception contains two principles: the principle that society should be ordered to maximize total satisfaction and the principle that satisfaction should be equally distributed. Using graphs called "indifference curves" to plot equality against total welfare, Rawls demonstrates the wide range of possible configurations that arise as a result of the two principles. Intuitionism asserts that such configurations may be described but that to attempt to prioritize among principles leads only to triviality or oversimplification, as in utilitarianism's single standard of maximizing utility.

8. The Priority Problem

Rawls contends that any rational approach to justice must find a way to prioritize, or assign weights to, the various principles that might be accepted. There are two ways of approaching this "priority problem": either by the choice of a single overarching principle that is accepted as self-evident or through a serial ordering of various principles, wherein a principle does not apply until the one previous to it has been satisfied. In justice as fairness, the reliance on intuition is not completely eliminated but is made more manageable by the constraints embedded in the original position.

9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory

Moral capacity is the complex ability, possessed by all persons of sufficient age and intellectual capacity to support judgments of justice and injustice with reasoned arguments. Moral theory seeks to account for the moral capacity of humans. Rawls argues that our conception of justice should properly align with our moral sensibilities and that the way to achieve this alignment is through the examination of our considered judgments—those ideas we have arrived at by a sincere desire for truth—through the process of reflective equilibrium.


In Chapter 1 Rawls establishes the grounds against which he will develop and argue for his theory of justice. He does this by reflecting on the nature and importance of justice and moral theory in general; contextualizing the discussion within a web of basic concepts and terminology related to the idea of justice; and situating his theory of justice as fairness with respect to prior social-contract theories as well as other types of theories of justice. Utilitarianism and intuitionism are the "competition," so to speak, being theories of justice that are structured in a fundamentally different way from the theories of the social-contract tradition, of which justice as fairness is a part. He gives a nod to Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, some of his philosophical predecessors in the social-contract tradition.

Justice as fairness takes the form of a social-contract theory. Social-contract theories hold that the obligations of individuals are the result of an agreement, or contract, to form society. Justice, therefore, arises out of the fact of the agreement and the specific content of the agreement. This type of theoretical structure has been a feature of significant theories of justice since ancient Greece, when Socrates used a similar concept to explain his willingness to accept his own execution at the hands of the state. Key to Rawls's new take on the social contract is his substitution of the traditional "state of nature" for a pair of concepts, "the original position" and "the veil of ignorance." The "state of nature," first invoked by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century as a feature of social-contract theory, refers to the imagined state of human beings before the formation of political associations. In general, when the social contract is formed, the state of nature ends, and people are now subject to the obligations and procedures expressed in the contract to which they have agreed.

The state of nature as the starting point for social-contract theory was given vastly different interpretations by the philosophers Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Hobbes's conception, the state of nature is characterized by conditions of constant violence, which make life "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." With the forming of a government headed by an absolute sovereign ruler, mankind achieved a tenuous reprieve from these conditions as they began to submit their self-interest to the will of the ruler. Locke, in turn, thought humans in the state of nature lacked mutual obligation but were governed by the law of nature, which endorsed the equality of all and imparted a natural duty not to infringe upon the "life, liberty, or possessions" of their fellows. Because the law of nature was not mandatory upon these humans, the formation of a government gave them a way to settle disputes impartially. Rousseau for his part saw the state of nature as a pre-social epoch in the development of the human race, a time when humans fulfilled their basic needs as solitary creatures who were nonetheless capable of compassion. Rousseau saw the exit of a state of nature corresponding to the development of the species from solitary and amoral into civilized, mutually dependent beings.

While all three of these conceptions of the state or nature serve to explain or justify political or social arrangements, none approach the matter like Rawls does through his "original position." The original position is pre-political only in the sense that it precedes the choice of Rawls's particular theory of justice. The individuals who meet in the original position are civilized, yet a large part of their knowledge is inaccessible to them through the "veil of ignorance." Rawls's original position and the constraints of the veil of ignorance are conditions he carefully engineers to serve as a basis or first premise for the deductive argument for the two principles of justice as fairness.

His aim, he explains, is not a decisive statement of an absolutely correct standard of justice or the elaboration of a practical plan for an actual society. Nor is it a manifesto meant to spark the reform of existing society. Justice as fairness does include an account of the process of the construction of a society from the ground up, but it does so using hypothetical situations Rawls refers to as "simplifying devices." In fact, Rawls's aim for justice as fairness is at once more modest and more expansive than these other aims. Justice as fairness will succeed when it helps people think more clearly about the world and their own ideas. It can be considered a framework for rational thought processes as much as anything else.

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