A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 2, Chapter 5 : Institutions (Distributive Shares) | Summary



41. The Concept of Justice in Political Economy

Political economy refers to "economic arrangements and policies" and the institutions behind them. Because the economic system not only serves existing needs and wants but creates future wants, it shapes what kind of people a society produces. Therefore, the design of economic and social institutions must not be made solely on the basis of efficiency but must be made with political and moral concerns in mind.

Justice as fairness provides an "Archimedean point," a way to step outside bias and preconceived notions, for contemplating the ideal structure of society. This process begins with an "ideal conception of the person" who desires primary social goods—"things that men are presumed to want whatever else they want"—and is considered to have specific plans and goals, which are left undefined. This open-endedness does not place restrictions on the types of persons a society will produce. It allows for a unanimous agreement on foundational principles that give rise to imperfect procedural justice. The constraints present on the "conception of the good" are that it must be in line with justice, and that the system designed to distribute primary goods must create stability by creating a sense of justice—and the desire to uphold justice—in individuals.

42. Some Remarks about Economic Systems

Rawls states that his interest in political economy is to test the usefulness of justice as fairness as a means for evaluating the justice of these practical matters. Political economy comprises the public sector—that part of the economy controlled by the government rather than by private interests—and the institutions that support it. Its role is to regulate the production and distribution of goods. The public sector may control all or part of the means of production. The public sector also devotes a certain amount of its resources to public goods, which are conditions that benefit all members of the public equally, such as governmental protection against attack by other nations. Public goods are financed by the contributions of the citizenry, which introduces the "free rider problem." It is possible for individuals to withhold their contribution, like not paying taxes, without receiving a diminished amount of the public good. This contradiction is referred to as the "problem of isolation," for while each free rider acts in their own best interest by withholding their contribution, the overall effect of many persons acting as free riders is one of diminished collective benefit. The problem of assurance arises from this problem of isolation because if any individual is to contribute to public goods, he or she must be reassured that others are contributing the same. In light of this fact, the state must enforce collective agreements backed up with penalties for noncompliance to ensure the supply of necessary public goods.

Free-market supply-and-demand economic systems produce commodities at the price and in the quantity that reflects the public's preference for such goods. Whether the means of production is privately or publicly owned does not affect the freedom of individuals to participate in the market as they wish in terms of choosing their career or employer. Issues of savings and investment are also not directly correlated to the ownership of the means of production. The free market has the benefit of efficiency and of complying with the principles of liberty and opportunity.

However, there is one difference in the way the free market is used between socialist and private-property societies. Socialist societies tend to harness the allocative function of prices by capturing portions of the market and channeling them into a variety of state-owned projects designed to produce efficiency. In contrast, the distributive role of prices is based on the relationship between an individual's contribution to production and the income he or she receives in turn.

43. Background Institutions for Distributive Justice

Distributive justice's main concern is the design of the social system. Justice as fairness, in seeking to achieve pure procedural justice, seeks a design that will inevitably result in a just distribution. This does not naturally arise within a democratic state of private ownership; therefore, certain institutions are necessary as corrections. To achieve fair equality of opportunity, government subsidies for education and income, as well as policies that regulate private companies, are used.

Rawls describes four branches of government, each with a specific function regarding the background institutions that support the outcome of a just distribution. An allocation branch regulates the market through policies, taxes, and subsidies, with the end of checking the market's tendency toward inefficiency and the unreasonable accumulation of power. It works together with a stabilization branch, charged with supporting a healthy and diverse job market, to ensure that the market economy functions efficiently. Because the competition of the free market does not take social need into consideration, a transfer branch is necessary to attend to such needs by ensuring there is a "social minimum" of economic welfare. The distribution branch works with the tax system and property-rights system to ensure there is a just distribution of primary goods. The goal of these branches together is the creation and maintenance of a society "in which land and capital are widely though not presumably equally held" in compliance with the two principles of justice. While this specific description is made to fit a system of private ownership, the principles of justice could also be met within a liberalist socialist regime, although the necessary institutions to ensure this would be somewhat different.

Rawls also describes a possible fifth branch, an exchange branch, charged with the distribution of public goods within a society that has achieved a just distribution of primary goods. This branch would evaluate the public interest in certain public goods and allocate resources for such public goods according to "Wicksell's unanimity criterion." This requires that the allocation of taxpayer funds be unanimously agreed upon, for this reflects "an efficient use of social resources." A choice of payment schemes must be presented to the public, and if unanimity is not achieved, the proposed expenditure is assumed to be wasteful and therefore rejected.

44. The Problem of Justice between Generations

Rawls considers the difficult problem of addressing the need for justice between generations. The advancements of culture and civilization, the established just institutions, and the accumulation of wealth must be secured by each generation to a degree that raises the prospects of the least advantaged members of future generations. A balance must be reached between the social minimum for the present generation, and the proportion of wealth that is set aside to ensure future generations have the material resources necessary to maintain just institutions.

This requires the adoption of "an appropriate savings principle," which is the means by which "each generation makes a contribution to those coming later and receives from its predecessors." The savings principle is a rule that requires the rate of capital put aside to correlate with the wealth of the society. It is no longer needed once just institutions and basic liberties become entrenched within the society. The obligation to future generations in this case becomes the maintenance and preservation of such conditions.

To ensure the parties in the original position take into account obligations to future generations, two constraints are added. The first is that the parties are considered to be members of families who feel a familial obligation to their immediate offspring. The second constraint requires "that the principle adopted must be such that they wish all earlier generations to have followed it." Because it is evaluated from the perspective of the "least advantaged in each generation," the just savings principle is a constraint upon the difference principle.

45. Time Preference

Pure time preference refers to the favoring of something solely on the basis of its position in time. The parties in the original position are assumed to lack pure time preference. As it is irrational for an individual to define his or her life on the basis of moments that are nearer in time to the present, it is also unjust when a society, holding to pure time preference, permits that "the living take advantage of their position in time to favor their own interests." Rawls notes, "the collective will concerning the provision for the future is subject, as all other social decisions are, to the principles of justice."

46. Further Cases of Priority

The just savings principle can be required to save on behalf of another. The argument could be made that if there are enormous long-term advantages to be had, the just savings principle may be discarded as an upper limit. An example from history is the analysis of British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), who contended that the extreme income inequality prior to World War I was the only reason the standard of living rose so much in the following years. In fact, Keynes used this argument to justify capitalism. Rawls objects that there are ways to raise the well-being of a society that do not violate the principles of economic justice to this degree. There have also been many arguments made against the idea of fair equality of opportunity and in favor of a hierarchical social structure with aristocratic features. These arguments hold that this highly educated and wealthy class is necessary for the proper administration of a society and that such stratification, in this way, is in fact a benefit to the common good.

Rawls rejects these arguments but points out that they adhere to the right form as they turn on the idea that inequalities are necessary for greater prospects for all. The justification for such a contention relies on being able to prove that such stratification, if eliminated, would be so damaging to society that it would damage the prospects of society's most disadvantaged even more. He clarifies the meaning of equality of opportunity by pointing out that it refers to the availability of equal prospects between sections of society rather than between individuals. The quality in this manner between individuals is impossible to attain because family circumstances so profoundly affect the aspirations and possibilities of an individual.

Rawls states the two principles of justice in their final form. The second principle has been appended to include the condition that inequalities are "consistent with the just savings principle," and the first priority rule, the priority of liberty, mandates that "liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty itself," and what form such restrictions may take. A second priority rule has been added, "the priority of justice over efficiency and welfare," which (a) states the priority of the second principle of justice over the principle of efficiency and the utility principle, (b) clarifies that fair opportunity has priority with respect to the difference principle, and (c) mandates that hardships must be mitigated, on balance, by an excessive rate of saving.

47. The Precepts of Justice

Rawls considers the principles of justice as fairness in light of "the common sense precepts of justice." Noting how the same general commonsense precepts of justice tend to arise in individuals regardless of their societies' conceptions of justice, Rawls claims the difference lies in the relative weight or priority attached to these various commonsense precepts. These commonsense ideas also tend to shift social conditions in terms of how they are balanced. Rawls cautions the necessity of remembering that these precepts have a deceptive quality in that they tend to figure into citizens' thought processes heavily but that they are derivative of contingencies and, therefore, cannot suffice as a first principle in a theory of justice. In fact, principles of justice cannot be properly weighted in the absence of the "surrounding arrangements required by the principles of justice."

48. Legitimate Expectations and Moral Desert

Rawls argues against the commonsense idea that expectations of primary goods should be correlated to how morally deserving a person is. This idea is rejected by justice as fairness because it would not be chosen by the parties in the original position. The intrinsic worth of a person has nothing to do with the expectations they are entitled to and is, therefore, not appropriate matter for distributive justice. The concept of moral worth does not enter into play until after the principles of justice. After these principles are embedded, moral worth gains its meaning of "having a sense of justice." Rawls tackles the argument that it is unjust for those who have greater moral worth not to have a corresponding greater amount of distributive shares. He claims this false conclusion arises from considering distributive justice and retributive justice as opposites. Those who are subject to the punishments of retributive justice by their failure to uphold the law are seen as having a lower moral worth, and so it makes sense that those with higher moral worth be rewarded. Rawls claims this is a category error as is the idea that income inequality and inequality of power exist solely to encourage greater quality, efficiency, and justice. Moreover, this account about the distribution of primary goods is an ideal that is part of strict compliance theory while the matter of retributive justice is a matter of partial compliance theory.

49. Comparison with Mixed Conceptions

A mixed conception of justice is formed when the first principle of justice is held and the principle of utility, along with other ideas, is substituted for the difference principle. Because mixed conceptions hold the principle of equal liberty, the argument for liberty cannot be used against them. Therefore, arguments must clearly show the advantage of the difference principle over the principle of utility. The difficulty is introduced because, when calculating acceptable social minimum with a mixed conception, the outcome appears the same as that given by justice as fairness. It remains to identify the principal that underlies this outcome. However, the difference principle is favored in a democratic society because of its inherent "appeal to the common interest." Unlike intuitionistic conceptions, the difference principle makes clear demands, is easily interpreted, and is precisely applied. In contrast, the principle of utility demands some measure of average utility be found. Any measurement of this sort is "arbitrary from a moral point of view" because it depends on external contingencies and value judgments. Interpersonal comparisons are clearly discerned on the basis of primary goods when the difference principle is invoked. Therefore, in light of the difficulties with measuring utility, the two principles of justice together form a conception that is "preferable and far simpler to apply."

50. The Principle of Perfection

Rawls examines justifications for the two variants of the teleological theory of perfectionism as a conception to guide society. The first variant is strict perfectionism, espoused by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), which consists solely of the principle of perfection; it states that society ought to be ordered so as to maximize human excellence. The second variant, held by Aristotle, is an intuitionistic theory, which holds the principle of perfection as one among several principles, which are variously weighted according to intuition.

Rawls introduces a distinction between ideal-regarding principles and want-regarding principles. Want-regarding principles are solely concerned with the total quantity and distribution of want-satisfaction, which is quantified by the same standard regardless of its source in specific desires. Ideal-regarding principles such as perfectionism and the principles of justice, do not take want-satisfaction as a primary criterion; rather, these principles have embedded in them an ideal that must be met before other criteria are considered relevant.

Strict perfectionism "would be rejected in the original position" because the parties have no way of knowing their own conception of the good or whether it is shared with the others. However, they know they have an undefined conception of the good, and so it is in their best interest to choose a foundation of equal liberty in order to protect their undefined interests. To choose "a standard of value to define what is to be maximized" is to imperil their freedom if it turns out that their own standards of value do not accord with the one selected. By selecting equal liberty for all, they ensure their freedom to pursue their own excellence, whatever it may be, with the assurance that "the coercive apparatus of the state" will not diminish their rights or share of primary goods as a result of this pursuit.

The second, intuitionistic variant of perfectionism has the fault of imprecision. Because there are no set criteria for judging what constitutes human excellence, as well as no set priority order of principles, it is unstable as a standard for structuring society or settling conflicting claims. Therefore, it, too, must be rejected.

Having completed his examination of the principles that could suitably guide institutions, Rawls concludes that justice as fairness "appears to match our common sense convictions more accurately than its traditional rivals," and, therefore, is a suitable alternative to these other conceptions.


Rawls's economic stance is often called welfare economics. Welfare economics assumes that the welfare of persons is closely related to the scheme of economic distribution within a society. In welfare economics, an economic system in a society is arranged and regulated with a view to protecting the welfare of its citizens.

Two key elements of Rawls's proposed economic scheme that arise out of the application of the second principle of justice are the social minimum and the just savings principle. Rawls presents these elements as grounded on the fact that they would be chosen in the original position under the veil of ignorance. Since the parties are blind to their economic status or class, it is in their best interest to ensure a minimum guaranteed level of economic well-being, or social minimum. However, it is harder to argue that the parties would choose a just savings principle as part of their economic system. A just savings principle requires each generation to put aside some part of its collective wealth as a sort of insurance that future generations will have the necessary resources to establish and maintain just institutions and to raise the level of human cultural and technological excellence. This standard prevents any one generation from "robbing" future generations through wasteful and unwise allocation of resources that depletes wealth while also damaging the existing institutional structure.

Choosing these two mechanisms of the social minimum and the just savings principle are matters of intergenerational justice. The foundation of theories of intergenerational justice is the idea that generations have certain moral obligations to one another, much like persons who are contemporaries. However, this presents a difficulty regarding the persons in the original position. Their mutual disinterest seems to be incompatible with the desire to ensure the welfare of future generations, which the adoption of a just savings principle implies. To resolve this incompatibility, Rawls argues for a certain conception of the significance of generations spread through time and then places constraints on the parties, which manages to situate concern for future generations within a person's own self-interest. Rawls's argument is that the division of people into generations separated by time is both inalterable and arbitrary. To favor one's generation or immediate descendants over persons in more remote generations is to exhibit bias on the basis of pure time preference, which Rawls rejects as a criterion for decision-making because it is arbitrary. Because it is inalterable and arbitrary, discriminating against future generations, who did not choose and cannot help their position in time, is as unjust as discriminating against persons on the basis of other fixed characteristics that are the result of the arbitrary "natural lottery," such as ethnicity or sex.

Having established that intergenerational concern is a matter that must be addressed by just policies, Rawls is then forced to modify the characteristics of the original position to ensure the adoption of a just savings principle. These constraints—that the people in the original position know they belong to families and are moved by concern for their offspring, and that they must choose principles they wish previous generations would have chosen—force the parties to view intergenerational concerns as a matter of their own self-interest.

This bit of tinkering with the original position reflects a core value of Rawls and his theory of justice as fairness: compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy is the ability to understand another person's situation, to feel with them as they feel, and also to have the motivation to work toward helping them or remedying an underlying injustice when circumstances warrant. Because of the theory's emphasis on the welfare of the disadvantaged and the equality of all persons, it seems Rawls personally placed a high value on empathy. However, empathy is not at all part of his argument for the theory. Indeed, he criticizes utilitarianism's reliance on the perfectly sympathetic spectator, claiming it is unreasonable for persons to be expected to possess sympathy to the degree the theory requires.

Justice as fairness, then, can be seen as an attempt to cultivate empathetic social systems in a world that is naturally much more attuned to self-interest than empathy. Rawls's genius is in coaxing outcomes that are by their nature empathetic from persons who may or may not feel empathetic but who are definitely assumed to be self-interested. The theory's basis in reason and logic rather than emotional responses communicates the conviction that people and societies must find a rational self-interested basis for acting in accordance with what empathy demands if societies are to be livable and humans are to reach their potential.

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