John Rawls : Theory of Justice

John Rawls is a contemporary American Philosopher who is regarded as the first original theorist of justice since the times of Aristotle and Plato and other ancient political philosophers. His theory of justice had brought a lot of attention in the world of political philosophy. With the publication of his book called ‘A Theory of Justice’. So as to arrive at the principles of Justice Rawls used Locke’s methodology of ‘social contract’. His theory of justice focuses on a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights, enjoying equal opportunities of advancement and cooperating to achieve a common goal.

Rawls famous works are- ‘A theory of Justice’ (1971), ‘Political Liberalism’(1993), ‘The Law of Peoples’ (1999), and ‘Justice and Fairness’(2001). In his celebrated book ‘A theory of Justice’ he asserts that a good society is characterized by a number of virtues. Justice is the first virtue of a good society. In other words, Justice is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a good society. Those who argue that justice should not come in the way of social advancement and progress run the risk of losing the moral degradation of the society. In a just society, justice is established as the foundation of social structure. Hence all political and legislative decisions should be designed to fulfil the requirements of justice.

Rawlsian theory of justice focuses on two things.

  1. Distributive Principle
  2. Difference Principle

Distributive principles focus on the availability of basic or primary goods to call. Equal rights, equal opportunities and same income.

While Difference principles focuses more on the arrangement of social and economic inequalities in a way that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged person and are attached to positions open to all under conditions of fair equality and opportunity.

Rawls sets out two basic moral principles of justice which constitutional democracy should satisfy. First, each person engaged in institution affected by it has an equal right to its most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all.

Second, inequalities as defined by the institutional structure or fostered by it are arbitrary, unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out to everyone’s advantage and provided that the positions and offices to which they may be gained are open to all.

Rawls Theory of Justice

John Rawls was an ardent advocate of fairness and equality of opportunity. He believed that if people were put under the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ then they would choose themselves to be in a position where everyone will get equal opportunity and income. He has used the style of the contractualists like Hobbes and Locke in arriving at the need for the usage of ‘Original Position’ , This theory is also called as contractarian theory of justice. He is against the utilitarian concept of justice where the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ is held valid. He believes that human beings are ‘rational agents’ who will in their ‘original position’ always make sure to keep themselves in a position where they get equal opportunities. Each individual is selfish and an intelligent negotiator who carefully negotiates with other human beings. Sometimes the individuals do not know of this fact that distribution of offices or rewards is justly done according to the results of a competition conducted in a fair manner.

Rawls take up the issues of just distributive justice on focusing two principles.

  • Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for all.
  • Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

While the first principle reflects a traditional liberal commitment to formal equality, the second principle (the so- called difference principle) points towards a significant measure of social equality.

Justice requires that each and every single individual have equality in the nature of equal rights and opportunities and some income. Each person should have some income and so for this the state should eradicate economic inequality Only then the least advantaged person may have the benefit of improving his lot so as to become the highest member of his society.  Such a situation shall strengthen the incentives and enlarge the size of the social cake. In his view the people will support it if they were not placed under the ‘ veil of ignorance’ which deprives them of the knowledge of their social position and status. The people cooperating together for mutual advantage should have an equal claim to the fruits of their cooperation and should not be penalized as a result of their gender, race and genetic inheritance over which they have no control. Redistribution and welfare are therefore ‘Just ‘, because they confirm to the widely held view of what is fair.

According to Rawls the problem of justice consists in ensuring a just distribution of ‘primary goods’ which include rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, means of self-respect and so on. Rawls described his theory as the theory of pure procedural justice. It means that once certain means of principles of justice are accepted, the distributive resulting from their application will be necessarily just.

Rawls severely criticized those theories of allocation which ignore the moral worth of individual for the attainment of any predetermined goals. He particularly attacked utilitarianism because in calculating the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ it attainment of any predetermined goals. He particularly attacked utilitarianism because in calculating the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ it does not care if it leads to extreme hardship to any particular individual. For instance, one might imagine a state of affairs in which maximum amount of happiness would be produced and its distribution to a maximum number of people achieved by the enslavement of minority. Rawls has brilliantly argued that you cannot compensate for the sufferings of the distressed by augmenting the joys of the prosperous.