A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 1, Chapter 3 : Theory (The Original Position) | Summary



20. The Nature of the Argument for Conceptions of Justice

In selecting the two principles of justice as fairness, Rawls has undergone a process of reasoning that is not unique. The original position is a description of "a simplified situation ... in which rational individuals" who are related to one another in a specific way meet to "choose among various courses of action in view of their knowledge of the circumstances." Given this hypothetical situation, deductive reasoning is then applied to determine what choice the hypothetical persons would agree upon. The assumption is that each would choose the option that advances his or her own goals the most while permitting others to advance their own interests in the same way. This agreement represents a state of equilibrium, for it is the only rational choice given the circumstances and will not change unless the circumstances do.

However, the moral quality of the choice is not a product of the state of equilibrium but rather of the specific restrictions in the original position. The situation is a matter of pure procedural justice because the process of choice is undertaken by moral equals and is removed from "arbitrary contingencies or the relative balance of social forces." This fair process guarantees a fair choice.

21. The Presentation of Alternatives

Ideally, persons in the original position choose their principles from a list of "all possible conceptions of justice." The impossibility of defining every potential conception of justice necessitates the use of a simplification device, which Rawls presents as a list of "traditional conceptions of justice." The idea is that the parties are required to come to a consensus, or unanimous agreement, by "making a series of comparisons" between pairs of principles. Each principle on the list is unconditional, meaning it would apply regardless of social contingencies or special circumstances.

22. The Circumstances of Justice

The circumstances in which justice is relevant are "the normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary." Because cooperation entails both an identity of interests, wherein individuals work together to produce mutual benefit, as well as a conflict of interests, wherein each individual naturally prefers more rather than fewer benefits, principles of justice are necessary to regulate the distribution of such benefits.

Although they join together to cooperate for a common end, individuals possess a diversity of plans of life, belief systems, and psychological profiles. This diversity means individuals will make conflicting claims upon the available resources, which are not unlimited but are assumed to be moderately scarce. In addition, they have obligations to other individuals—namely their immediate descendants.

To simulate this last point, the original position can include the constraint that the parties "wish all preceding generations to have followed the very same principles." This idea approximates the ties of familial obligation that motivate individuals without making the situation too contingent on specific associations or alliances. The other assumptions—that the parties are mutually disinterested in one another and possess rational long-term plans for their lives, the specific content of which they themselves do not know—ensure that the original position would produce behavior that models the behavior of actual persons while removing the bias that specific interests and associative ties would introduce into the process of choice.

23. The Formal Constraints of the Concept of Right

The limitations imposed by the original position mean the options of choice are themselves restricted. There are five:

  • First, the veil of ignorance ensures that the principles chosen will be generally applicable, meaning they are not tied to any particular external information or circumstances. This requirement of generality ensures that they will be unconditional and applicable in any place and time.
  • Additionally, there is an upper limit on how complex the principles may be because they must apply to all persons regardless of their capacity for intellectual understanding. This is the requirement of universality.
  • The third condition is that the principles have publicity, meaning they are chosen with the understanding that they will be known to all persons. As such, the principles "should have desirable effects and support the stability of social cooperation."
  • Fourth, the principles must be able to assign a priority order to claims that conflict with one another.
  • Fifth, the principles chosen must have finality, meaning they are suitable to be the highest authority within society. The principles "override the demands of law and custom, and of social rules."

These five conditions serve to define a "conception of right," and while they do not exclude any traditional theories of justice, they do exclude the forms of egoism known as "general egoism," "first-person dictatorship" and "free-rider egoism." General egoism, when each individual does what it takes to advance their own interests, is prohibited by the fourth constraint of ordering claims and is in fact what the parties would be forced to choose if they were unable to come to a consensus otherwise. First-person dictatorship and free-rider egoism, wherein a person enjoys the benefits of social cooperation without fulfilling their obligations to the appropriate institutions, are excluded by the condition of generality.

24. The Veil of Ignorance

The original position is designed with the goal of pure procedural justice in mind. It also seeks to produce a conception of justice that will "generate its own support" by tending to inspire a desire to comply and uphold its principles in those who are subject to them. The embrace of ideas of justice by a population produces stability within society. The veil of ignorance creates the conditions that ensure that justice as fairness will be upheld by citizens and therefore society will be stable. By eliminating the parties' specific knowledge of themselves and the "circumstances of their own society," while at the same time allowing these persons to have knowledge of "general facts about human society" (such as an understanding of economics and politics), obstacles that stand in the way of these goals are removed. It becomes impossible for any party to bargain for their own advantage or for individuals to join together in coalitions bound by similar interests.

Because the veil of ignorance makes all the parties in this hypothetical situation equal, each would presumably choose the same principle and, therefore, a consensus could be reached. The implication is that the original position can be considered from the viewpoint of an individual selected at random from all those assembled. Additionally, the original position is formulated to be a point of view that will lead to the same conclusion of principles no matter by whom it is adopted, where they live, or in what era they live. Together, these constraints serve to simplify a very complex choice to a manageable level while ensuring that the principles chosen are the only ones that would earn the consensus agreement of moral and equal persons.

25. The Rationality of the Parties

Rationality is defined as a quality of a person who has "a coherent set of preferences between the options open to him." The rationality of the parties in the original position means they each have (and know they have) a rational plan for their life wherein they will seek to maximize their own good while the veil of ignorance ensures they do not know what their conception of a good or rational plan specifically consists of. This position ensures that they will be moved to choose principles that "protect their liberties, widen their opportunities, and enlarge their means for promoting their aims," no matter what those aims are. The parties are also mutually disinterested, so they are not troubled by envy, which tends to have a destabilizing effect on society. Instead, they possess a feeling of worth that makes them seek to protect their own unknown ends without being destructive to the ends of others. Additionally, each party has a sense of justice and knows the others possess the same. This sense produces a state of trust among the parties that all will act in good faith to choose principles they intend to uphold.

26. The Reasoning Leading to the Two Principles of Justice

Because the parties in the original position are unable to bargain, there is no reason for any person to be given more or to expect less than an equal share. Therefore, it is logical that the first principle chosen would specify equality of liberty, opportunity, and income. It would then occur to them that "economic efficiency and the requirements of organization and technology" might introduce inequalities that would benefit them all; such inequalities would be rationally permitted. This would lead to the first principle being modified to allow the incorporation of the difference principle, which addresses inequalities in the distribution of goods.

Further support for this serial choice of principles rests in the conception each party has of themselves as free persons. Because they have "fundamental aims and interests," which they seek to advance but which they desire the liberty to revise at any time, they have an interest "in how all their other interests ... are shaped and regulated by social institutions." Therefore, they would choose the two principles of justice and fairness instead of the principle of utility.

A more formal argument for these principles is the "maximum rule for choice under uncertainty." This rule specifies that the best choice among alternatives with bad outcomes is that which has the least bad outcome. Imagining that the persons were to choose principles under the knowledge that their place in society would be decided by their enemy, it becomes clear that the principles of justice and fairness would be an appropriate choice. In contrast to utilitarianism, which is open to a variety of configurations because of its reliance on facts rather than moral ideals, justice as fairness ensures that the interests of all are protected by embedding moral ideals into its principles.

27. The Reasoning Leading to the Principle of Average Utility

In contrast to the principle of classical utility, which seeks to maximize net utility or satisfaction of society as a whole, the principle of average utility seeks to maximize the amount of utility allotted to each individual when expressed in terms of an average. When population is constant, both versions of the principle have the same value, but when population expands and other forces remain the same, net utility rises while per-capita or average utility drops. The implication is that societies guided by the classical principle should be arranged to encourage constant population growth that is slow enough to prevent a precipitous drop in the average utility.

Of the two principles, the average principle is "the more plausible utilitarian alternative to the two principles of justice." Rawls imagines a person in the original position faced with the choice of joining a society where either the average or the classical principle of utility prevails. As in contract theories, this person seeks to maximize their well-being through rational choice. Assuming this person has an equal chance of attaining any given position in the social and economic hierarchy of either society, he or she can perform probability calculations to demonstrate that his or her prospects in either society are identical with the average utility of that society. Assuming the person is risk-averse, it is rational for him or her to choose the society governed by the average utility principle because in the society governed by the classical principle, there is a chance that his or her prospects will be below average.

28. Some Difficulties with the Average Principle

Having argued that it is more rational for an individual in the original position to choose the principle of average utility over the principle of classical utility as the basis for the society he or she will enter, Rawls now examines the flaws in this choice by showing that the two principles of justice as fairness are the most rational choices of all. The first problem is that the individual, in favoring average utility, has assumed without any basis whatsoever that he or she has an equally likely probability of finding himself or herself in any given position within society. This calculation is based on "the principle of insufficient reason," which is used when no information is available and assumes all outcomes are equally likely. However, because there are no facts offered that suggest this probability calculation is based in reality, it is an insufficient argument for the average principle being a rational choice. Justice as fairness must be preferred to the average principle because it gives the certainty that one's liberties and a decent minimum of primary goods are guaranteed.

Another criticism has to do with the fact that utility, or the satisfaction of desire, consists of different ends for different persons. In fact, "there are as many distinct persons as there are utilities." The reasoning for the average principle of utility does not take this into account. Instead, it assumes the satisfactions of each person can be computed according to the same criteria. This assumption fails to honor each individual's status as a "determinate-person" with "certain highest-order interests and fundamental ends." These ends vary from person to person, but each person has an interest in advancing his or her particular ends as well as protecting his or her liberty to change him or her as he or she wishes. In justice as fairness, these rights are guaranteed for all persons in society, whatever their positions or ends, while the argument for average utility places no importance on people's individual ends, instead assuming they achieve satisfaction in the same way all others do and, therefore, have "no definite character or will." Once again, the logical preference of principles is shown to be justice as fairness.

29. Some Main Grounds for the Two Principles of Justice

Having established the preference of justice as fairness over the average principle of utility, Rawls now presents arguments for his principles in terms of two conditions: publicity and finality. The original situation is such that the choice of principles is final, meaning it applies perpetually and is not open to renegotiation at a later date. The idea of "strains of commitment" means those who enter into an agreement should do so "in good faith," with confidence that they can fulfill it and that others will do the same, whatever the outcome. It is difficult to imagine that people could agree, in good faith, to the principle of utility that may very well mean their liberties are sacrificed for the common good. This is not an issue in justice as fairness, where liberties are guaranteed and inequalities are restricted to those that bring about benefits to all.

The second condition, publicity, relates to the problem of stability in society. Rawls writes that "a conception of justice is stable when the public recognition of its realization by the social system" causes citizens to adopt the conception as their own. Because of its concern with the good of each individual, justice as fairness will be appealing to all. Further, it has embedded in its principles the idea of mutual respect, which increases each individual's sense of self-respect. Self-respect is one of the primary goods and is "the sense that one's plan" of life "is worth carrying out." The principles communicate that persons are not means to ends but worthy ends in themselves. By contrast, the condition of publicity within a utilitarian society promotes a "loss of self-esteem" for the most disadvantaged and makes it more difficult for all "to be confident of their own worth." Utilitarianism does not place the same value on the individual that the principles of justice do, instead viewing each man as part of a sum that must be maximized.

30. Classical Utilitarianism, Impartiality, and Benevolence

Rawls explains the justification for the classical principle of utility, which is the historically more favored form but which he has already shown would, to the persons in the original position, be less preferable than the average principle of utility. As conceived by philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, the classical principle defines the right in terms of the approval of "an ideally rational and impartial spectator" possessing full knowledge of the circumstances. While this idea alone provides no principles for which to assess his approval, a deductive argument can be made by assuming the spectator is perfectly sympathetic. As such, he experiences the satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) of others as his own, and so after he considers the relative satisfaction of each individual in a society, "the strength of his approval corresponds to ... the amount of satisfaction in the society surveyed," or utility.

Rawls criticizes this idea because it "fails to take seriously the distinction between persons." Further, because the spectator's approval leads to the classical principle of utility, the point remains that such a principle would still be rejected by the persons in the original position. The only way they would accept this principle is if they were "perfect altruists," who counted their well-being entirely in terms of the satisfaction of others. It is impossible for the persons in the original position to all be altruists, however, because justice is relevant only where there are conflicting claims. To argue from the other direction, one may imagine people who are supposed to choose principles they would embrace knowing they are "to divide into a plurality" of distinct individuals with various interests. This argument will show whether adding love or benevolence to the original position will result in the choice of the classical principle. Rawls contends it would not because, as love seeks to advance the good of the beloved, the problem of seeking to advance the interests of many beloveds, each with conflicting claims, would make the choice of the utility principle an impossibly murky one. However, the two principles of justice and fairness would be a sensible choice for such a person because they would provide the assurance that each beloved is protected by the same "equal representation as moral persons." The arguments against utilitarianism, both in its average and classical forms, are now complete.


The grounds on which Rawls argues for the selection of the two principles of justice are the structure on which the heart of his theory rests and ripe for critical assessment. One mode of criticism involves examining together the principles and rules Rawls uses to justify the choice of principles from various angles of consideration and thereby gain a better understanding of his strategy and its validity. Part of this examination is to keep an eye out for possible contradictions or flawed correspondences.

Rawls claims that justice as fairness is part of the lineage of the contract theories of justice, and indeed he continually refers to the agreement made by individuals under the veil of ignorance in the original position. Not only does this agreement justify the central axioms of Rawls's theory, it also serves as the criteria of choice regarding matters of justice in all specific circumstances. Thus, readers can examine what is meant by a contract from a legal and traditional point of view and can examine the process and features of the original position to see if in fact it represents a contractual situation. Another examination can consider the various parts of the justification Rawls provides to better understand how each functions to advance his argument.

Contract is a legal term defined as an agreement enforceable by law. Contracts have certain aspects that determine they are, in fact, contracts and that they are valid contracts. A key feature of contracts is that they are the result of an offer made from one party to another, which is accepted by the second party under conditions conducive to proper decision-making. Mutual obligations arise out of a contract. Given this definition of a contract, the next question is if what occurs in the original position under the veil of ignorance is actually a contract. Interestingly, in Rawls's agreement from the original position, the contract is not enforceable by law, at least not in the usual sense, because it is what gives rise to the law. Another consideration is that the parties involved in the contract are veiled in ignorance and lack specific information about their own interests and identity, which they will presumably regain once the veil is lifted after the contract is agreed to. Therefore, the original position resembles the position of an actual person who is about to sign a contract without knowing how it will affect them later because they temporarily lack the capacity to understand such ideas. This lack of understanding raises additional speculation about the validity of such agreements.

Of course, in Rawls's theory, this ignorance is precisely the point. The contract of the original position derives its weight as a regulative device precisely because it inverts the normal conditions that give rise to binding contracts. One must therefore consider what adding the veil of ignorance to the contract situation is actually doing for Rawls's argument. The answer can be found later in the text, in the chapter on distributive shares. "The original position is so characterized that unanimity is possible; the deliberations of any one person are typical of all," states Rawls. Because the veil of ignorance removes all knowledge of distinguishing characteristics between the individuals in the original position, the group decision may also be understood as the decision of a single person, according to Rawls: "If anyone after due reflection prefers a conception of justice to another, then they all do." Given such a situation, it is doubtful whether a contract may arise, variously characterized as that of a group of people all coming to the same conclusion by the same process of reasoning and also as that of a single person making a single choice. If this is not a contract, but something else—then it might not really justify Rawls's theory.

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