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John Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” (1972) explains how social cooperation needs a system of justice and gives a basic idea of what justice means to the structure of society. Rawls presents the primary concept of justice as being fairness, an abstract extension of the social contract described by such philosophers as Locke, Rousseau and Kant. In Rawls’ theory, however, the social contract is replaced by a concept of an original position which allows for an original agreement on the principles of justice. Rawls contrasts this with the classical utilitarian view (p.3).

Rawls first considers the role of justice. He states that while society is seen as the cooperation of people for mutual advantage it also produces conflict through competing interests. Although social cooperation is the best way for people to better their lives there is a conflict of interests because people dispute inequalities of distribution of the products of society, or the goods produced through such cooperation. People tend to prefer a larger share to a lesser share. Therefore a set of just principles are needed to assign the rights and duties within societal institutions and define how benefits and burdens of societal cooperation are best distributed (p.4)

A just society is one where all know and accept the same principles of justice and the social institutions reflect these principles. Rawls maintains that human society needs a just charter to establish the limits of the pursuit of other ends and bring people with different aims and purposes together. Existing societies are usually in dispute about questions of justice. Rawls states that despite this they still have a concept of justice as being a set of principles that assign rights and duties and determine distribution of societal goods (p.5). For Rawls, the principles of justice should first identify the similarities and differences between people when establishing such assignments and distributions. Rawls states that individuals need to interact positively with each other so that their activities are compatible with each other and their plans can be carried through without infringing unjustly upon the rights of others. The outcomes of their plans should be compatible with justice. When justice is the priority of a social system it can be said that one notion of justice is preferable to another when its wider consequences are more beneficial (p.6).

Rawls next considers how best justice can serve a social system. He states that a just society’s institutions protect freedom of thought and conscience, free markets, private property, and the monogamous family. However, Rawls contends that such institutions are arbitrary in that there are inequalities within society that can affect an individual’s chances in life. Therefore, Rawls states that it is necessary for the principle of social justice to attend to these inequalities first in order to regulate the just economic and social system (p.7). Rawls goes onto say that it might be an idealistic theory but it provides the basis for the understanding of civil disobedience and allows an analysis of ‘the nature and aims of a perfectly just society’ (p.9).

Rawls puts forward the notion of an original agreement which posits that free and rational persons concerned with furthering their own interests would accept an initial position of equality (p.11). It is stated by Rawls that just as rational thinking determines what is in a person’s best interests so too can it also be extended to a group of people deciding what is just and unjust. So, Rawls describes a hypothetical original position which argues that there is no way of knowing where one’s place in society will be, what natural assets or liabilities they may have, or their intelligence or strength. Because of this, Rawls maintains that ‘the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance’. In that way no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles of justice through inequalities of social circumstance (p.12). For Rawls the original position ensures ‘that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair’. Therefore, Rawls states, when the social system enacts such principles of justice people will be able to cooperate with one another ensuring that their relationship is a fair one (p.13).

Rawls finally concludes that it would be questionable whether once these principles of justice, based upon an original agreement of equality, were in place that a principle of utility would be allowed. Rawls thinks that it is unlikely that people who consider themselves equal would allow a principle of justice that would require some to suffer inferior life prospects so that a greater utility could be enjoyed by a majority. In this regard utilitarianism seems incompatible with the notion of ‘social cooperation amongst equals for mutual advantage’. Instead of the principle of utility, Rawls contends that the person in a position of equality under the original agreement would choose two defining principles:

1)      that there is equality in the assignment of rights and duties;

2)      that inequalities of wealth and authority are only allowed if they result in compensating everyone, and especially the least advantaged.

Therefore, Rawls thinks that these principles rule out the utilitarian concept of allowing hardships for some if they are offset by a greater good for the many (p.14).

For the sake of survival rational people do not wish to be violated by others and they rely upon a system of justice to protect them from such violations. For Rawls, each person possesses such an inviolability based upon justice and the welfare of society as a whole cannot impinge upon these individual rights. For what if members of the majority were in the position of the minority, they would also want such a right to inviolability to be respected. Rawls argues that justice does not allow the loss of freedom for some to be made right by the greater good of the many. The accident of birth should not determine one’s liberties and for it to do so would be arbitrary rather than just. Under the veil of ignorance and the original position Rawls contends that each person would choose a society where they would respected with dignity even if they are a minority group. Rawls concludes that utilitarianism contradicts these basic precepts of justice, particularly those that concern liberty and rights. A utilitarian society is simply regarded as an efficient means through which the spreading of benefits can occur, and does not take into account the difference between persons. “Therefore 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” (p.3).

  • Rawls, J., (1972), Theory of Justice, Clarendon Press, Oxford