A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 3, Chapter 7 : Ends (Goodness as Rationality) | Summary



Having explained the theoretical foundation of justice as fairness in Part 1 and examined how it would find expression in institutions and in principles for individual behavior in Part 2, Rawls now checks the feasibility of his theory as an alternative to other theories of justice. This inquiry takes the form of two overarching investigations: whether a society founded on justice as fairness would be sufficiently stable, and whether the concepts of the right and the good, as defined by the thin theory of the good, can be shown to be in accord with one another. The section closes with Rawls concluding that he has accomplished his intended aim in presenting justice as fairness as an alternative preferable to utilitarianism.

60. The Need for a Theory of the Good

Rawls returns to the original position and explains that in supplying motivation for the parties' choice of the principles of justice, he has had to make an assumption regarding the parties' theory of the good. The assumption is that "a person's good is determined by what is for him the most rational plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances." His reliance on what he calls "the thin theory of the good" arose out of the necessity not to contradict the principle that in justice as fairness the concept of right is prior to that of the good. The thin theory of the good allowed Rawls to assume the parties would choose principles of justice that would secure sufficient basic primary goods for themselves.

While the thin theory of the good allows Rawls to derive his principles of justice, now that the principles are derived, the need arises for a full theory of the good that addresses other aspects of personhood, namely beneficent and supererogatory acts, the moral worth of persons, and whether good persons are benefitted by their being good persons.

Finally, if Rawls can use the thin theory of the good to make a successful case that "having and maintaining a sense of justice is a good" for citizens in a well-ordered society, "congruence" will be achieved. Congruence, meaning the "match between justice and goodness," will allow the conclusion to be drawn that "a well-ordered society [one where institutions are just and a public conception of justice prevails among its citizens] is as stable as one can hope for."

61. The Definition of Good for Simpler Cases

Rawls identifies three stages of defining the concept of goodness in the thin theory of the good. The first stage states that an entity is good if it has a higher-than-standard level of properties an individual would rationally desire for that entity, given its function. The second stage states that an entity is good for a person when its properties are rationally desirable for that person, given their aims in life and their particular aims regarding that entity. The third stage is the same as the second, with the additional constraint that the aims of the person in question, both general and particular, are rational aims.

The concept of goodness is in itself morally neutral. Rawls points out that "one may say of a man that he is ... a good assassin ... without approving of his skills."

However, the common way of speaking that characterizes individuals, for example, as good friends or good parents, gives the idea of the good moral weight. Such usage draws on the theory of virtues. The foundation of the theory of virtues is the principles that define what is right. It is this sense that is encompassed by the full theory of the good.

A conception of moral goodness, therefore, must be integrated with the principles of right and justice.

62. A Note on Meaning

Rawls offers clarification on the thin theory of the good by placing its meaning in the context of the descriptive theory of language: goodness as rationality uses the term good in its descriptive sense. The meaning is accounted for by the way in which it is commonly used—as a term of praise or in statements of advice—and there is no need to find a meaning external to this common usage. The meaning of good, in this descriptive sense, is like a "function sign." For each class of objects to which it is applied, good signifies the presence of properties that are rationally desirable in that class of objects.

63. The Definition of Good for Plans of Life

To make the theory of the good accord with the theory of justice, the assumption that a person's supposedly rational desires are in fact rational must be assessed. This assessment requires an extension of the definition of good to a person's plan of life. Rawls begins his argument that a person with a rational plan of life must therefore also hold a rational conception of good.

A rational plan of life, by definition, is one of many possible plans chosen in accordance with the theory of rational choice, which choice is confirmed as the most appropriate after it is considered with full deliberative rationality. Deliberative rationality refers to a careful consideration undertaken with full knowledge of a situation. This rational plan of life is the standard for all of a person's judgments of value and is, therefore, an integral part of the definition of the good. People are happy when they pursue their rational plan of life under favorable conditions with confidence they can fulfill it.

A rational plan of life takes into account the principle of postponement by allowing for uncertain future desires when it grows increasingly less specific in terms of more distant points in time. Another structural feature of a rational plan of life is that it is arranged according to the generality of desires, with its main parts securing "more permanent and general aims." Such a plan takes into account the necessity of scheduling time so the most important or valued aims can be pursued most efficiently. According to this definition of a plan, good things are "those activities and relationships which have a major place in rational plans." Primary goods are those things that are needed in order to successfully fulfill the other ends of the plan.

Rawls describes the principles of rational choice. The principle of effective means states that, given several alternatives each of which secures a desired outcome, the alternative that should be chosen is the one that creates the outcome most efficiently or allows the outcome to be fulfilled "to the fullest possible extent." The principle of inclusiveness applies to short-term plans. Given two plans that each fulfill a given outcome, the preferable choice is the one that fulfills other outcomes as well. This principle relates to the Aristotelian principle, which states human enjoyment increases with activities that are more complex and that work toward the greater realization of a person's capacity. A third principle, that of the greater likelihood, states that the plan with the greater likelihood of success ought to be chosen. By applying these principles, together known as counting principles, to a person's aims, that person can determine a plan that will achieve a maximum number of aims. Rationality, therefore, can be defined as the preference of "the greater means for realizing our aims, and the development of wider and more varied interests." It is thus possible to choose a rational plan of life, a choice that helps determine our future desires by entering us into a certain "pattern of wants and aspirations."

64. Deliberative Rationality

The counting principles of rational choice can provide a framework for reflecting upon our aims, but, in the end, we must choose according to the intensity of our desires. The underlying principle is to "maximize the expected net balance of satisfaction."

Rawls explains the concept of deliberative rationality. A choice made with deliberative rationality is arrived at after careful consideration, with full knowledge of relevant facts, of the expected course and outcomes of several choices. Assuming that the reasoning process is error-free, that the people have full knowledge of the situation, and that the people understand their aims clearly, a life plan chosen with deliberative rationality is the objectively rational life plan. Because it is not possible to have full information, deliberate rationality can lead us to choosing a life plan that is subjectively rational.

Usually an individual does not deliberate endlessly to select a plan but makes his or her choice when he or she finds one that satisfies "various minimum conditions." Deliberation should continue only to the point "where the likely benefits from improving our plan are just worth the time and effort of reflection."

Examining the nature of a person's desires or aims can clarify the "relative intensity" of these desires. This examination will reveal if the person holds desires that are "meaningless, or contradict well-established truths" or are based on erroneous beliefs. Time-related principles can also guide deliberative rationality, such as the principle of postponement and the rejection of pure time preference, which have already been described. Other applicable principles are the principle of continuity, which states "earlier and later activities ... affect one another," and the principle of rising expectations, which states "we should arrange things at the earlier stages" of life "so as to permit a happy life at the later ones."

In light of these ideas, Rawls offers the overall principle of responsibility to self, which holds that "a rational individual is always to act so that he need never blame himself," regardless of the final outcome of his efforts. The reader is reminded that this description of the deliberative process is hypothetical and meant "to provide a criterion for the good of the person."

65. The Aristotelian Principle

Now that Rawls has supplied formal, linked definitions for the good and for rationality, he examines the types of aims a rational plan of life might encourage. With a formal definition of the good, he now tries to draw some conclusion about the "sorts of ends these plans are likely to encourage."

Activities and ends that are suitable for having a central role in a life—such as friendship, beauty, work, and knowledge—are known as human goods. Like rational plans, the pursuit of human goods must be done in accordance with the principles of justice. Because these goods enhance not only the life of the individual pursuing them but the lives of others as well, they can be called complimentary goods.

The Aristotelian principle explains motivation and states that a person's enjoyment in his or her own abilities increases as his or her skill is developed or as the complexity of the skill increases. The companion principle to the Aristotelian principle addresses the nature of complimentary goods. When we experience the display of another's skill or talent, we find our desire aroused to realize that same talent in ourselves. Thus, we submit to the arduous process of developing skills. We make a rational choice to cease this effort at the point where the difficulty of continuing to develop the skill exceeds the "upper limits of our capacity."

66. The Definition of Good Applied to Persons

In the original position, Rawls used a thin theory of the good that links rationality to the preference for primary goods to derive the principles of justice. This theory of the good, being used as the foundation for a conception of justice or the right, is unable to encompass these ideas in itself and is morally neutral. Rawls now argues that a "full theory of goodness as rationality" can encompass the dimension of morality or rightness.

The moral virtues "are sentiments and habitual attitudes leading us to act on certain principles of right." A person of moral worth, which is to say a good person, has a greater-than-average amount of the "broadly based features of moral character" that persons in the original position would rationally desire in their fellow citizens. In this way, the theory of justice can be joined to the theory of the good.

From this idea proceeds the definition of a good or beneficent act as one we may freely choose that "advances and is intended to advance another's good (his rational plan)." A benevolent act similarly is undertaken "from the desire that the other should have this good." Benevolent actions that bring significant "loss or risk" to the person doing them are considered supererogatory actions.

This full theory of the good allows the assessment of varying degrees of moral worth, "or the lack of it." An unjust person violates the principles of justice for ends that would be considered legitimate, were they pursued differently. A bad person violates these principles for "the sense of mastery" such actions bring them, while the evil person violates justice for the sake of violating justice.

67. Self-Respect, Excellences, and Shame

Rawls uses goodness as rationality to explain his assertion that "the most important primary good is that of self-respect." Without self-respect, which includes both a sense of self-worth and confidence in one's abilities, humans cease to find value in their activities. The resultant negative emotional states undermine social cooperation.

Self-respect is bolstered when a person's sense of his or her own value is upheld by a life that satisfies the Aristotelian principle. When a person is shown esteem by people that person esteems, self-respect is also nurtured. Associative ties between persons help create a sense of self-value and provide the psychological assurance of a supportive community in case of crisis. Therefore, each person has a basic need for "at least one community of shared interests ... where he finds his endeavors confirmed by his associates." Such community ties are possible in a well-ordered society.

When our self-respect or self-esteem is injured, we feel shame. In contrast, we feel regret when we experience the loss of our perceived good. Excellences are the qualities of personality, the "natural assets and abilities," that bring enjoyment to the possessor as well others. These include imagination, wit, beauty, and the moral virtues. We feel natural shame when we are aware we have failed to demonstrate excellences we rationally desire according to our plan of life. We feel moral shame when our demonstrated lack of virtues makes us feel diminished and unworthy of the esteem of those persons we value. This is distinct from guilt, which arises when we act in ways that are contrary to our conception of justice.

68. Several Contrasts between the Right and the Good

The particular relationship between the right and the good is the central aspect of any ethical doctrine, and so Rawls considers their relationship in the theory of justice as fairness. While the principles of justice and right are restricted by their being "chosen in the original position, the principles of rational choice," which determine the definition of good, are not restricted by the original position. The next difference is that conceptions of good differ significantly among individuals; the same cannot be said for conceptions of right. Third, evaluations of the good occur with complete knowledge of relevant facts. In contrast, the veil of ignorance is frequently necessary in matters that demand the use of the principles of justice.


To make the case for justice as fairness depended on showing that it is a conception of justice that will produce a stable society. This meant demonstrating that its members will have an internalized sense of justice that they will perceive as beneficial to themselves because they will then hold up its institutions and be bound together in civic friendship that enhances cooperation necessary for society to function. They will see justice as a good thing for them, so they will strive to act justly, and then society will function smoothly. In other words, Rawls needed to prove congruence, which means the citizens' conception of the good and their conception of the right, or justice, overlap.

The individuals in the original position do not have any interest in justice per se. They are rational and mutually disinterested, and their interest is only in securing the ability to carry out their own particular life plans, which are unknown to them. Their conception of the good, then, is that which will enable them to carry out these plans. Rawls calls the things necessary to carry out any plan of life "primary goods." This is the thin theory of the good—the theory that describes what constitutes a person's conception of their own good when they are ignorant, because of the veil of ignorance, of their particular circumstances, ends, and aims.

However, Rawls needed a full theory of the good that could account for a person's conception of the good when the veil of ignorance is lifted and they have full knowledge about society and their position in it. This full theory of the good needed to include justice as part of the citizen's conception of the good; otherwise the society ordered according to the two principles of justice would become unstable, being undermined by its own citizens, as each sought to cheat the system to maximize their benefit and minimize their contribution. It is the task of congruence to prove that the concept of justice will be accepted as part of their theory of the good by individuals living in society.

Rawls succeeds in this by linking goodness to justice through the ideas of moral virtues and rationality. In society, individuals define their good as that which helps them carry out their rationally chosen plan of life. Because they cannot carry out their plans if others are constantly infringing on their rights or refusing to cooperate with them, or if the institutions they depend on for necessary primary goods fail to live up to the expectations they have set for receiving these primary goods, individuals have a rational interest in their fellow citizens being moral people. They rationally prefer that others possess moral virtues, and a person with moral virtues is a just person. They have an interest also in the institutions of their society being just institutions. This means they themselves value justice, and so they will act justly themselves to receive justice from others and from society, and to be accepted into the just associations and communities that further their own aims in life. Therefore, they have a rational conception of their own good, which includes a sense of the value of their own morality or conception of justice. Justice and goodness are proved to be congruent because they are linked through rational self-interest.

Justice, and therefore a just society, is irrelevant if people do not accept justice as a good thing; they will then ignore the claims society makes on them, which are necessary for society to continue and undermine the structure of society with their own unjust behaviors. The just aspects of the society, at least, will not persist for very long. Much of the value of justice as fairness rests on the congruence between justice and goodness.

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