A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Theory (The Principles of Justice) | Summary



10. Institutions and Formal Justice

Society's structure is the arrangement of its major institutions into a cooperative system. Institutions are public systems of rules that define positions and regulate actions, and they are the basic component of society. The principles of justice that regulate institutions are different from those that regulate individuals.

There is a distinction between the theoretical institution as the sum of its rules and the institution as it actually functions. It is the actual institution that is subject to judgments of justice. Parts of an institution may be unjust without the entire institution being so in the same way the existence of an unjust institution does not necessarily mean the entirety of society is unjust. "Formal justice" exists when an institution carries out its own rules and regulations fairly, consistently, and impartially. "Substantive justice" refers to the inherent justice of those rules. Formal justice, or "obedience to system," does not always characterize institutions, as rules and laws are subject to interpretation and manipulation. Additionally, formal justice may exist when an unjust institution nonetheless executes its own rules and laws with consistency and fairness. Nonetheless, it is usually the case that when there is formal justice, there is also substantive justice, because "obedience to system" tends to arise within institutions that are already dedicated to upholding justice.

11. Two Principles of Justice

Rawls makes the first, provisional statement of the two principles of justice that he contends would be selected in the original position, and they are principles that apply to institutions. The first principle guarantees each individual "an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties" possible. The second principle specifies that "social and economic inequalities" must bring benefit to everyone and be "attached to positions and offices open to all." The second part of the second principle means public offices and other positions of authority must be open to all citizens. The first principle of equality is serially prior to the second, meaning the basic liberties cannot be bargained with or diminished for any reason including a compensating increase in social or economic advantage. Inequality is permitted, but it becomes injustice when it does not benefit everyone.

Primary goods are "things that every rational man is presumed to want," including liberties, opportunities, and economic security, as well as self-respect. The distribution of primary goods is a function of the nature of the institutions that constitute society. The standard for judging whether an inequality in the distribution of primary goods is permissible is to first imagine a society in which the primary goods are equally distributed. Each person, therefore, has a certain measure of well-being. If an inequality of primary-goods distribution would improve the welfare of all beyond that which exists when primary goods are equally distributed, then it is permissible. If not, the inequality is unjust. In other words, an inequality is permissible when any representative person in this society would "prefer his prospects with the inequality to his prospects without it."

12. Interpretations of the Second Principle

The second principle of justice as fairness states that inequalities must be to "everyone's advantage" while positions and offices must be "equally open." The ambiguity of this language means that, depending on interpretation, four different social systems could be said to satisfy the principle. It is possible to interpret "to everyone's advantage" as referring to either the "principle of efficiency" or the "difference principle."

In this context the principle of efficiency claims that a social system is efficient when there is no possible change to the rules of primary-goods distribution that could advantage at least one person without disadvantaging at least one person.

When "everyone's advantage" is interpreted as the "principle of efficiency," and "equally open" is taken to mean "equality as careers open to talents," the resulting system is called the "system of natural liberty." This system provides everyone the same legal access to opportunity and a free market economy. Over time, injustice can enter this system when the theoretical equality of opportunity becomes practically impossible for some despite its legal basis. In the free market, those who have greater natural assets like intelligence as well as better luck tend to accumulate wealth and power, which gives them a competitive advantage of opportunity compared to those who have not accumulated wealth. To correct for this occurrence, a liberal interpretation seeks to level the social playing field by replacing "equality as careers open to talents" with "the principle of fair equality of opportunity"—thereby instituting social protections to ensure that social class does not determine actual opportunity. Nonetheless, this liberal interpretation must be rejected because it still makes the arbitrary distribution of natural talent the basis of wealth. A third system, natural aristocracy, limits the advantages of the naturally blessed to those that can be used to help the disadvantaged. Because the "natural lottery" of genetic and social circumstances is arbitrary, it cannot provide a moral basis for a just society.

13. Democratic Equality and the Difference Principle

The combination of the principle of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle gives rise to the preferred system, that of democratic equality. Several arrangements are permitted by the difference principle: one in which the expectations of the worst-off are maximized and another in which inequality raises but does not maximize the expectations of society's most disadvantaged. Both are just unless the inequalities are excessive and egregious or there is a violation of basic liberties, although the first is more just. A third possible arrangement supposes that expectations in society are "chain-connected," meaning an advantage for the lowest position causes an advantage for all intermediate positions. Expectations may also be "close-knit," meaning to raise or lower expectations for anyone results in raising or lowering expectations for all. Rawls then proposes a restatement of the second principle of justice as fairness with the ambiguous language clarified. The principle now requires inequality be "to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged" and specifies "conditions of fair equality of opportunity."

14. Fair Equality of Opportunity and Pure Procedural Justice

Rawls renames the second part of the second principle of justice as fairness as "the liberal principle of fair equality of opportunity." He considers the optimal situation of being able to design the principles to structure society so that "pure procedural justice" prevails. This means following a just procedure gives rise to a just outcome. There are no independent criteria for the outcome; only following the procedure itself is important. By contrast, "imperfect procedural justice" pairs a just procedure with independent criteria for a just outcome. An example is the procedures of the criminal justice system, which may be just but cannot guarantee a correct verdict in a criminal trial, even when followed diligently. The principle of fair opportunity has the role of ensuring that pure procedural justice characterizes the social order of the resulting society. As long as opportunity is kept open and fair, justice exists. Rawls notes that "the two parts of the second principle are lexically ordered," meaning the difference principle must be in place for the liberal principle of fair equality of opportunity to apply.

15. Primary Social Goods as the Basis of Expectation

Utilitarianism seeks to maximize "expected utilities" or satisfactions although it gives no objective grounds for assigning values so that a maximum can be calculated. In justice as fairness, the difference principle also requires some assignment of value to advantages or expectations, and it provides objective grounds for this value. The judgment of expectations emerges from the position of "the least advantaged representative man," and in terms of "expectations of primary social goods." This means absolute values are not necessary to assign to expectations but only that the position of any one person with regard to the least advantaged in society needs to be considered. These primary social goods, which all people rationally prefer more rather than less of, include rights, wealth, and self-respect. Because these things help people pursue their aims, they are good. Rawls provides a definition of the good as "the satisfaction of rational desire."

16. Relevant Social Positions

In justice as fairness, each individual can be said to have two positions within society. The first, citizenship, is a position equally shared by all. The second position is "defined by his place in the distribution of income and wealth." This second position is the one affected by inequalities in the distribution of primary goods. "Representative persons" who occupy "relevant social positions" must be identified to provide a point of view from which to judge such inequalities. It is important to identify the least advantaged social group, for it is from this representative position that a "reasonable social minimum" of expectation may be defined and the difference principle fulfilled. Other relevant social positions include those whose "fixed natural characteristics," such as sex or ethnicity, tend to make them the object of discrimination and, therefore, provide them with a disadvantaged starting point within the social system. The relevant social positions are the means by which a variety of interests are protected and the inequalities produced by "natural accident and social circumstance" are addressed.

17. The Tendency to Equality

Contained within the difference principle is the idea of the "principle of redress," which states that "undeserved inequalities," including those arbitrary "inequalities of birth and natural endowment," deserve compensation. Society must be structured so as to provide supports for those who are disadvantaged by the "natural lottery," so they have a fair opportunity within the social system. The difference principle implies an agreement to regard natural talent as a shared asset among all of society. Its unequal and arbitrary distribution doesn't mean these differences should be eliminated but rather that society be arranged "so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate." Also contained within the difference principle is the idea of reciprocity or mutual benefit. The cooperation of all is required in order that all may have a good life, and so it is to the benefit of the most advantaged as well as the least advantaged to ensure that the social system encourages cooperation by offering reasonable expectations to all.

Rawls rejects the idea that those with greater natural talent, ambition, or position deserve to further their own ends as much as possible without considering those who are less well endowed. They have a right to their greater abilities, but they did not do anything to deserve them; such advantages are the result of contingencies and, therefore, have no moral weight. Rather, the principle of fraternity, which expresses a sort of civic friendship that does not wish to be advantaged unless others are also advantaged, is encouraged by the difference principle. The two principles of justice as fairness, for all these reasons, will not produce a meritocratic society, where "equality of opportunity means an equal chance to leave the less fortunate behind" in the exclusive pursuit of ever greater personal advantage. Meritocracy results in an ever-widening chasm between those gifted in intelligence, ambition, and social position and those who are not so gifted, creating an instability that threatens the order of society. Instead, justice as fairness counts self-worth as among the essential primary goods. Self-worth is fostered when inequalities are constrained by a society that seeks to provide enrichment and support for all of its members.

18. Principles for Individuals: The Principle of Fairness

Rawls presents a schematic diagram that illustrates all the necessary components of a full "concept of right" and the order in which principles for each component are properly chosen. First, principles for institutions are chosen so as to give society its basic structure. Next, the principles for individuals are selected because their rights and duties are ordered by the institutional structure of a society. Principles governing "the law of nations" are chosen last. In justice as fairness, the right is what is fair; therefore in this context, the idea of rightness can be understood as that which would be chosen by persons in the original position.

The principle of fairness describes the nature of the obligations individuals have to the social institutions that benefit them. Individuals are to keep these obligations, which are defined by the rules of the institution, as long as the institution is just and the individual has chosen voluntarily to interact with the institution. It follows that an individual cannot have an obligation to an unjust institution. However, if an institution is just, it is unjust for individuals to choose to benefit themselves through "the cooperative labors of others" that compromise the institution unless they do their "fair share."

19. Principles for Individuals: The Natural Duties

Natural duties are different from obligations because they do not arise from our consent, voluntary action, or through specific contact with an institution. While obligations are owed to specific entities or persons, natural duties are owed by each person to all other persons in general. The natural duties may be positive (requiring action) or negative (requiring abstaining from action). The positive natural duties include the duty of mutual aid, which requires we offer help when it is needed as long as we do not enter into danger ourselves in doing so. Another is the natural duty of justice, requiring we support and participate in "just institutions that exist and apply to us." In other words, we have a duty to participate in the society in which we live, as long as that society is basically just. An example of a negative natural duty is the prohibition that we should not kill.

Individuals are not only subject to natural duties and obligations but to another class of actions called "permissions," which we are free either to do or not to do. These include the "supererogatory" acts such as heroism and self-sacrifice. While we are required by the duty of mutual aid to help another when we can be reasonably safe while doing so, imperiling ourselves to help another is a choice rather than a duty.


In this chapter, Rawls gives the first in-depth statement of his theory of justice. This is not the final statement; Rawls will continue to clarify, modify, and expand the theory throughout the text as he further considers each part, especially in light of possible objections or comparisons to other theories of justice. Because this chapter comes so early in the text and provides a reasonably complete approximation of the final form of Rawls's theory, it will be instructive to step back from the specific propositions themselves and examine, as Rawls himself is constantly doing, the structure of the argument in terms of moral epistemology.

Moral epistemology is the branch of ethics concerned with understanding the basis of moral knowledge. The primary questions of moral epistemology concern how it is possible to know something, on what basis propositions or arguments may be justified, and how it is possible to defend one set of propositions or arguments with respect to another.

Rawls defends the choice of the principles in the original position by claiming that he arrived at them through deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is a type of logic, and deductive arguments are set up so that if all the premises are true, a true conclusion is guaranteed. Its opposite, inductive reasoning, does not guarantee a true conclusion from true premises. In deductive arguments, no gray area exists; the truth of the outcome is guaranteed instead of being simply probable or reasonable from the premises. Therefore, it is worth examining Rawls's claim of deductive reasoning to reach the principles of justice from the original position.

Rawls has proposed a hypothetical situation of the relationship between the original position and the two principles of justice. In attempting to fit this hypothetical situation to deductive standards of validity, Rawls imposes a number of specific constraints on the individuals in the original position, such as their rationality, mutual disinterest, circumscribed knowledge, and others. Given the specific constraint—namely, that the parties know they have higher-order aims and interests but do not know what these happen to be, nor their position in society or indeed any specific facts about their society at all—can the choice of the first principle of equal liberty be counted as a valid deductive conclusion? On the other hand, counting the first principle as a valid deductive conclusion, can the choice of the difference principle as the second principle be validly deduced? The answer depends on the precise definition of validity. Discerning this definition then presents another problem because, in fact, there are several ways to state the definition using slightly different language. Validity might rest finally on the lack of a counterexample where the truth value of premises and conclusion is reversed. Still, it might hinge on the term certainty. This discussion of the difficulty of pinning down standards past a certain point illustrates the slippery and ultimately irresolvable nature of many of the questions raised in evaluating the epistemological claims of a moral argument. Rawls makes it clear to the reader that he is aware of these difficulties, and, while he does his best to address and reduce them where appropriate, he also admits the impossibility of considering every contingency in an argument. This modesty in his reasoning is reflected in his stated aim of providing not an incontestable statement of truth but rather a reasonably helpful or feasible set of concepts that encourage the values of critical thinking, careful examination, and deliberate reasoning.
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