Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice

An Introduction for Students

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

for all material not otherwise attributed

Latest Minor Revision: August 24, 2005


   Sources and Related Work
   1. Introduction
   2. Two Moral Powers
   3. Comprehensive Doctrines
       (sometimes called "Comprehensive Views")
   4. A Political Conception of Justice
   5. Reasonable Citizens
   6. Reasonable Comprehensive Doctrines
   7. Social Contract Theories
   8. The Original Position
   9. Expounding the Principles of Justice
 10. The Two Principles of Justice
 11. More on the Equal Basic Liberties
 12. Basic Liberties and Property
 13. What Does the Second Principle Mean?

For related web pages see

Martha Nussbaum on Capabilities and Human Rights
John Rawls on Concrete Moral Principles: Implications for Business Ethics

For online materials related to John Rawls see Rawls On Line

The main source for this web page is:

John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1996); abbreviated as PL.
Important related works include:
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971); abbreviated TJ.
John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press, 2001); abbreviated JF
Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford University Press); abbreviated DF
Martha C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford University Press, 1999); abbreviated as SSJ.
Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Darrel Moellendorf, Cosmopolitan Justice (Westview Press, 2002); abbreviated CJ
The use of underscore for emphasis is mine, unless otherwise explicitly noted.--JG

1. Introduction

John Rawls is widely regarded as one of the most important political philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. He is primarily known for his theory of justice as fairness, which develops principles of justice to govern a modern social order. Rawls' theory provides a framework that explains the significance, in a society assumed to consist of free and equal persons, of political and personal liberties, of equal opportunity, and cooperative arrangements that benefit the more and the less advantaged members of society.

Darrel Moellendorf writes that Rawls' conception of justice, like any conception of justice whatsoever, is an associational conception. It is about relationships between members of an association. Rawls is chiefly concerned with the political association known as the modern nation-state. Moellendorf and other defenders of "cosmopolitan justice" apply the approach Rawls developed for the nation-state to the global community, which may be understood as an economic association even if there is no effective international political association. More may be said later about cosmopolitan justice. Here the important point is that Rawls' initial concern with justice is related to relationships between persons within an association.

Rawls' theory urges us to conceive of society "as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next." (PL 14) He says that "the . . . relationship of citizenship . . . [is] a relation of citizens within the basic structure of society, a structure we enter only by birth and exit only by death" (PL xlv).

2. Two moral powers

John Rawls develops a conception of justice from the perspective that persons are free and equal. Their freedom consists in their possession of the two moral powers, "a capacity for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good." (PL,19) Insofar as they have these to the degree necessary to be "fully cooperating members of society," they are equal.

A sense of justice is "the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of cooperation." This sense expresses "a willingness...to act in relation to others on terms that they also can publicly endorse" (ibid.).

A conception of the good includes "a conception of what is valuable in human life." Normally it consists "of a more or less determinate scheme of final ends, that is, ends [goals] that we want to realize for their own sake, as well as attachments to other persons and loyalties to various groups and associations." (PL 19) Rawls says that we also "connect such a conception with a view of our relation to the world...by reference to which the value and significance of our ends and attachments are understood" (PL 19-20)

An important concept for Rawls is the concept of a comprehensive doctrine or view. These include moral philosophies like utilitarianism and philosophical systems such as Kantianism, Platonism and Stoicism. They also include religious doctrines such as Augustinianism, Thomism, orthodox Judaism, etc. "Utilitarianism...: the principle of utility . . . is usually said to hold for all kinds of subjects ranging from the conduct of individuals to the organization of society as a whole as well as to the law of peoples." (PL 13)

3. Comprehensive Doctrines

A moral conception is comprehensive when it includes "conceptions of what is of value in human life, and ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct, and in the limit to our life as a whole. A conception is fully comprehensive if it covers all recognized values and virtues within one rather precisely articulated system; whereas a conception is only partially comprehensive when it comprises a number of, but by no means all, nonpolitical values and virtues and is rather loosely articulated." (13; see also 175) [my emphasis--J.G.]

The idea of a comprehensive conception or doctrine is crucial for Rawls, because the idea of a political conception of justice that he develops is contrasted with comprehensive doctrines. A comprehensive doctrine may include a political conception of justice but a political conception of justice falls far short of addressing questions of interest to the comprehensive doctrine. Thus, a political conception may address whether we are to respect freedom of speech and assembly for other comprehensive doctrines than our own, but it will not address the question of precisely how we should conduct ourselves so as to secure our happiness or eternal salvation. A political conception conceives of persons as having the two moral powers mentioned above, as being responsible for their actions, etc., but does not address whether persons are immortal souls or immaterial substances as, say, Plato and most medieval Christian theologians held.

Recall, as mentioned above, that Rawls conceives of "society as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next." (PL 14) He says that "the fundamental political relationship of citizenship ... [is] a relation of citizens within the basic structure of society, a structure we enter only by birth and exit only by death [and]...a relation of free and equal citizens who exercise ultimate political power as a collective body" (PL xlv).

4. Political Conception of Justice

A political conception of justice, says Rawls, has three basic features. First, "it is a moral conception worked out for a specific kind of subject, namely, for political, social, and economic institutions." Specifically, it is worked out for what Rawls' calls society's basic structure--society's main social, economic, and political institutions, and "how they fit together" into one "system of social cooperation from one generation to the next." (PL 11)

Second, says Rawls, the political conception is "presented as a freestanding view." It is neither presented as a comprehensive doctrine, nor as derived from a comprehensive doctrine, applied to the basic structure of society. This does not mean that it cannot be justified from within a comprehensive doctrine--indeed, it has no chance of success unless a number of comprehensive doctrines support it. What it means is that there exists a network of concepts in the "public political culture" from which the political conception can be explained and justified. "It is expounded apart from" any wider background made up of comprehensive doctrines.

Third, "its content is expressed in terms of certain fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society. This public culture comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation" (PL 13-14).

Rawls now regards his own theory of justice as fairness (involving his idea of the original position, the veil of ignorance, and the derivation of two principles of justice [TJ, 1971]) as a political conception of justice. Such a conception does not commit one who holds it to a doctrine about the metaphysical nature of persons (whether we consist of immortal souls or whether we are creatures of an eternal omniscient deity), although such commitments may well be part of a comprehensive doctrine. But it does commit the holder to certain moral stands in relation to fellow citizens in an existing political society, assuming that society does not deviate too far from the principles of justice outlined in Rawls' theory.

5. Reasonable Citizens

The political conception of justice points to a notion of reasonable citizens. "Citizens are reasonable when, viewing one another as free and equal in a system of cooperation over generations, they are prepared to offer one another fair terms of social cooperation . . . and they agree to act on those terms, even at the cost of their own interests in particular situations, provided that others also accept those terms. For those terms to be fair terms, citizens offering them must reasonably think that those citizens to whom they are offered might also reasonably accept them. . . . They must be able to do this as free and equal, and not as dominated or manipulated, or under the pressure of an inferior political or social position" (PL xliv; see also 49, 54). Rawls calls this the "criterion of reciprocity."

The second aspect of our being reasonable is "our recognizing and being willing to bear the consequences of the burdens of judgment." (PL 58) We are willing to recognize that reasonable persons can disagree without being prejudiced or biased or excessively self- or group interested or willful (PL 58). We recognize such sources of disagreement or burdens of judgment as:

* conflicting nature and complexity of evidence

* differences about weighting of considerations

* vagueness of concepts, borderline cases

* disparate experiences of diverse people

* different kinds of normative consideration of different force on both sides of an issue

* tendency of social institutions to force us to select some values for emphasis and de-select others (PL 56-57)

6. Reasonable Comprehensive Doctrines

Reasonable persons (in Rawls' special sense of reasonable) affirm only reasonable comprehensive doctrines (PL 59). Rawls notes three features of such a doctrine. (1) It "covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner." In this sense it is an exercise of theoretical reason. (2) In another sense it is an exercise of practical reason, since it determines what values to regard as highly significant and how to weigh them against each other when they conflict. (3) "It tends to evolve over time in the light of what it sees as good and sufficient reasons."

"The political conception of justice is a module, an essential constituent part, that fits into and can be supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it." (PL 12; see 144-45)

Finally, "reasonable persons think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable, though different from their own." (PL 60) What this means is that reasonable persons are not inclined to repress or outlaw religions different from their own. They would not do so even if their view were to become the majority and they had no fear of being repressed in turn.

"Reasonable persons see that the burdens of judgment set limits on what can be reasonably justified to others, and so they endorse some form of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought." (PL 61) This means that reasonable persons will grant others the freedom to explore religious and spiritual options even if these options differ from their own. They will permit members of their own faith to investigate others and to abandon that their original faith or form of spirituality if they are so moved. (A reasonable Christian or Muslim will not regard it as a crime if another member of his or her faith investigates Buddhism or decides to become a Buddhist.)

7. Social Contract Theory

One of the most discussed elements of Rawls' view of justice as fairness is his "modeling" device known as the Original Position. The Original Position has often been compared to the "state of nature" or the pre-political condition of humanity, which was important in the philosophies of early modern social contract theorists. According to thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, in order to understand political obligation, we should first
(I) conceive what human beings were like (or would have been like) before the creation of organized societies under governments and laws,

and then (II) ask

(A) what reasons would have motivated people to form an organized society and

(B) what principles human beings in this pre-political condition would have chosen to guide their interaction in a society under an established government.

In the social contract tradition there are three items to keep distinct: (1) the pre-political condition, (2) the political order established just as people were coming out of the pre-political condition, and (3) the actual (possibly flawed) order under which we now live. Because of its connection with (1), (2) was thought to reveal what arrangements are just or fair. (2) could then be used as a basis for justifying or critically evaluating (3).

8. The Original Position

Rawls' idea of the Original Position is similar, except that he is under no illusions that the Original Position was ever a reality. It is a model, an abstract mental device to help us understand something else, in this case, the principles of (political or social) justice. The three-way distinction basic to social contract theories reappears in Rawls' thought is as follows (I am simplifying somewhat):

(1) The Original Position

(2) The Just Social Order whose Basic Structure described by the Two Principles of Justice

(3) Actual Society

Representative persons in the Original Position are to choose principles of justice that would govern the basic structure of a (just and fair) social order. Each real person in the just social order has a representative in the Original Position. These representatives represent every human being that belongs to the political association of free and equal persons (Rawls focuses on the political community of the national states, but others extend Rawls' approach to global society conceived as an economic association.).

There are three fundamental features of the representatives in the Original Position that reflect the two moral powers of which we spoke earlier. The first is that the representatives are rational in the sense that they wish to secure for those they represent the kind of goods that would enable them to work out (including to revise if necessary) their own conceptions of the good and then try to realize this good. This feature recognizes that each person has a set of interests which are his or her own. These interests are linked to the person's moral power to form, revise, and pursue a conception of the good; in the case of persons with a comprehensive doctrine, the interests will be linked to the comprehensive doctrine.

The second fundamental feature of the representatives in the Original Position is summed up in the phrase The Veil of Ignorance. The representatives, unlike persons in the ideal society and unlike ourselves in a less than ideal society, stand behind the Veil of Ignorance. That is to say, they do not know the following about the persons they represent: their sex, race, physical handicaps, social class, or conception of the good. They rightly assume that the persons represented have these features but they do not know what it is.

A third feature of the representatives in the Original Position is that they possess a great deal of common sense general knowledge about human psychology and sociology. They know, for instance, that humans remember the past, anticipate the future, and interact with things and people in the present. They know that people have diverse talents and interests. They know that humans undertake projects of varying complexity--from traveling to a mall to raising a family to undertaking missionary work to fighting for social justice to undertaking medical research. They are aware of the general types of situations in which humans can find themselves (that people can be sick or healthy, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, skilled or unskilled, indebted or free from debt, in a healthy natural environment or a degraded one, enslaved or free, etc.

Specifically they are aware of that persons possess the two moral powers. They are aware that persons have a conception of the good.

The first and second features of the representatives in the Original Position correspond to the two moral powers. Our capacity to frame and pursue a conception of the good is reflected in the rationality of the representatives who choose for us in order to optimize our ability to investigate and pursue the good. Our capacity for a sense of justice is reflected in the operation of the Veil of Ignorance. The Veil of Ignorance is what makes their imaginary choices on our behalf fair.

9. Expounding the Principles of Justice from the Idea of the Original Position

As stated above, our representatives in the Original Position are given the task of selecting principles of justice that will govern the basic structure of society. To show briefly how they will reason, let us consider whether they would choose a principle of equal opportunity, say, a principle that would make economic discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or religion unjust.

Recall that they do not know specifics about the individual persons they represent but they are committed to optimizing the interests of those persons. The best way to achieve this would be to rule out discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or religion. For if discrimination were permitted, then persons at stage (2) who have (and know they have) a specific race, or gender, or religion would find themselves at a disadvantage. They would be denied economic opportunities, and thus they would be prevented, to some extent at least, from pursuing as effectively as they otherwise might their conception of the good. (We assume that pursuit of the good, however one conceives it, requires resources.)

10. The Two Principles of Justice

Rawls offers his notion of justice as fairness as an illustration of a political conception of justice. In its mature form (PL 291), this notion affirms the following principles:

I. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all,

II. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

The first of these is sometimes referred to as the Equal Liberty Principle. The stem of the second ("Social and economic liberties are to satisfy [the condition that]") together with the first condition is called the Principle of Equal Opportunity. The stem of the second together with the second condition is called the Difference Principle. (For more on the second principle, see What Does the Second Principle Mean?)

Rawls lists the following among the equal basic liberties: "freedom of thought and liberty of conscience; the political liberties and freedom of association, as well as the freedoms specified by the liberty and integrity of the person; and finally, the rights and liberties covered by the rule of law."

Rawls explains that in justice as fairness " . . . There is . . . a general presumption against imposing legal and other restrictions on conduct without sufficient reason. But this presumption creates no special priority for any particular liberty." (291-292) Slightly later (294) he writes: "the priority of liberty means that the first principle of justice assigns the basic liberties . . . a special status. They have an absolute weight with respect to reasons of public good and of perfectionist values. . . .The equal political liberties cannot be denied to certain social groups on the grounds that their having these liberties may enable them to block policies needed for economic efficiency and growth . . . The priority of liberty implies . . . that a basic liberty can be limited or denied solely for the sake of one or more other basic liberties."

A desire to increase the Gross National Product or make airlines run on an efficient schedule cannot alone justify the limitation of basic liberties.

11. More on the Equal Basic Liberties

It is important to explain what the first principle means by the phrase "fully adequate schme of equal basic liberties." First, what are included among the equal basic liberties? Rawls lists (PL 291):

1) freedom of thought

2) liberty of conscience

He later explains liberty of conscience as "liberty as applied to religious, philosophical, and moral view of our relation to the world." (PL 311)
3) political liberties

These liberties would require representative democratic institutions, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly. (PL 335)
4) freedom of association

5) freedoms specified by the liberty and integrity of the person

He later elaborates these as including freedom from slavery and serfdom and freedom of movement and choice regarding occupation. (PL 335)
6) rights and liberties covered by the rule of law
How does Rawls get this list? He says that it can be drawn up by considering "which liberties are essential social conditions for the adequate development and full exercise of the two powers of moral personality over a complete life." (PL 293)

One of those powers, we recall, is the formation of a conception of the good (life). "The liberty of conscience, and therefore the freedom to fall into error and make mistakes is among the social conditions for the development and exercise of [the] power [to form a conception of the good] (PL 313)

Thus freedom of thought and freedom of assembly are needed to make liberty of conscience effective. Regarding freedom of assembly, Rawls writes, "[U]nless we are at liberty to associate with other like-minded citizens, the exercise of liberty of conscience is denied." (313)

On this list, the equal political liberties are singled out for special treatment. Part of what it means to have a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties is this special treatment of the political liberties.

[What must be done is] including in the first principle of justice the guarantee that the political liberties, and only these liberties, are secured by . . . their "fair value." . . . [T]his guarantee means that the worth of the political liberties must be approximately equal, or at least sufficiently equal, . . . that everyone has a fair opportunity to hold political office and to influence the outcome of political decisions. When the parties in the original position adopt the priority of liberty, they understand that the equal political liberties are treated in this special way. (PL 327)

. . . one guideline for guaranteeing fair value seems to be to keep political parties independent of large concentrations of private economic and social power in a private-property democracy, and of government control and bureaucratic power in a . . . socialist regime. In either case, society must bear at least a large part of the cost of organizaing and carrying out the political process and must regulate the conduct of elections. The guarantee of fair value for the political liberties is one way in which justice as fairness [Rawls' theory of justice] tries to meet the objection that the basic liberties are merely formal. (PL 328)

The guarantee of fair value for the political liberties is essential to motivate the passing of just laws and to ensure that the fair political process specified by the constitution [constructed around Rawls' two principles] is "open to everyone on a basis of rough equality." (PL 330)

Why, it may be asked, should we not go farther and "guarantee the fair value" of the other basic liberties, such as liberty of conscience as applied to religious choices? Rawls points out that this would require that society distribute resources so that everyone would be equally able to fulfill their religious interests. But doing so would mean that members of certain faiths would receive funds needed to build cathedrals or go on pilgrimages to distant places while others, whose religious was less materially demanding, would receive very little. Society's neutrality with respect to comprehensive conceptions of the good, which is an essential feature of the political conception of justice, would be compromised (for it would seem that the basic structure would be underwritiing the comprehensive conceptions that demanded the most materially). As Rawls observes, this would be very divisive and a recipe for religious controversy if not civil strife. (PL 329-30)

12. Basic Liberties and Property

Rawls does include among the basic liberties of the person "the right to hold and to have the exclusive use of personal property." This is because this liberty is the basis for a sense of personal independence and self-respect.

Two wider conceptions, he says, are not included in the basic liberties: "certain rights of acquisition and bequest, as well as the right to own means of production and natural resources" and "the right to participate in the control of the means of production and natural resources, which are to be socially owned." (298) In other words, precisely how capitalistic or socialistic the economic model should be is to depend on factors that are not entirely dictated by the basic structure of a just social order. This issue would depend, among other things, upon the habits and attitudes of members of particular societies.

Rawls' view on this topic has been criticized by James Nickel, who thinks that a more vigorous defense of private property rights is possible using Rawls' own approach. (See James W. Nickel, "Economic Liberties," in V. Davion and Clark Wolf, eds., The Idea of a Political Liberalism: Essays on Rawls [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000].)

13. What does Rawls' Second 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 second principle contains elements of other familiar ethical theories. The "socialist" idea (see Justice: A Word with Many Meanings) 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 the Difference Principle 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.