A Theory of Justice | Study Guide

John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice | Part 3, Chapter 9 : Ends (The Good of Justice) | Summary



78. Autonomy and Objectivity

Rawls's objective is to demonstrate "the congruence of the right and the good." In the context of strict compliance theory, he seeks to prove members of a well-ordered society will be led by rational consideration to define their relationships according to a conception of justice.

A person might question moral attitudes because of doubt regarding their origins. Perhaps they are nothing more than "neurotic compulsions" installed through processes of education to ensure "submission to authority," or perhaps they are merely the reflections of the contingencies of our lives. Rawls responds by asserting that these attitudes are the result of principles acquired within the original position. To put the matter in terms of the Kantian conception, to act autonomously is to be governed by these principles. Autonomous persons are guided by principles they would choose "under conditions that best express their nature as free and equal rational beings." Moral education, then, brings about a person's autonomy.

In addition to supporting the autonomy of the person, these moral principles have the quality of objectivity. This quality is transferred from the original position that is their origin. The original position ensures that the choice of principles will be free of circumstantial influences. Therefore, justice as fairness has qualities both of autonomy and objectivity because of its reliance on the original position.

Our right to act does not arise from our conscientiously formed moral convictions but by our actions according with what the original position would permit. The virtues, or excellences of integrity, are sometimes regarded as a proper conception of morality to guide a life. However, these virtues are necessary but not sufficient to ensure just behavior, for one may possess virtues and still act tyrannically.

79. The Idea of Social Union

Rawls investigates "whether the contract doctrine is a satisfactory framework for understanding the values of community" and designing institutions that foster it. This question is important because community is a necessary element in "the congruence of the right and the good."

The theory of justice uses the broadest possible assumptions to foster agreement, or identity of interest. However, the value of the theory as a comprehensive conception is dependent on how it addresses conflicts of interest by ordering competing claims in an acceptable way. In a so-called "private society" lacking a public conception of justice, the conflicts of interest that arise inevitably out of social cooperation are handled by the use of sanctions. The citizens have no shared common end of justice but only their own private ends.

Justice as fairness gives rise to social unions, or communities. These associations produce a shared ultimate end and allow individuals, who each have a limited capacity, to pool their talents and natural assets with others who have different talents and natural assets. In this way, each individual can "participate in the total sum of the realized natural assets of the others."

There are four ways to classify ends, which may be illustrated in terms of a game. There is the end the rules define; the various ends that motivate the players; the social function fulfilled by the game; and the common desire among players for "fair play." Fair play is enjoyable to all, and all must cooperate for this end if it is to be achieved. This fourth common final end characterizes cultural and artistic pursuits, which give satisfaction to the public and solidify the bonds of community.

Therefore, the "well-ordered society" of justice as fairness may be considered "a social union of social unions." The members of society are united in the shared final end of maintaining just institutions, which are valued as goods in themselves.

80. The Problem of Envy

The original position assumes a lack of envy among its participants. Their various psychological tendencies and their knowledge of their own conception of good are hidden behind the veil of ignorance. However, envy exists in the non-ideal world, and, therefore, it must be addressed in terms of the principles of justice.

Envy threatens to disconnect a society from what is good for humans. The design of a well-ordered society may be checked with a two-part procedure. It should be conceived on the assumption that envy and other psychological difficulties don't exist. The conception should then be evaluated to see if it encourages envy to a degree that would destabilize society and, if this is found to be the case, abandoned.

The inequalities allowed by the difference principle could arouse destructive general envy in those who are less advantaged toward those who are more advantaged. They might be willing to worsen their own prospects to lower the discrepancy of expectation between themselves and those who have higher expectations. Thus, envy is a collective disadvantage because it compels individuals to undertake actions harmful to others as well as to themselves. The envious person's position is not worsened by the better positions of those whom they envy, yet envy fills them with hostility. Conversely, the better-advantaged may feel spite toward those who have fewer advantages. This spite arises out of their desire to maintain their superior position.

There does exist a form of envy that is excusable. This envy is a reaction to one's loss of self-respect as a result of conditions where one could not be expected to feel differently. A situation that may arouse excusable envy is one in which there are gross and inexcusable inequalities in the expectations of primary goods.

81. Envy and Equality

When a lack of confidence in one's worth combines with a sense of impotence, destructive general envy may arise. General envy is distinguished from particular envy, which is envy of a particular person. A related situation, which produces destructive envy, arises in societies that, because of their structure, lead individuals to experience their relative disadvantage as publicly humiliating. Lastly, destructive envy can arise when the disadvantaged are without means to improve their situations. Certain features of justice as fairness suggest that societies following this conception will not likely give rise to a destructive amount of general envy. These features include the guarantee of equal liberties, the common conception of justice and its resultant ties of goodwill between citizens, the embrace of the difference principle to constrain inequality, and the rejection of merit as a basis for distributive shares.

Still, justice as fairness won't likely create a destructive level of excusable general envy. Additionally, the constraints on economic inequalities that are fundamental to justice as fairness will create a society that features a lower level of inequality than is perhaps usual. The variety of social associations that justice as fairness encourages also minimizes the tendency for people of very different circumstances to meet in conditions that would encourage an experience of inequality as humiliating.

There are other problematic features of human psychology besides envy, and each should be dealt with in the same manner, by checking them to see if the conception of justice as fairness would encourage a destabilizing level of those tendencies. Justice as fairness does not merit rejection on the basis of these problems as long as the resultant society can reasonably accommodate the special and problematic psychologies that may arise within it.

82. The Grounds for the Priority of Liberty

Rawls justifies the choice of the principle of liberty as the primary principle in the original position. The individuals in the original position, under the veil of ignorance, are motivated first of all to secure their unknown but particular interests and ends. The veil of ignorance obscures all but their highest-order interest, which concerns how institutions constrain and shape their other ends. The parties conceive of themselves as free persons and want to ensure they have the right to revise their final ends. The original position, therefore, gives rise to a hierarchy of interests in its participants. Liberty is at the top of the hierarchy because, unless it is secured first, the ability of the individuals to achieve all other ends is in doubt.

It is unlikely that the priority of liberty will be undermined by the feelings generated in members of this society by the social structure. Envy and jealousy are checked, as are obsessions for status, since the need for the esteem of others and for self-respect is "met by the public recognition of just institutions." The basis of self-respect in this society is not one's position of being more or less advantaged with respect to other persons. Rather, it is rooted in the public and common value of equality and the corresponding equal distribution of basic rights.

83. Happiness and Dominant Ends

The two main elements of happiness are "the successful execution of a rational plan" and the mental state of the person undertaking the plan. Objective happiness correlates with a state of mind in which confidence in success is supported by reason. Subjective happiness consists of a belief in the successful outcome of the rational plan one has undertaken, which belief persists even if it is mistaken. Because the parties in the original position do not have errors in belief, the objective definition is preferred in this context. Rawls asserts that happiness is not one of many aims but is the end result of the fulfillment of our entire plan of life.

He returns to the question of a procedure for choosing rationally among plans of life. The possibilities can be narrowed through the process of rational deliberation. The counting principles of rational deliberation will illuminate and add detail to our knowledge of our own aims but will not point definitively to the best choice. Having a single dominant end would immediately clarify the conflicting desires, but the dominant end cannot be happiness. The reason is that happiness is an inclusive end, the container for many aims. Rawls concludes it is in fact irrational to make this choice on the basis of a single dominant end. The outcome of such a posture is that "the self is disfigured and put in the service of one of its ends" for the sake of adhering to a system.

84. Hedonism as a Method of Choice

Rawls considers the use of hedonism, the teleological principle of maximizing pleasure, as a means of making a rational choice of life plan. The utilitarian philosopher Sidgwick endorsed pleasure, understood as agreeable sensation, as the "single rational end that is to guide deliberation" and the "sole intrinsic good." This proposition raises a number of problematic issues. There is the question of how pleasure is to be quantified and how its worth is to be weighted against pain. In the end, the question remains of how one can move past deliberation to a "rational procedure of choice."

Rawls concludes "there is no dominant end the pursuit of which accords with our considered judgments of value." Realizing a rational plan of life is an inclusive end and as such belongs to a different category altogether. Pursuing the line of reasoning that takes hedonism as a determinant for choice exposes the structural flaw in all teleological doctrines. These theories tend to use pleasure as a basis for moral reasoning because this provides a definition of the good so that the meaning of the right will not be up to the personal decision of each individual. Nonetheless, regardless of what is used to define the good, teleological theory suffers from an improper relationship between the right and the good. "The self is prior to the ends [that] are affirmed by it," and, therefore, the nature of the self is not located in its ends but in the principles one would choose in order to structure the conditions under which those ends would be formed and pursued. The teleological relationship of an independent good and a right that is a maximization of that good must be reversed. The priority of the right over the good, which is a central tenet of justice as fairness, must be acknowledged.

85. The Unity of the Self

In this section, Rawls checks whether the choice of a rational plan, made using the technique of "deliberative rationality as defined by the full theory of the good" and in the context of justice as fairness, is less problematic than the principle of hedonism.

The two aspects of moral personality, the conception of the good and the sense of justice, give rise to a rational plan of life and a desire to act according to principles of right. Moral persons choose their own ends and, therefore, prefer conditions that enable them to manifest their autonomy, their "nature as a free and equal rational being," as much as possible. The unity of each person, which is based on his or her desire to uphold justice in following the principles of rational choice, is evident in the coherence of his or her plan of life. In hedonism, the rational self achieves unity through the maximization of pleasurable experiences. However, this reduces their self and all aspects of their life to mere "materials for obtaining pleasant experiences." When hedonism is applied to the concept of right, the principle of right becomes correlated with the maximization of happiness. There is no other principle than "to define the ultimate end of right conduct."

While in hedonism, the self's fundamental nature is defined as its capacity for pleasure and pain, in justice as fairness, moral personality is taken to be the fundamental nature of the self. In the original position, dominant-end conceptions do not come into play. The self-concept of these persons under the veil of ignorance is to "think of themselves as beings who can and do choose their final ends." It does not make sense for them to define a dominant end. What does make sense is to choose principles that will order society in a manner that is conducive "for each to fashion his own unity." When the resulting society is well ordered, persons have a common unity. This unity is located in the fact that their rational plan, which arises out of their conception of the good, "is a subplan of the larger comprehensive plan that regulates the community as a social union of social unions."

An individual's particular conception of the good is not explicitly defined in justice as fairness, nor is there a definitive procedure for each person to follow and choose his or her own good. However, the priority of right over good "securely constrains these deliberations so that they become more manageable." It can be seen that utilitarianism and justice as fairness have opposite structures. In utilitarianism, each individual creates without restriction a rational plan. Society's job is to aggregate all individual plans together and to attempt to maximize the satisfaction of these plans as a totality. The movement is from the specific to the general. In justice as fairness, the movement is from the general principles that structure social institutions to the plans of individuals, which are drawn up to accord with these principles.

86. The Good of the Sense of Justice

This section will settle the "question of congruence" between the concepts of justice and goodness. Each of these concepts represents a set of principles and a framework for evaluating plans of life. Congruence means the two sets will fit together, a necessary but insufficient criterion for a stable society. It has already been established that a person with "an effective sense of justice" has as their highest rational desire to act in accordance with this sense of justice, and that to do so is to fulfill their own good. Essentially, what must be established is that individuals who held the thin theory of the good would choose to regulate their life plan according to the dictates of justice. This means acting in accordance with justice does not represent their final end.

This question is considered in light of the following criteria, which are the reasons in support of the adoption of justice as regulative of a life plan. The person in question belongs to a society with a publicly held conception of justice, so deliberation whether to choose justice to regulate life is really a consideration of whether or not to be a "free-rider" in this society by claiming its benefits while not doing his or her own part. Given the connection between natural attitudes of protection and affection toward loved ones and acting justly, this person is considering whether he or she should show justice to only those persons for whom he or she cares. Also relevant is the Aristotelian principle, which implies they are narrowing their opportunities for social and cultural enrichment if they choose not to uphold the conception of justice of their community. Finally, the Kantian interpretation connects the full expression of the individual's nature as one among "free and equal rational beings" with a desire to act justly.

Whether these reasons are sufficient for a decision in support of justice depends on the balance of motives the individual experiences. Justice will be chosen depending upon the definition it is given and what this demands of the chooser. Utilitarianism's risk to liberty and demand for sympathy would likely not favor it as a definition of justice when compared with justice as fairness. However, the decision to uphold justice implies accepting the risk that circumstances may arise wherein upholding justice makes people vulnerable to danger. Still, given that humans are defined by our status as moral persons, the full expression of their nature is a function of their acting consistently to uphold justice.

Having thus established the congruence between justice and goodness, Rawls presents the final form of his argument. Congruence establishes that persons in a well-ordered society are benefitted by their own sense of justice. A well-ordered society is a good society, having properties that are rationally desirable. Therefore, the principles of justice that are collectively rational as considered from the original position are satisfied by a well-ordered society. Principles of rational choice are upheld when an individual affirms "the public conception of justice as regulative of one's plan of life." The value of community is supported by these conclusions.

87. Concluding Remarks on Justification

Rawls reflects on the argument he has made for justice as fairness, which does not take the form of a Cartesian justification nor a naturalistic one. Cartesian justifications begin with self-evident first-principles and use deductive reasoning to derive standards and precepts "to account for our considered judgments." Naturalistic arguments use scientific and accepted commonsense procedures to demonstrate the truth of moral concepts that have been defined in terms of non-moral concepts. Instead, he has sought to justify his theory in terms of how well the entirety of it "fits in with and organizes our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium." After addressing certain criticism and objection to his methods and propositions, Rawls states that he feels he has succeeded in his intention of supplying a coherent theory that is a viable alternative to utilitarian theory rather than the usual piecemeal criticism.

The question may be posed why any stock should be taken of the original position, given its hypothetical nature. Rawls counters: the fact remains that it can be supported and explained and that people actually do accept it as a legitimate starting point. It is valuable because it allows anyone to step into an impartial point of view without the need of conflating many persons into one, as in utilitarianism. It permits a perspective that transcends social and temporal boundaries and provides a means for individuals of varied perspectives to "arrive together at regulative principles" all people can support but that do not compromise the individuality of anyone.


In this chapter Rawls's arguments, which have to this point been built slowly and carefully through the linking of deductive premises and checked and rechecked against possible exceptions and circumstances, expand into a conclusion that reads like an ode to human possibility and that is written in often strikingly beautiful prose. In the final lines of the text, Rawls gives the sense that he has attempted to give a gift to humanity in the form of his theory, specifically in his concept of the original position and the veil of ignorance. "The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendental being," Rawls writes. The perspective of eternity is, rather, something anyone capable of being rational can adopt by using the idea of the original position to frame his attempts to understand the world. It is a frame of mind in which one has the potential, perhaps, to attain "purity of heart." These sentiments lead to the suspicion that Rawls is motivated to present his theory not merely to discredit and dislodge utilitarianism in society but also by a deep love of humanity and an unwavering faith in human potential. It must certainly be a vivid and sincere empathy that led him to spend 20 years developing his ideas and the next several decades revising and reviewing them. This quality of Rawls's intention and the overall thrust of his book add weight to his arguments and suggest the text's worth, whatever flaws there may be in Rawls's arguments. The lasting influence the text continues to exert on academia, social discourse, and in social policy suggests this worth has been deeply perceived even by Rawls's opponents.

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