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A Theory of Justice | Summary



Part 1: Theory

In Part 1 Rawls provides the conceptual background against which he will present his theory of justice as fairness. He explains that justice is necessary because humans live together under conditions of moderate scarcity, and, therefore, conflicting claims arise. He provides an overview and justification for the original position, where parties meet to choose the basic principles that define his theory. The first principle is that of basic individual liberty for each citizen. The second principle puts constraints on economic inequalities, making it necessary that any departure from economic equality must specifically advantage the most disadvantaged members of society. These principles apply to institutions and, therefore, determine the basic structure of society. Rawls also describes the principles meant to guide the behavior of individuals within a well-ordered society, meaning a society founded on the principles of justice in which persons hold a public conception of justice. With the intention of arguing for the superiority of justice as fairness, Rawls discusses the major tenets of and problems with utilitarian and intuitionist theories of justice.

Part 2: Institutions

In Part 2 Rawls deepens and expands his theory as presented in Part 1 by describing what a society built on his theory would look like and how it would function as a constitutional democracy. He presents the development of this society as a hypothetical sequence with four stages. It begins with the original position, where the principles to guide society are chosen, and it proceeds to a constitutional convention, where delegates create the legal document that will be the foundation of society. Next, the legislative stage allows for the formation of specific laws and policies. The final stage involves the specific application of laws and policies within a functioning society. Rawls investigates what is meant by liberty and why liberty takes priority as the foundation of his theory. He then turns to an in-depth discussion of the problem of distribution of goods throughout society, which gives rise to inequalities and exaggerates existing inequalities based on natural attributes. He explains the mechanisms meant to limit the degree of these inequalities, in the form of a social minimum standard of income, a just savings principle, which ensures that future generations have the resources to promote just institutions, and the government's support of educational opportunities for all persons regardless of class. He returns to the ideas of principles for individual behavior and explains what duties and obligations may be put upon citizens. The section closes with an exploration of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal, which mark justifiable departures from the citizen's duty to obey the laws of their society.

Part 3: Ends

In Part 3 Rawls focuses on moral theory and human nature as it fits with the theory of justice as fairness. He develops two theories of the good for individuals: a thin theory (which explains the "motivation of the parties in the original position") and a full theory (which encompasses the full spectrum of situations and behaviors that apply to human beings). He investigates the ideas that human nature comprises two primary elements: the desire and capability to plan and carry out a plan of life that seeks to accomplish a variety of aims, and the capability to have a conception of the good and a conception of the just. He draws together the various pieces of justice as fairness to conclude his argument that justice as fairness is a preferable alternative to the utilitarian conception of justice. Rawls's argument depends on two ideas being proven: that justice as fairness is a stable conception of justice (or at least more stable than utilitarianism) and that, in a society ordered by justice as fairness, citizens will acquire a sense of justice because it accords with their idea of what is good for them. These proofs require also demonstrating how justice as fairness supports stable communities within society. After establishing that justice as fairness is a stable conception and showing how the ideas of the right and the good can be made to accord with one another, Rawls concludes that he has achieved his aim in presenting justice as fairness as a viable and preferable alternative to utilitarian theory.

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