A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 3, Chapter 8 : Ends (The Sense of Justice) | Summary



69. The Concept of a Well-Ordered Society

Rawls argues his conception of justice as fairness surpasses other theories of justice in terms of creating stability within a society. Human nature suggests we are suited to internalizing a sense of justice when we benefit from it. Rawls's conception of a well-ordered society has as a defining characteristic a public conception of justice. This means individuals have internalized the society's conception of justice and there is general awareness that the same conception is shared among citizens. This contributes to social stability as well as individual wellbeing. Stability does not mean a lack of change but rather that external forces that would disrupt the persistent state of equilibrium are met by internal forces that will restore it.

Rawls considers the process that leads to an individual acquiring the moral sentiments, which include justice and are, therefore, directly linked to social stability. There are two schools of thought on this process. The first, empirical tradition is social-learning theory and is espoused by the utilitarians such as Hume and British philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900). Social-learning theory holds that individuals have motivation to do what is wrong, or injurious to others, and this motivation is gradually replaced by a motivation to do what is right, or beneficial to others. This shift in motivation is the result of the individual undergoing punishments from authority figures, such as parents, in response to wrong behavior. The second theory of moral learning comes from the rationalist tradition of thought and is espoused by Rousseau and Kant. It views the process of acquiring morality as a part of the natural development of the person's "innate intellectual and emotional capacities." As these are developed, the individual gains an understanding of the mutual benefits of moral behavior. Rawls espouses neither idea fully, claiming the complexity of human moral capacity is surely acquired through a variety of mechanisms.

70. The Morality of Authority

Rawls begins to describe a specific case of moral learning: the process by which an individual would internalize a sense of justice within a well-ordered society. This process occurs in stages, the first being the morality of authority. This is the primitive morality a child learns from the parents whom she loves and trusts. The child's love for her parents is aroused in response to their demonstrated love for her. Because she loves and trusts her parents, she accepts them as authority figures. She internalizes the precepts they offer not on the merit of those precepts but on the basis of their endorsement by parental authority.

71. The Morality of Association

The second stage of moral learning, the morality of association, begins in late childhood and continues throughout an individual's lifetime. This morality comprises the moral standards of the various communities the individual belongs to. The individual is compelled to adopt these standards on the basis of their use by the exemplars of these communities and as a means of ensuring the goodwill of their peers. This tendency toward moral emulation is explained by the companion effect to the Aristotelian principle.

These moral standards are commonsense precepts, tailored to fit the perspective of the individual who holds them. As time passes, the individual's moral standards change as their role in society changes. The process is one of acquiring ideals of increasing complexity. An important benchmark is the individual's acquisition of "the whole system of cooperation," which allows them to consider the perspectives of others. This capacity for identification with another person's perspective is a necessary condition for moral sensibility, but it can also be used to manipulate and exploit. In the same way that morality spreads throughout an association or community, morality of association also spreads throughout the entirety of a society.

72. The Morality of Principles

The more advanced stages of the morality of association involve an understanding of the principles of justice. However, the individual still acts justly only because they desire social approval. The next step, the morality of principles, involves a shift in motivation. The person begins to act justly out of a desire to be a just person.

An internalized sense of justice manifests itself in various ways. Individuals wish to do their part in society and accept its just institutions. They feel compelled to work for the establishment and maintenance of just institutions. Their sense of guilt arises in connection to their violations of the principles of justice rather than their failure to submit to the demands of authority or association. In this way, their moral attitudes are anchored to a concept of the right rather than to any external authority or situation. Their moral attitudes have become connected to their emotions, a connection that increases their emotions' power to regulate their life.

There are two forms to the morality of principles. The first form is characterized by a sense of rightness. It occurs at the stage when all of an individual's ideals are organized into a system of "suitably general principles." The second form is supererogatory and is connected to "the love of mankind and to self-command." The morality of self-command allows a person to comply with the demands of justice with "complete ease and grace." This morality becomes the supererogatory morality of the love of mankind when the individual chooses to act in ways that demonstrate high levels of virtue and that exceed what duty and obligation require.

73. Features of the Moral Sentiments

A sentiment is like an attitude but more enduring and regulative of one's life as a whole. Sentiments include "the sense of justice and the love of mankind." There are moral and natural sentiments. Moral sentiments, in time, give rise to "moral feelings" and "moral emotions." Moral attitudes reflect a person's acceptance of specific moral virtues.

Unlike normal feelings and emotions, a moral feeling is explained in terms of a moral concept and the principles behind that concept; it arises in response to "an acknowledged right or wrong." Moral feelings are distinguished from each other by the principles used to explain them. They may be explained by reference either to the concept of goodness or to the concept of right as it is defined by the original position.

Guilt and shame are moral feelings that arise in response to all types of situations where a concern for others is relevant. Shame arises whenever anyone feels themselves to have committed "a breach of any virtue," and guilt arises after any harm or violation of the rights of others. Shame expects "derision and contempt" from others; guilt anticipates "resentment and indignation" from others.

74. The Connection between Moral and Natural Attitudes

There is a complex relationship between natural attitudes or feelings and moral attitudes or feelings. Natural attitudes reflect attachments to specific individuals while moral attitudes reflect acceptance of specific moral virtues. The failure to have certain moral attitudes or feelings displays a lack of certain natural attitudes or feelings. Conversely, having a moral attitude or feeling reflects the presence of certain natural attitudes.

At a certain stage of moral development, certain natural attachments make a person liable to experience specific moral emotions. Moral feelings are, therefore, a regular aspect of being human; to eradicate them would be to eradicate certain natural attitudes. An example is a person who fails to act according to justice because they lack a sense of justice. This means they cannot experience the natural attachments of "friendship, affection, and mutual trust" nor the moral emotions of indignation and resentment. They may still feel the natural emotion or sentiment of anger and annoyance, which arise without connection to moral principles, but their inability to experience certain moral emotions and natural attachments means they are cut off from significant aspects of what it means to be human.

75. The Principles of Moral Psychology

Rawls restates the three psychological laws that correspond to the three stages of moral development earlier discussed. The first law states that a child's love for her parents arises in response to their expressed love for her within the context of a just family structure. This realizes the individual's "capacity for fellow feeling," which is a prerequisite for the second law. The second law describes how, in undertaking to be part of a social association that is publicly known to be just, the individual becomes bound by ties of affection and trust to members of that association as these members express their ideals through their compliance with their duties and obligations. The third law takes place after the first two laws have come to pass and describes how people develop a sense of justice for the just institutions that benefit themselves and their loved ones.

This social theory is based explicitly on moral notions, but Rawls notes it is possible to understand social theory without reference to morality, and that some prefer such explanations.

These three laws demonstrate that shifts in a person's system of desires occur in response to "affective ties." People gain "new final ends" as their realization deepens of the ways institutions and other people affect their own good. Their response to those things they know to benefit them is reciprocal. Indeed, "a capacity for a sense of justice built up by responses in kind" seems to be "a condition of human sociability."

76. The Problem of Relative Stability

A just society is not necessarily a stable society. Even though the principles of justice represent a collectively rational decision from the original position, a society ordered by these principles is still threatened by egoism. Egoism is rational from the perspective of a single individual who may claim a greater share of benefits without offering his or her own contribution to the social arrangement. Therefore, a just society is stable only when its citizens possess a sense of justice or a "concern for those who would be disadvantaged by their defection," which is greater than the temptation to egoism.

There are two kinds of instability, and both are addressed by justice as fairness. One kind of instability seeks unfair advantage that disadvantages others; another violates laws to protect their own interests. The public conception of justice and the mutual trust and civic friendship it fosters are sufficient to prevent destabilization. Guilt discourages those who do undertake destabilizing actions. It can be concluded "that justice as fairness is ... reasonably stable," but the argument must be made that it is the most stable conception among alternatives and, therefore, the preferred conception.

To make this argument, Rawls compares the society ordered by justice as fairness with the society ordered by the principle of utility. This comparison requires a re-conception of the three psychological laws or stages of moral development. The laws must now attribute the development of amicable feeling to individuals who work to maximize the sum or the average well-being. These individuals, therefore, are working for a principle that secures certain disadvantage for parts of society as a necessary part of the conception of good. The likelihood that those who are themselves disadvantaged in this society would feel warmly toward such individuals seems low. In the utilitarian position, stability is accounted for by invoking a degree of sympathy that does not seem to fit with human nature. Likewise, the utilitarian requirement of self-sacrifice for some does not seem to accord with the process of natural selection that shaped the human species. On the other hand, the two principles of justice as fairness ensure that the entire society is bound together in mutual trust and respect through the principles of reciprocity. This sense of reciprocity and justice also would have been an advantage when considered in light of natural selection. Thus far, it seems like justice as fairness is more stable than the alternatives.

77. The Basis of Equality

The basis for equality and for claims to justice is one's identity as a moral person. Moral persons are those with the capacity, which is assumed to be realized, of having "a conception of their good" that is manifested in "a rational plan of life," as well as being capable of having a sense of justice that motivates their actions at least in some part. Meeting this minimum criterion is all that is required, which means those who have the capacities but who have not realized them for whatever reason are entitled to the same equal rights as all other persons.


The idea of moral personhood is crucial to Rawls's proving the "congruence of the right and the good" and, therefore, of the stability of the conception of justice as fairness. Moral personhood is about possessing an inherent capacity rather than a realized trait. Rawls pins many important parts of his theory on this view of human nature, which is defined by the idea of moral personhood. It is one of the underlying assumptions that make the whole theory work. It provides the justification for assigning and ensuring equal rights to all persons in society. It is a crucial link in the argument for stability via the congruence of the good and the just. If people are not capable of having a sense of justice or a conception of the good, which is the definition of moral personhood, then justice will mean nothing to them, and society will collapse. The idea of moral personhood is also an egalitarian view of humanity. Persons are owed justice and are, therefore, valuable because they are capable of justice—because they are characterized by their moral personhood.

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