A Theory of Justice

A Theory of Justice

Overview
A Theory of Justice is a book of political philosophy
Political philosophy
Political philosophy is the study of such topics as liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it...

 and ethics
Ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

 by John Rawls
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

. It was originally published in 1971 and revised in both 1975 (for the translated editions) and 1999. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice
Distributive justice
Distributive justice concerns what some consider to be socially just allocation of goods in a society. A society in which incidental inequalities in outcome do not arise would be considered a society guided by the principles of distributive justice...

 by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social contract
Social contract
The social contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept...

. The resultant theory is known as "Justice as Fairness", from which Rawls derives his two famous principles of justice: the liberty principle and the difference principle.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty
Liberty
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

 and equality
Equality before the law
Equality before the law or equality under the law or legal egalitarianism is the principle under which each individual is subject to the same laws....

.
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Encyclopedia
A Theory of Justice is a book of political philosophy
Political philosophy
Political philosophy is the study of such topics as liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it...

 and ethics
Ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

 by John Rawls
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

. It was originally published in 1971 and revised in both 1975 (for the translated editions) and 1999. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice
Distributive justice
Distributive justice concerns what some consider to be socially just allocation of goods in a society. A society in which incidental inequalities in outcome do not arise would be considered a society guided by the principles of distributive justice...

 by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social contract
Social contract
The social contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept...

. The resultant theory is known as "Justice as Fairness", from which Rawls derives his two famous principles of justice: the liberty principle and the difference principle.

Objective


In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty
Liberty
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

 and equality
Equality before the law
Equality before the law or equality under the law or legal egalitarianism is the principle under which each individual is subject to the same laws....

. Central to this effort is an account of the circumstances of justice (inspired by David Hume
David Hume
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment...

), and a fair choice situation (closer in spirit to Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

) for parties facing such circumstances. Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. These parties face moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic: they have ends which they seek to advance, but desire to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms. Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation (the original position
Original position
The original position is a hypothetical situation developed by American philosopher John Rawls as a thought experiment to replace the imagery of a savage state of nature of prior political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. In it, the parties select principles that will determine the basic structure...

 with its veil of ignorance) within which parties would hypothetically choose mutually acceptable principles of justice. Under such constraints, Rawls believes that parties would find his favored principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over varied alternatives, including utilitarian and libertarian
Libertarianism
Libertarianism, in the strictest sense, is the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the basic moral principle of society. In the broadest sense, it is any political philosophy which approximates this view...

 accounts.

The “original position”


Like Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

, Locke
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

, Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

 and Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

, Rawls belongs to the social contract
Social contract
The social contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept...

 tradition. However, Rawls' social contract takes a slightly different view from that of previous thinkers. Specifically, Rawls develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of an entirely and deliberately artificial device he calls the Original position in which everyone decides principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. This "veil" is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves that might cloud what their notion of justice is
"no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."


According to Rawls, ignorance of these details about oneself will lead to principles that are fair to all. If an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is likely not going to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly. In particular, Rawls claims that those in the Original Position would all adopt a maximin
Minimax
Minimax is a decision rule used in decision theory, game theory, statistics and philosophy for minimizing the possible loss for a worst case scenario. Alternatively, it can be thought of as maximizing the minimum gain...

 strategy which would maximise the prospects of the least well-off.
They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association [Rawls, p 11]


It is important to keep in mind that the agreement that stems from the original position is both hypothetical and ahistorical. It is hypothetical in the sense that the principles to be derived are what the parties would, under certain legitimating conditions, agree to, not what they have agreed to. In other words, Rawls seeks to persuade us through argument that the principles of justice that he derives are in fact what we would agree upon if we were in the hypothetical situation of the original position and that those principles have moral weight as a result of that. It is ahistorical in the sense that it is not supposed that the agreement has ever, or indeed could actually be entered into as a matter of fact.

Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two such principles, which would then govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society. The difference principle permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. Rawls believes that this principle would be a rational choice for the representatives in the original position for the following reason: Each member of society has an equal claim on their society’s goods. Natural attributes should not affect this claim, so the basic right of any individual, before further considerations are taken into account, must be to an equal share in material wealth. What, then, could justify unequal distribution? Rawls argues that inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of those who are worst-off.

The First Principle of Justice



The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (i.e., to vote and run for office), freedom of speech
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is the freedom to speak freely without censorship. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used...

 and assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest. However, he says:

liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g. means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire
Laissez-faire
In economics, laissez-faire describes an environment in which transactions between private parties are free from state intervention, including restrictive regulations, taxes, tariffs and enforced monopolies....

 are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle.


The first principle may not be violated, even for the sake of the second principle, above an unspecified but low level of economic development (i.e. the first principle is, under most conditions, lexically prior to the second principle). However, because various basic liberties may conflict, it may be necessary to trade them off against each other for the sake of obtaining the largest possible system of rights. There is thus some uncertainty as to exactly what is mandated by the principle, and it is possible that a plurality of sets of liberties satisfy its requirements.

The Second Principle of Justice

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (Rawls, 1971, p.303; revised edition, p. 47):

(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
(b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity


Rawls' claim in (a) is that departures from equality of a list of what he calls primary goods—"things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants" [Rawls, 1971, pg. 92]—are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst-off under that distribution in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution. His position is at least in some sense egalitarian, with a proviso that equality is not to be achieved by worsening the position of the least advantaged. An important consequence here, however, is that inequalities can actually be just on Rawls' view, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off. His argument for this position rests heavily on the claim that morally arbitrary factors (for example, the family one is born into) shouldn't determine one's life chances or opportunities. Rawls is also keying on an intuition that a person does not morally deserve their inborn talents; thus that one is not entitled to all the benefits they could possibly receive from them; hence, at least one of the criteria which could provide an alternative to equality in assessing the justice of distributions is eliminated.

The stipulation in (b) is lexically prior to that in (a). Fair equality of opportunity requires not merely that offices and positions are distributed on the basis of merit, but that all have reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills on the basis of which merit is assessed. It may be thought that this stipulation, and even the first principle of justice, may require greater equality than the difference principle, because large social and economic inequalities, even when they are to the advantage of the worst-off, will tend to seriously undermine the value of the political liberties and any measures towards fair equality of opportunity.

Relationship to Rawls' later work


Although Rawls never retreated from the core argument of A Theory of Justice, he modified his theory substantially in subsequent works. The discussion in this entry is limited to his views as they stood in A Theory of Justice, which stands on its own as an important (if controversial and much criticized) work of political philosophy.

His subsequent work is discussed in the entry titled John Rawls
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

. Of particular note is his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement
Justice as Fairness: A Restatement
Justice as Fairness: A Restatement is a book of political philosophy by John Rawls, a revision of his classic A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001. This shorter summary of the main arguments of Rawls' political philosophy was edited by Erin Kelly...

(2001), in which he clarified and re-organised much of the argument of A Theory of Justice.

Criticisms


In 1974, Rawls' colleague at Harvard, Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick was an American political philosopher, most prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia , a right-libertarian answer to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice...

, published a defense of libertarian
Libertarianism
Libertarianism, in the strictest sense, is the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the basic moral principle of society. In the broadest sense, it is any political philosophy which approximates this view...

 justice, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a work of political philosophy written by Robert Nozick in 1974. This minarchist book was the winner of the 1975 National Book Award...

. Because it is, in part, a reaction to A Theory of Justice, the two books are now often read together. Another Harvard colleague, Michael Walzer
Michael Walzer
Michael Walzer is a prominent American political philosopher and public intellectual. A professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, he is co-editor of Dissent, an intellectual magazine that he has been affiliated with since his years as an undergraduate at...

, wrote a defense of communitarian political philosophy, Spheres of Justice
Spheres of Justice
Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality is a book written by Michael Walzer .In it, Walzer argues in favour of an idea he calls "complex equality", and against the view that goods with different meaning and content can be lumped together into the larger category of primary goods, as...

, as a result of a seminar he co-taught with Nozick. In a related line of criticism, Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel
Michael J. Sandel is an American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for the Harvard course 'Justice' which is available to , and for his critique of Rawls' A Theory of Justice in his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice...

 (also a Harvard colleague) wrote Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which criticized A Theory of Justice for asking us to think about justice while divorcing ourselves from the very values and aspirations that define us. Sandel's line of argument in part draws on critiques of Rawls advanced by both Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor (philosopher)
Charles Margrave Taylor, is a Canadian philosopher from Montreal, Quebec best known for his contributions in political philosophy, the philosophy of social science, and in the history of philosophy. His contributions to these fields have earned him both the prestigious Kyoto Prize and the...

 and Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre is a British philosopher primarily known for his contribution to moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology...

 who argue for the importance of moral ontologies for ethical arguments.

Robert Paul Wolff
Robert Paul Wolff
Robert Paul Wolff is a contemporary American political philosopher and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wolff has written widely on many topics in political philosophy such as Marxism, tolerance , political justification and democracy. Wolff is also well known for his work on...

 wrote Understanding Rawls: A Critique and Reconstruction of A Theory of Justice immediately following the publication of A Theory of Justice, which criticized Rawls from a roughly Marxist perspective. Wolff argues in this work that Rawls' theory is an apology for the status quo insofar as it constructs justice from existing practice and forecloses the possibility that there may be problems of injustice embedded in capitalist social relations, private property or the market economy.

Feminist critics of Rawls, such as Susan Moller Okin
Susan Moller Okin
Susan Moller Okin was a liberal feminist political philosopher and author.- Works :In 1979 she published Women in Western Political Thought, in which she details the history of the perceptions of women in western political philosophy.Her 1989 book Justice, Gender, and the Family is a critique of...

, largely focused on the extent to which Rawls' theory could account for (if at all) injustices and hierarchies embedded in familial relations. Rawls argued that justice ought only to apply to the "basic structure of society." Feminists, rallying around the theme of "the personal is political," took Rawls to task for failing to account for injustices found in patriarchal social relations and the gendered division of labor, especially in the household.

The assumptions of the original position, and in particular, the use of maximin
Minimax
Minimax is a decision rule used in decision theory, game theory, statistics and philosophy for minimizing the possible loss for a worst case scenario. Alternatively, it can be thought of as maximizing the minimum gain...

 reasoning, have also been criticized (most notably by Kenneth Arrow
Kenneth Arrow
Kenneth Joseph Arrow is an American economist and joint winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics with John Hicks in 1972. To date, he is the youngest person to have received this award, at 51....

 and John Harsanyi
John Harsanyi
John Charles Harsanyi was a Hungarian-Australian-American economist and Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner....

), with the implication either that Rawls designed the original position to derive the two principles, or that an original position more faithful to its initial purpose would not lead to his favored principles. In reply Rawls has emphasized the role of the original position as a "device of representation" for making sense of the idea of a fair choice situation for free and equal citizens. Rawls has also emphasized the relatively modest role that maximin plays in his argument: it is "a useful heuristic rule of thumb" given the curious features of choice behind the veil of ignorance.

Some egalitarian critics have raised concerns over Rawls' emphasis on primary social goods. For instance, Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen, CH is an Indian economist who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to welfare economics and social choice theory, and for his interest in the problems of society's poorest members...

 has argued that we should attend not only to the distribution of primary goods, but also how effectively people are able to use those goods to pursue their ends. In a related vein, Norman Daniels
Norman Daniels
Prof. Norman Daniels, PhD, is an American philosopher, ethicist, and bioethicist at Harvard. Currently, Norman Daniels is in the of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston....

 has wondered why healthcare shouldn't be treated as a primary good, and some of his subsequent work has addressed this question, arguing for a right to health care within a broadly Rawlsian framework.

Philosopher Allan Bloom
Allan Bloom
Allan David Bloom was an American philosopher, classicist, and academic. He studied under David Grene, Leo Strauss, Richard McKeon and Alexandre Kojève. He subsequently taught at Cornell University, the University of Toronto, Yale University, École Normale Supérieure of Paris, and the University...

, a student of Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss was a political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated to the United States...

, criticized Rawls for failing to account for the existence of natural right in his theory of justice, and wrote that Rawls absolutizes social union as the ultimate goal which would conventionalize everything into artifice.

Recent criticisms of Rawls' theory have come from the philosopher G.A. Cohen. Cohen's series of influential papers culminated first in his book, If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? and then in his later work, Rescuing Justice and Equality. Cohen's criticisms are leveled against Rawls' avowal of inequality under the difference principle, against his application of the principle only to social institutions, and against Rawlsian fetishism with primary goods (again, the metric which Rawls chooses as his currency of equality).

Philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, a former student of Rawls', critiques and attempts to revitalize A Theory of Justice in his 2009 book The Idea of Justice
The Idea of Justice
The Idea of Justice is a 2009 book by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. The book has been described by The Economist as "commanding summation of Mr Sen’s own work on economic reasoning and on the elements and measurement of human well-being"...

. He defends the basic notion of justice as fairness but attacks the notion that the two principles of justice emerging from the Original position are necessary. Sen claims that there are multiple possible outcomes of the reflective equilibrium behind the veil of ignorance.

Finally, political philosopher Charles Blattberg
Charles Blattberg
Charles Blattberg is a professor of political philosophy at the Université de Montréal. Blattberg grew up in Toronto and completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, where he also served as president of its Students’ Administrative Council during the 1989–90 academic...

 has recently criticized Rawls' theory for treating politics as if it were, or could be, like a game. To Blattberg, this fails to take politics seriously enough.

See also

  • American philosophy
    American philosophy
    American philosophy is the philosophical activity or output of Americans, both within the United States and abroad. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that while American philosophy lacks a "core of defining features, American Philosophy can nevertheless be seen as both reflecting and...

  • Ken Binmore
  • Lottery of birth
    Lottery of birth
    The lottery of birth is a philosophical argument that states: since no one chooses where they are born, they should not be held responsible for something that is beyond their control ....

  • John Stuart Mill
    John Stuart Mill
    John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...

  • Social liberalism
    Social liberalism
    Social liberalism is the belief that liberalism should include social justice. It differs from classical liberalism in that it believes the legitimate role of the state includes addressing economic and social issues such as unemployment, health care, and education while simultaneously expanding...

  • Utilitarianism
    Utilitarianism
    Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness", by whatever means necessary. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can...

  • Wealth redistribution

Further reading

  • Thomas Nagel, "Rawls on Justice," The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2. (Apr., 1973).