John Rawls on Justice

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

This web page was revised September 3, 2002; minor rev. September 2011

Note. This web page is based primarily on ideas contained in John Rawls' influential book A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), which has been discussed by many philosophers and nonphilosophers alike. Its ideas are often quoted and paraphrased in textbooks for Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, and Business Ethics courses. But Rawls has gone beyond his views of 1971, and philosophy courses are beginning to take his important later thinking into account. The later ideas of Rawls to some extent build on the earlier work summarized below. A new webpage has been developed to accompany the discussion of Rawls' later ideas. See John Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice.


  1. Introduction

  2. Rawls' Method

  3. Rawls' Two Principles of Justice

  4. Beyond Rawls


Selecting Principles of Justice. Different principles of distributive justice are proposed by different philosophers. Does that mean that we may choose any one of them with equal justification? A "yes" answer to this question would make disputes about fairness impossible to settle. To avoid this, we must find some non-arbitary method of selecting among proposed principles of justice.

The Uses of Tradition.One method for resolving this issue might be to follow the traditions of various practices that have grown up over time. For example, the practice of grading students for their performance in academic courses now includes a merit principle for determining most grades: the grade a student receives should reflect the quantity and quality of her work. It might be said in defense of such traditions that they have survived because they have proven more satisfactory to the parties affected, considered collectively, than other conceivable alternatives, such as giving everyone the same grade or handing out grades in accordance with the student's ability to pay. To argue this way would be to reinforce the argument from tradition ("we've done it that way for a long time") by a kind of Utilitarian argument ("let's optimize society's satisfaction").

The Problem of Radically Unjust Traditions. But traditions can be oppressive and unjust. Activities that take place within unjust social systems can themselves be unjust, in spite of their traditional nature. Thus a practice of giving a person that which is "his" can be unjust. Suppose this rule is included within a system of slave property, the "property" in question is a slave, and the practice would require someone meeting an escaped slave to return the slave to his or her master. The fact that the slave system is unjust raises doubts about the justice of activities that occur within that system, such as returning escaped "property" to its "owners." What is needed is a way to determine when social systems, or the rules of justice that govern society a s a whole, are just:

Such an approach to the selection of rules of distributive justice is provided by John Rawls. Rawls' approach is not Utilitarian and it does not rely heavily on arguments from tradition.

John Rawls' Method

We are to imagine ourselves in what Rawls calls the Original Position. We are all self-interested rational persons and we stand behind "the Veil of Ignorance." To say that we are self-interested rational persons is to say that we are motivated to select, in an informed and enlightened way, whatever seems advantageous for ourselves.

To say that we are behind a Veil of Ignorance is to say we do not know the following sorts of things: our sex, race, physical handicaps, generation, social class of our parents, etc. But self-interested rational persons are not ignorant of (1) the general types of possible situations in which humans can find themselves; (2) general facts about human psychology and "human nature".

Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance are given the task of choosing the principles that shall govern actual world. Rawls believes that he has set up an inherently fair procedure here. Because of the fairness of the procedure Rawls has described, he says, the principles that would be chosen by means of this procedure would be fair principles.

A self-interested rational person behind the Veil of Ignorance would not want to belong to a race or gender or sexual orientation that turns out to be discriminated-against. Such a person would not wish to be a handicapped person in a society where handicapped are treated without respect. So principles would be adopted that oppose discrimination.

Likewise, a self-interested rational person would not want to belong to a generation which has been allocated a lower than average quantity of resources. So (s)he would endorse the principle: "Each generation should have roughly equal resources" or "Each generation should leave to the next at least as many resources as they possessed at the start."

The corollary of this, in rights terms, is that all generations have the same rights to resources, future as well as present.

John Rawls' principles of justice.

Rawls argues that self-interested rational persons behind the veil of ignorance would choose two general principles of justice to structure society in the real world:

1) Principle of Equal Liberty: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all. (Egalitarian.)

2) Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.

(1) is egalitarian, since it distributes extensive liberties equally to all persons.

(2b) is also quite egalitarian, since it distributes opportunities to be considered for offices and positions in an equal manner.

(2a) is not egalitarian but makes benefit for some (those with greater talents, training, etc.) proportionate to their contribution toward benefiting the least advantaged persons.

(1) obviously echoes, without exactly duplicating, libertarianism in its commitment to extensive liberties.

What does the Difference Principle mean? It means that society may undertake projects that require giving some persons more power, income, status, etc. than others, e.g., paying accountants and upper-level managers more than assembly-line operatives, provided that the following conditions are met:

(a) the project will make life better off for the people who are now worst off, for example, by raising the living standards of everyone in the community and empowering the least advantaged persons to the extent consistent with their well-being,

and (b) access to the privileged positions is not blocked by discrimination according to irrelevant criteria.

The Difference Principle has elements of other familiar ethical theories. The "socialist" idea (see Distributive Justice) that responsibilities or burdens should be distibuted according to ability and benefits according to need is partly contained within the Difference Principle. We may reasonably assume that the "least advantaged" have the greatest needs and that those who receive special powers (hinted at under "social inequalities") also have special responsibilities or burdens. However, the merit principle that the use of special skills should be rewarded is also included in the Difference Principle.

What (2a) does not permit is a change in social and economic institutions that makes life better for those who are already well off but does nothing for those who are already disadvantaged, or makes their life worse.

Example: policies that permit nuclear power plants which degrade the environment for nearby family farmers but provide jobs for already well-paid professionals who come in from the big cities.

Beyond Rawls

Rawls' theory of justice was set forth in his book A Theory of Justice ( Harvard University Press, 1971). Since then it has been much discussed, and attempts have been made to improve and clarify it, not least by Rawls himself. One of those attempts at improvement is that of Martha C. Nussbaum (Women and Human Development), who has reinterpreted Rawls' argument from the perspective of Substantial Freedom, an idea she gets from Amartya Sen.

For Nussbaum the liberties mentioned in the Principle of Equal Liberty, if they are to be meaningful at all, are capabilities or substantial freedoms, real opportunities based on natural and developed potentialities as well as the presence of governmentally supported institutions, to engage in political deliberation and planning over one's own life.

Likewise, for Nussbaum, the concern of the Difference Principle to raise up those who are least advantaged must be clarified in light of substantial freedoms. What is needed, in her view, is a commitment by citizens and governments to a threshold of real opportunities below which no human being should fall if she is able to rise above it.