John Rawls on Moral Principles for Individuals:

With Emphasis on Implications for Business Ethics

by Dr. Jan Garrett

February 20, 2002

1. "Natural" Duties
2. The Principle of Fairness (a Bridge Principle)
3. Rawlsian Support for the Contract Theory
4. Rawlsian Support for the Principle of Due Care
5. Rawlsian Support for a Right to Privacy

This webpage assumes that the reader is familiar with the elements of John Rawls' philosophy described in John Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice.
Rawls' two principles of justice known as the Principle of Equal Liberties and the combined Equal Opportunity and Difference Principle are intended to govern the basic structure of society. They are part of what Rawls calls a "political conception of justice." They determine whether the sociopolitical order is a just one or not. But even with these principles we still require more guidance so as to know what our concrete duties and obligations are.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice (TJ), Rawls gives some guidance for individual conduct.

"Natural" Duties

First, he recognizes a class of ("natural") duties that "apply to us without regard to our voluntary acts." These can be defended from the original position by much the same logic as the two principles of justice intended to govern the basic structure. Rawls says "the principles that hold for individuals, just as the principles for institutions, are those that would be acknowledged in the original position." (TJ, 115)

In other words, these are principles that representative persons in the original position would have chosen to govern individuals in a real society. They differ from the two (basic) principles of justice in that they directly govern individual (and corporate) conduct but do not directly govern the basic social, political, and economic framework.

Among the "natural" duties are the following:

the "duty not to be cruel" (114),

the duty not to injure and the duty not to harm the innocent (chart, 109),

the "duty to help one another" (114, 338), and

the duty of justice

[which] requires us to support and comply with just institutions that exist and apply to us . . . . to further just arrangements not yet established, at least when this can be done without too much cost to ourselves (115)

and, finally, a "duty of mutual respect." (337)

"Natural" duties, together with what Rawls calls obligations, make up the set of what Rawls calls requirements. Requirements are moral rules that govern the conduct of individuals. Obligations, as Rawls defines the category, arise from the application of The Principle of Fairness.

The Principle of Fairness (a Bridge Principle)

In his Theory of Justice Rawls recognizes what he calls the principle of fairness. This principle of fairness should not be confused with the two principles of justice, which are at the heart of Rawls' theory of (social) "justice as fairness," or what Rawls calls in his recent writing "a political conception of justice." We could call this principle of fairness a bridge principle (PF as BP) because it is the bridge or link between the two principles of social or political justice and individual obligations to comply with specific social practices.

The principle of fairness (PF as BP) is one of the principles that applies to individuals. Rawls says that he will try to use this principle "to account for all [moral] requirements that are obligations." (111) Obligations, Rawls explains,

arise out of our voluntary acts . . . The content of obligations is always defined by an institution or practice the rules of which specify what it is that one is required to do. And finally, obligations are normally owed to definite individuals, namely, those who are cooperating together to maintain the arrangement in question. (113)

Rawls thus distinguishes between "natural" duties, which apply regardless of whether we have voluntarily opted into a practice, and obligations, which assume that we have in some sense "taken them on" by voluntarily participating in a practice. The duty not to be cruel holds regardless of whether the person toward whom the moral agent is acting is participating in a practice the moral agent has voluntarily joined. The requirement not to be cruel is a ("natural") duty in Rawls' sense, not an "obligation."

The principle of fairness (PF as BP) holds that

a person is required to do his part as defined by the rules of an institution when two conditions are met: first, the institution is just . . . that is, it satisfies the two principles of justice; and second, one has voluntarily accepted the benefits of the arrangement or taken advantage of the opportunities it offers to further one's interests (111-12; see 342-43)

Rawlsian Support for the Contract Theory of Manufacturers' Duties to Consumers

The two most important middle-level theories that govern interactions between manufacturers and marketers are: (1) the Contract Theory and (2) the Due Care Theory. (These two theories are systematically presented in Manuel Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases [Prentice-Hall], chapter 6.)

In brief, the Contract Theory states that manufacturers and marketers must follow four duties in relation to the buyer. They must fully disclose the nature of the product or service; they must not misrepresent the product or service; they must not coerce the prospective buyer into agreeing to the sale; and finally, once the contract is agreed to, there is a duty to comply with the terms of the contractual agreement.

The principle of fidelity (a term which Rawls gets from W. D. Ross) is a principle that requires us to be honest, to keep promises, and to comply with contracts voluntarily made. "The principle of fidelity," says Rawls (344), "is but a special case of the principle of fairness applied to the social practice of promising. . . ."

Rawls continues,

The way in which the rule of promising specifies the appropriate circumstances and excusing conditions determines whether the practice it represents is just. For example, in order to make a binding promise, one must be fully conscious, in a rational frame of mind, and know the meaning of the operative words ["I promise to do X"], their use in making promises, and so on. Furthermore these words must be spoken freely or voluntarily, when one is not subject to threats or coercion, and in situations where one has a reasonably fair bargaining position, so to speak. A person is not required to perform if the operative words were uttered while he is asleep, or suffering delusions, or if he was forced to promise, or if pertinent information was deceitfully withheld from him. In general, the circumstances giving rise to a promise and the excusing conditions must be defined so as to preserve the equal liberty of the parties and to make the practice a rational means whereby men can enter into and stabilize cooperative agreements for mutual advantage. (345)

Thus we see that the Contract Theory receives general endorsement from Rawls. In effect, the Contract Theory can be seen as a restatement of the principle of fidelity, which in turn is an application of the principle of fairness, which in turn (along with the two basic principles of justice) would be endorsed from the original position.

1. Representative persons in the Original Position would acknowledge:
2. Two Principles of Justice and the Principle of Fairness (the Bridge Principle). The application of the latter to promising generates:
3. The Principle of Fidelity, which, applied to the double promise of a contract, generates:
4. Contract Theory

The Contract Theory is endorsed by Rawls only "for the most part." Should it turn out that the result of numerous apparently free contractual exchanges violates the basic two principles of justice, the Contract Theory could not be endorsed without further qualification. In other words, should a system of pure contractual exchanges violate these principles, additional constraints might need to be added to correct for the social injustice that has emerged.

One obvious area in which the Contract Theory would be limited by Rawls' two principles of social justice is slavery. In a slave-owning society slaves are typically bought and sold on the market and thus are the subjects of contractual arrangements. But this application of contracting violates the basic principle of Equal Basic Liberty because it is implied in this principle that freedom from slavery is a basic liberty not to be violated.

Rawlsian Support for Due Care

The basic idea of the Due Care Theory of manufacturers' obligations to consumers is that since manufacturers have much greater knowledge and power than their consumers, they have a special obligation to look out for the interests of the buyers (and members of their households), and above all to take special care to make sure that the buyers are not harmed by manufacturers' products. Due Care Theory starts from the assumption that the rough equality that exists between those who form truly voluntary contracts does not characterize many relationships between sellers and buyers in a technologically complex world where the sellers are large corporations.

One might give a Rawlsian defense of the principle of Due Care from two perspectives. One approach might take Due Care Theory to be an application of the natural duties not to injure people and not to harm the innocent, and one could make the case that negligent design or production of defective products that harm customers violate the rule of non-injury.

But it seems to me the more meaningful approach is to regard the principle of due care as part of a mutually beneficial practice and the failure to exercise due care as a kind of failure in fairness, a lack of respect for the generally understood rules of this particular practice.

The practice is one that is defined as follows:

insofar as society permits manufacturers to operate in such a way that they are permitted to sell highly complex, potentially dangerous, and also potentially profitable products on the market, manufacturers will do their very best to ensure that the products will not be harmful to buyers, their households, or third parties. Furthermore, they do not have to have promised to do this when the contract with specific buyers is concluded. It is enough that they have chosen to operate a business of this sort in the first place.

The validity of this arrangement, and its superiority over the alternate arrangement according to which manufacturers have only those obligations to which they have explicitly agreed, can be tested by reference to the Difference Principle under whose general scope it falls.

As part of Rawls' second principle of (social) justice the Difference Principle states that inequalities are justified only if they are part of an arrangement that works to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged individuals.

Consider now the consumer who does not know advanced chemistry and who nevertheless is being invited to purchase a potent pesticide which she will apply herself. She is not able to afford a professional gardener to apply it for her. She can represent a relatively disadvantaged individual. Suppose she and persons like her are properly warned about the potential hazards of use of this chemical and that the chemical is only as dangerous as it needs to be to achieve its task.

On these assumptions the unequal arrangement from which the already powerful manufacturer is benefitting may in fact work to the greatest advantage of the more disadvantaged persons. In any case, if the manufacturer did not exercise such Due Care, the arrangement would clearly be less advantageous to the more disadvantaged persons, and therefore the practice without Due Care would violate Rawls' Difference Principle. Thus Due Care receives at least a tentative endorsement from Rawls' Difference Principle and the Principle of Fairness (as a Bridge Principle) which requires us, once we have joined a practice justified by the principles of justice, to do our part as specified by the rules of that practice.

Rawlsian Support for a Right to Privacy

What is privacy? In Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 5th ed., Manuel Velasquez does not define privacy, although he does define a right to privacy. From what he says we can extract his concept of privacy as something like "a capacity of a person not to have others observe or record for later observation his or her private life" or "a power a person has to determine what, to whom, and how much information about themselves will be revealed to other parties." (Cf. Velasquez, p. 365; in the following discussion of privacy I rely heavily on Velasquez's treatment of consumer privacy at pp. 365-68.)

It is important to recognize that the phrase "socially and politically determined" should be understood to qualify "capacity of a person," "private life," and "power a person has . . . " in the previous definition. Privacy is not simply a matter of what I can physically refuse to reveal about myself, but a matter of what I can refuse to reveal about myself given the habits of other people that dispose them to permit me to keep certain things to myself or within my marriage or home. These habits are socially and politically created.

Now, the socially and politically determined capacity to determine what, when, and how much information about oneself will be divulged may be below the level that is morally justified.

If somebody can get away with being a peeping Tom because there are no laws against it or because others will excuse the activity by saying, "Boys will be boys," then effective privacy is perhaps less than our moral right to privacy would guarantee.

A right to privacy would then be a right to a specified minimum degree of capacity . . . or a right to a specified degree of power . . . It would set a minimum threshhold that others would not be morally permitted to violate.

John Rawls could defend the right to privacy by pointing out that our representatives in the Original Position would include privacy rights among the adequate scheme of Equal Liberties guaranteed by his First Principle.

Privacy enables us to pursue our personal conceptions of the good, with those we wish to associate, so long as we do not violate the rights and liberties of others.

Jeffrey Reiman, who develops a political philosophy similar to Rawls in several ways, conceives the major purpose of the principles of social justice as protecting autonomy. More precisely, Reiman understands the purpose of such principles to be preventing subjugation of persons by others. (Jeffrey H. Reiman, Justice and Modern Moral Philosophy [Yale University Press, 1990])

In other words, Reiman does not conceive social justice primarily in terms of avoiding mutual destruction or in terms of dividing up ownership of things. Rather he thinks of it as avoiding, so far as possible, the unjustifiable domination of persons over persons, avoiding power trips (bullying) and oppression and exploitation. Reiman's interpretation of Rawls-like principles is especially important in connection with privacy issues.

Velasquez distinguishes two types of privacy--psychological and physical. Psychological privacy concerns a persons beliefs and thoughts. Physical privacy concerns one's physical activities. Physical activities express a person's mental and emotional life, and thus physical privacy may be partly justified in terms of the protection it gives to psychological privacy.

Some privacy issues are clearly culturally relative. To be observed in some activities is regarded as degrading to the individual being observed, but what these are may vary from one culture to another.

But there are broader, more universal issues at stake in the discussion of privacy as well.

Rights are designed to protect highly significant interests that people have. Privacy rights have both protective and enabling functions. The protective functions of privacy include:

  • to prevent others from obtaining information that would expose persons to shame, ridicule, embarrassment, blackmail, or other harm
  • to prevent others from interfering with our plans simply because they have a different conception of the good
  • to prevent persons from accidentally harming their own reputations
  • These protective functions are justified because people are not all saints, they are not all tolerant or respectful of religious or philosophical differences or diverse sexual orientations, some of them are inclined to abuse information they have about others. Moreover, many people wish to dominate others for purposes of economic or political gain.

    Among the enabling functions, a right to privacy

  • makes possible intimate relationships that would not be possible without privacy protections
  • makes possible the existence of certain important professional relations (doctor/patient, lawyer/client)
  • makes it possible for persons to sustain multiple social roles (a corporate manager may want, in his noncorporate role, to support political causes unpopular with the dominant mood among management--a low-level Enron manager may wish to support Ralph Nader)
  • gives persons control over how they present themselves to society.
  • Velasquez suggests several guidelines regarding collection of information about individuals:

  • the purpose of collecting the information must be legitimate
  • the information collected must be relevant to the purpose
  • the person about whom information is to be collected must be informed prior to the collection of the information
  • the party about whom data is being collected must consent to the collection of the data, either implicitly or explicitly
  • steps must be taken to ensure accuracy of the data
  • the recipients of the data must not proliferate and data bases must be secure (so that the data do not get beyond the entity that has a legitimate purpose to collect them and to whom consent to collect it has been given)
  • It would seem that these restrictions, which could be further discussed (as Velasquez does, pp. 365-68), would be endorsed by representative persons in the original position and included in the understanding of the Equal Liberties Principle that they would adopt to govern a just social order.