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A Theory of Justice | Quotes


Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 1

At the very beginning of the text, Rawls provides this eloquent statement that explains what justice is and does. By relating justice to truth, Rawls establishes its importance to human life.


Our object should be to formulate a conception of justice [that makes] our considered judgments of justice converge.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 1

For Rawls, a major test of the success of his theory of justice as fairness is whether it is compatible with commonly held ideas about justice, when those ideas have been carefully deliberated and evaluated for their truthfulness. This convergence can be achieved through a process of reflective equilibrium, in which the judgments and the theory are checked against each other and revised to make them fit better.


No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 2

Rawls addresses the inequalities among persons that are a result of the "natural lottery," such as genetic traits and the family one happens to be born into. He sees this "natural lottery" as arbitrary, and, therefore, persons advantaged by it cannot be said to deserve their advantage. Hence, these sorts of inequalities must be leveled out by principles of justice, so they do not determine a person's access to the education and opportunities necessary to live a full and productive life.


A well-ordered society is a social union of social unions.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 2

Rawls discusses the importance of self-respect as a means of discounting meritocracy as a just form of society. In meritocracy, access to opportunity, education, and power is based on one's "merit," or advantages of intelligence and ambition. This idea results in deep, unjust divisions between the intellectual educated elite and the impoverished lower classes. By contrast, the priority of liberty and the constraints of inequality, which are features of justice as fairness, create a well-ordered society that supports the development of a variety of cooperative social associations, or social unions. These social unions bind citizens together in common interest and mutual self-respect, and they help stabilize society.


It is not possible to have an obligation to autocratic and arbitrary forms of government.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 2

Rawls discusses obligations individuals owe to institutions when those institutions are just and the individuals have voluntarily consented to benefit from the institution in return for their personal contributions. He stresses that, for an obligation to arise, the institution must be just, and, therefore, obligations cannot exist to governments that deny the basic liberties, rights, and dignities of human beings.


Because the parties start from an equal division of ... primary goods, those who benefit least have ... a veto.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

Rawls describes how the parties in the original position choose the principle that will govern their economy. They first imagine that wealth and other primary goods will be distributed equally but then decide inequality should be permissible if it makes everyone better off than a condition of economic inequality. They put limits on this inequality by specifying it must be preferable to equality from the perspective of the most disadvantaged in society, and these limits are expressed in the second of two primary principles, the difference principle.


The political process [is] a machine which makes social decisions when the views [of the people] are fed into it.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 4

In describing how society would be built beginning with the original position and passing through various stages that lead up to its existence as a functioning society, Rawls stresses the importance of designing a just procedure to guide this process. While individual views cannot be ensured to be just, a just political process will tend to ensure the injustice contained in the views of those who influence the political process is kept in check.


The worth of liberty is not the same for everyone. Some have ... greater means to achieve their aims.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 4

Rawls distinguishes between equality of liberty and the equal worth of liberty. While justice demands each person have the same basic equal liberties, these liberties are not worth the same to each person. Those with greater advantages—such as social position, intelligence, power, or income—are able to use their liberties more fully and achieve more. A just society attempts to avoid gross discrepancies in the worth of liberty between persons by counteracting inequality with social supports that promote equality of opportunity and a fair minimum standard of living.


The democratic political process is at best regulated rivalry.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 4

Rawls acknowledges the inevitable flaws in the process of democracy that arise as a result of needing to depend on majority rule. While majority rule is the most just means of making decisions, there is no guarantee that majority-rule decisions will be in line with what justice demands. Still, majority rule is the best mechanism for regulating the conflicting claims of various parts of society.


The life of a people is conceived as a scheme of cooperation spread out in historical time.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 5

Rawls makes a case that society must be concerned with matters of intergenerational justice and not act in ways that favor the present generation at the expense of future generations. He uses this argument to justify the inclusion of a just savings principle, which sets aside capital to ensure future generations have the necessary resources to establish and uphold just institutions, as one of the obligations of a just society.


A just state [does not] wage war for purposes of economic gain.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 6

Rawls asserts that the same principles of justice that govern domestic law and policy must also apply to relations between nations and, therefore, to issues of war. He asserts that individuals have the right to conscientiously refuse to participate in unjust wars and that this right arises out of their considered judgment that the war in question is not in the service of protecting the liberty of the people on both sides of the conflict.


We must look to others to attain the excellences that we must leave aside, or lack altogether.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 9

Rawls uses the Aristotelian principle and its companion effect to explain how, in a just society, the excellences (skills or talents) of individuals function as a pool of common assets that benefit society as a whole and enrich the lives of individuals. Each person can develop only part of their latent capacity, but humanity's social nature allows people to form unions by which they extend the range of their experience by experiencing the talents and abilities of others.


In the face of evil circumstances he may decide to chance death rather than to act unjustly.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 9

In his discussion of moral education and what is meant by being a just person, Rawls points out that there are certain risks involved when one's sense of justice becomes the regulatory guide for one's life. A just person, if truly just, cannot put aside his or her sense of justice when acting upon it would bring him or her disadvantage, harm, or even death. However, this vulnerability is similar to the vulnerability people experience in opening themselves up to love; both the capacity to love and the capacity for justice are essential parts of the human experience. To reject them on the basis of self-preservation is to diminish one's humanity.


The sense of justice is a reaction-formation: what was ... envy is transformed into a social feeling.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 9

Rawls gives an account of Freud's theory of how the concept of justice originated and took hold on the human psyche. Freud holds that the idea of justice has its roots in envy. As people began living in groups, conflict arose as individuals put forth their own self-interested claims upon the group and attempted to secure the most resources for themselves. Eventually, people realized it made more sense to abandon hostile self-interest and to cooperate with one another, and so justice took the place of envy.


The perspective of eternity ... is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 9

In the closing lines of the book, Rawls argues for the value of the thought experiment of the original position, claiming that this device is useful far beyond its function in deriving the theory of justice as fairness. By adopting the original position, a person can step outside his or her own limited viewpoint and enter a perspective that allows for rational judgment and productive inquiry that is not bound by the limitations of personality or the historical era to which one belongs.

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