John Rawls: A Brief Account

Rawls is interested in A Theory of Justice in exploring what social policies should be implemented.  He adopts a non-utilitarian position and he accepts a broadly liberal individualistic approach, in which liberty and rights are important. His starting point is a claim about justice, based upon which we can work out how rights are to be assigned.

The problem of distributive justice

Solving the problem of distributive justice is often thought to present a conflict between two competing values:
a)              one is the value of liberty or freedom, which tells us that the less government interference in our lives the better, or at least this is what many people claim it tells us
b)             the other is equality, which tells us that unless there is a good reason to do otherwise, the benefits and burdens of social cooperation should be distributed equally
But since in most cases the benefits and burdens of social cooperation are not distributed equally, this requires some and sometime government interference in our lives, hence the supposed conflict with liberty
Ronald Dworkin has an argument that this supposed conflict is illusory—that our interest in liberty is no more than that—an interest, while our interest in equality is in fact a right, and that to the extent we have a right to certain basic liberties, these stem from notions of equality, not liberty

For a notion of justice see:
For distributive justice see:

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice

The circumstances of justice

One of the first points that Rawls makes is that questions of distributive justice arise only under certain circumstances—what David Hume called the circumstances of justice (see David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature).

What are the circumstances of justice?

Limited resources and limited altruism.

Even if Rawls and Hume were both wrong about the circumstances of justice—we would still need principles of justice even under conditions of superabundance and unlimited altruism

Rawls’s criticisms of other theories of justice


Intuitionism is the doctrine that there are an irreducible family of first principles (e.g. equality and freedom) which have to be weighed against one another in resolving questions of justice by asking which balance, in our considered judgment, is most just.


Utilitarianism avoids the priority problem by using the single criterion of the principle of utility
but Rawls criticizes utilitarianism on two grounds: it gives the good priority over the right and it ignores the distinctness of persons

Reflective Equilibrium and The Contractarian Method

Rawls argues that they would in fact choose two principles, which together he calls justice as fairness
a.         The first principle is that people are entitled to the most extensive system of basic liberties compatible with a similar system for everyone else
b.        The second principle is that social and economic inequalities are justified only if:
1.     They are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and
2.     They benefit the least advantaged, meaning that some lesser degree of inequality would make the least advantaged members of society even worse off, a principle that Rawls calls the difference principle

The first principle has lexical priority over the second, meaning that the first must be fully satisfied before you apply the second, and thus you cannot sacrifice any aspect of basic liberty in favor of greater social and economic equality
c.         And the first part of the second principle—the principle of fair equality of opportunity—has lexical priority over the difference principle, meaning you cannot sacrifice fair equality of opportunity for greater social and economic equality either
Note: the first principle protects only the specified basic liberties, not liberty in general
The basic liberties referred to in the first principle are political liberty, freedom of thought, freedom of the person, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure.

What are the strains of commitment?

The strains of commitment are the reasons why a party might violate an agreement or urge renegotiation
If a party is likely to violate their agreement to be bound by the difference principle or urge renegotiation once the veil of ignorance has been lifted, the strains of commitment will be excessive and the principles of justice selected from behind the veil of ignorance will be unstable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s