Rawls’s Theory of Justice

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Rawls’s Theory of Justice


John Rawls (1921-2002) was an American political and moral philosopher. He was considered one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. His first and classic book, A Theory of Justice, was very well-known and so influential that it is said to revive political and moral philosophy debates in American universities and beyond. In fact, it can be argued that philosophers who do political philosophy or justice after Rawls will do so for or against from his framework of justice theory.


Themis – Titan goddess of law and justice according to ancient Greeks.

John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1921. He studied at Princeton University and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1943. Later that year, he enlisted in the army and served in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he resigned from the army and returned to Princeton to study philosophy. He finished his PhD in moral philosophy in 1950 and taught there from 1950 to 1952. Then upon receiving a Fulbright Fellowship, he went to Oxford University to pursue further study. There he met the famed philosopher Isaiah Berlin and legal theorist H. L. A. Hart who would later become an influence in his thinking and writings.

When Rawls returned to America, he taught in Cornell (1953-1959), MIT (1960-1962), and later in Harvard, where he was appointed James Bryant Conant University Professor in 1979. It is during his time there at Harvard that he wrote his influential book, A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971. Rawls approached the theory of justice from a liberal spectrum in the tradition of social contract.


John Rawls in 1940’s

As much as Rawls’ book achieved critical acclaims, it also attracted hard critics – most notably his neighbor colleague in Harvard.  Robert Nozick provided a sharp libertarian critique of Rawls’ distributive justice idea in his seminal work, Anarchy, The State and Utopia (1974). Notable also are another Harvard fellow Michael Sandel’s communitarian critique and Gerald A. Cohen’s Marxist critique. In the revised edition of A Theory of Justice (1999), Rawls made clearer explanations and a few updates on materials but he kept and defended his central doctrines. He also published a new book, collected from his long experiences of lectures and discussions, for a greater understanding of his theory. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement was published in 2001.

Rawls vs Nozick

Rawls had other important books too, including Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (2000), and, of course, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), but A Theory of Justice (1971/1999) was the most widely read and well-known.  In 1995, Rawls suffered the first of several strokes. His illness weakened his condition, but he continued to work and managed to write three important books before he died in 2002 in Lexington, Massachusetts.



In A Theory of Justice, Rawls said that justice is the “first virtue” of social institutions. Laws and social institutions however elegant, efficient or well-arranged they may be, he argued, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Rawls expressed his strong disagreement with the prevailing Benthamite-Mill-inspired utilitarianism, which is usually shorthanded as the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number of people’. According to this system of thought, a thing’s value is measured by its utility (its usefulness) and that choices and actions should be directed toward the achievement or advantage for the greatest number of people. This means that the group or society’s wellbeing must always come first before the individual person’s.

Rawls vehemently rejected this principle of utility because it denies and deprives the basic rights, liberties and choices of individuals in favor of the advantage of the majority groups. “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override”, he argued, and that  “…in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”

Rawls instead wanted a principle that is just and fair, that which takes individual rights and liberty into account, and that which is in a “higher level” than the tradition of utilitarianism. He worked out his theory – “justice as fairness” – following the social contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Rawls’s theory considers individual lives and choices and thereby expresses democratic ideals and values. Moreover, he established the theory as a significant, viable alternative to the long-dominating utilitarian tradition.

Rawls imagined that for a society to have a just and fair principle and thus a just and fair operating institution, individuals that make up the basic structure of society must be free and rational persons who are capable of making just and fair decisions. He also reasoned that people who are free and rational will want to further their own interests and agenda. The problem is, since everyone will want to pursue their own interests, there will be disputes and conflicts among the people.

So a certain set of principles is required for creating and maintaining a well-ordered society in which the people will have to enter a certain agreement, a social contract. The same principles of justice will be applied to everyone equally and the benefits and burdens of social cooperation distributed fairly. In this sense, Rawls’ main interest was not necessarily to define what justice is, but rather what kind of justice principles would the people come to terms and agree with. To establish such rules and principles, Rawls posited a hypothetical thought-experiment – which he called the ‘original position’.


In the original position, everyone is equal and has the same social-economic status; they all start at the same footing. No one is more advantaged or less advantaged in this initial situation. To give an example of how this works, let us imagine a scenario.

Suppose that in a very far and remote land, a group of people want to create a society from scratch in this initial condition. Now they have a general view about life; knowledge about economics and politics; and information about histories – how the world’s empires rose up and collapsed, how society tended to be divided up into subunits or even polarized and so on. In this kind of situation, what kind of rules and laws, and what kind of social arrangements would people create and enact? Would they allow and agree to have laws that would favor the rich and provide disservice to the poor? Or would they rather choose laws that treat and provide the same opportunity to everyone? Would the people agree to establish a set of principles in which only the talented and educated are (to be) highly esteemed? Or, would they rather work for equality of opportunity?

Rawls’ ‘original position’ didn’t stop there. The hypothetical scenario says that the people in the original position do not know what their roles or statuses will be in the society they are going to establish. More specifically, Rawls put it that the people are striped off of information about themselves. (Okay, remember that this is a thought-experiment, and not a historical event.) So they don’t know whether they will be rich or poor, high status or low status, highly talented or not, and so on, in the new society.

Now in this kind of situation, what kind of laws and principles would people likely to create and agree upon to execute? Rawls suggested that since people don’t know what they would become – their social status, age, sex, income, wealth, abilities, strength and talents – or, what their roles or status will be in the new society, surely, they would be compelled to create a set of principles that is just and fair for everyone. So, as he wrote, the principles of justice are chosen ‘behind a veil of ignorance’.

This doesn’t, however, mean that Rawls actually believed that actual society and social-political principles arose this way in human history. Instead, Rawls was more interested in people’s capability to come up with the sense of justice and the conception of the good – from how they perceive justice to how they choose solutions for a just and fair society, and what those just and fair principles of a society are.




Rawls then developed two principles of justice that would be agreed in the original position. The two principles go like these:

  • Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.
  • Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (A Theory of Justice, revised edition, p. 53)


The first one is basic “libertyprinciple, usually associated with the traditional notion of liberalism and democracy. The liberty principle argues that everyone must have equal basic liberties, which comprises individual rights (such as freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of worship). Also political liberties (such as the right to vote, the right to political participation, and the right to hold public offices) as well as freedom of persons, which includes freedom from physical coercion, threat and psychological oppression and the right necessary to secure the rule of law (such as the right to hold personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure). Rawls argued that these basic rights and liberties cannot be infringed or violated under any circumstances, even if it means to have a higher level of equality, economic gains or welfare.

The second principle applies to the distribution of income and wealth, authority and responsibility, and social values – and it is called the democratic “equality” principle. This principle has two distinct but related clauses that include the words “to everyone’s advantage” in clause (a) and “open to all” in clause (b). It allows social and economic inequalities so long as the conditions in the two clauses are met. Clause (a) of principle 2 is called the difference principle.

The difference principle, sometimes also called ‘maximin’ principle, says that social and economic inequalities are justifiable as long as it makes the least well off – that is, to provide the greatest benefits and to maximize the wellbeing of the least advantaged people. Clause (b) of principle 2 is called the principle of (fair) equality of opportunity. This principle argues that everyone must have fair and equal opportunity to access to important positions and offices. This also means that society must provide the basic means and opportunities necessary for everyone to compete for and hold desirable positions and offices.

As Rawls put it, “All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.” So, according to this concept, injustice then would simply be inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.” In fact, Rawls seemed to believe that some kind of inequality of income and wealth is necessary for the purpose of productivity.



Rawls’ theory of justice stemmed from his idea of a well-ordered society in which the people in the basic structure of society have the sense of justice and the conception of the good. This is the situation where free and equal persons are capable of making conscious choices for social cooperation. In Rawls’ own words, “a society is well-ordered when it is not only designed to advance the good of its member but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice. That is, it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows the others accept the same principle of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles.” (A Theory of Justice, revised edition, p. 4).

Rawls’ justice as fairness idea is also influenced by his belief of being advantaged or disadvantaged in society as totally a matter of luck than desert (deservedness). He would argue that a person’s status or influence is greatly the result of one’s own family upbringing and geopolitical environment that person grew up into which that person clearly didn’t work for, and that shouldn’t be a reason to the person to have the privilege of greater natural assets  in the initial state in a just society. “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting point in society,” he wrote.

Basically, Rawls was arguing that no person really ‘works’ to deserve whether they will be born in a rich family or on a suburb alleyway. In fact, while there are many definite instances where a person’s own actions and efforts bring great success or high social-esteem, whether a person will be born in a free and prosperous land in a rich and noble family is purely a matter of luck than desert or choice. Rawls thus reasoned that an ideal society must have and start with an equal base – with basic equal liberty and fair equality of social and economic opportunities for all people.

In sum, Rawls’ theory of justice has sparked renewed interests in political-moral philosophy and provided a significant alternative theory to the preeminent utilitarian tradition that has dominated the western world for centuries. Rawls postulated two principles – the basic liberty principle and the democratic equality of opportunity – to establish the guiding principles of a just and fair society and its major institutions.

Moreover, Rawls believed that the justice as fairness theory is most compatible with what he called a “property-owning democracy” (or a “liberal socialist regime”, but not laissez-fair capitalism nor a welfare-state capitalism) in which the ownership of wealth and capital are widely circulated at the beginning of each period (rather than at the end of each period) and thus “prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy and indirectly political life itself.”

Nonetheless, whereas Rawls distinguishably favored a “property-owning democracy” over a welfare-state, he said that whether the principles of ‘justice as fairness’ are best realized either by a “property-owning democracy” or a “liberal socialist regime” (democratic socialism) will be best settled by the particular circumstances – the historical conditions, traditions, institutions, and social forces – of each country.

Gin Suan Tung

December 17, 2018

References & Source Materials

  1. (2011). The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. “John Rawls (1921-2002)”. New York, NY: DK Publishing. Pp. 294-295.
  2. Brian Duignan, Ed. (2010). The 100 Most Influential Philosophers of All Time. Encyclopaedia Britannica. “John Rawls”. New York, NY: Britannica Educational Publishing. Pp. 305-308.
  3. John Rawls. (1999). A Theory of Justice, Revised Ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gin Suan Tung

Gin Suan Tung

Gin Suan Tung is a teacher and educator from Kalaymyo, Myanmar. He is interested in philosophy, science, history and theory.
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