John Rawls on Concrete Moral Principles:

With Emphasis on Implications for Business Ethics

by Dr. Jan Garrett

March 14, 2005

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

This webpage assumes that the reader is familiar with the elements of John Rawls' philosophy described in John Rawls on Justice. For discussion of Rawls' more elaborate later views, see 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)