A Theory of Justice

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A Theory of Justice
A Theory of Justice (original edition).jpg
The original edition
Author John Rawls
Country United States
Language English
Subject Political philosophy
Published 1971 (Belknap)
Media type Print
Pages 560
ISBN 0-674-00078-1
OCLC 41266156
320/.01/1 21
LC Class JC578 .R38 1999

A Theory of Justice is a work of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls. 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 (the socially just distribution of goods in a society) by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social contract. The resultant theory is known as "Justice as Fairness", from which Rawls derives his two principles of justice: the liberty principle and the difference principle.


In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality, it is meant to apply to the basic structure of a well-ordered society.[1] Central to this effort is an account of the circumstances of justice, inspired by David Hume, and a fair choice situation for parties facing such circumstances, similar to some of Immanuel Kant's views. Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. These parties are recognized to face moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic. They have ends which they seek to advance, but prefer to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms. Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation (the original position 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 favoured principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over varied alternatives, including utilitarian and right-libertarian accounts.

The “original position”

Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition. However, Rawls' social contract takes a different view from that of previous thinkers. Specifically, Rawls develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of an 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 so they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage:

"...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 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)

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 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. Rawls seeks to use an argument that the principles of justice are what would be agreed upon if people 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 been, or indeed could ever have been, derived in the real world outside of carefully limited experimental exercises.

The Two Principles of Justice

The First Principle of Justice

"First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others."[2]

The basic liberties of citizens are the political liberty to vote and run for office, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest. However, it is a matter of some debate whether freedom of contract can be inferred to be included among these basic liberties:

"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 are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle."[3]

The Second Principle of Justice

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (Rawls, 1971, p. 302; revised edition, p. 53):

(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (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 provison that equality is not to be achieved by worsening the position of the least advantaged.[clarification needed] 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

The original Theory of Justice, was an important but controversial and much criticized work of political philosophy. Although Rawls never retreated from the core argument of A Theory of Justice, he modified his theory substantially in subsequent works such as Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), in which he clarified and re-organised much of the argument of A Theory of Justice.


In 1974, Rawls' colleague at Harvard, Robert Nozick, published a defense of libertarian justice, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.[4] Another Harvard colleague, Michael Walzer, wrote a defense of communitarian political philosophy, Spheres of Justice,[5] as a result of a seminar he co-taught with Nozick. In a related line of criticism, Michael Sandel, also a Harvard colleague, wrote Liberalism and the Limits of Justice,[6] in which he criticized Rawls for asking us to think about justice while divorced from the values and aspirations that define who we are as persons and that allow us to determine what justice is.

Robert Paul Wolff wrote Understanding Rawls: A Critique and Reconstruction of A Theory of Justice,[7] which criticized Rawls from a Marxist perspective, immediately following the publication of A Theory of Justice. 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,[8] largely focused on weakness of Rawls in accounting for the 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 reasoning, have also been criticized (most notably by Kenneth Arrow[9] and John Harsanyi),[10] with the implication that Rawls' selection of parameters for the original position was result-oriented, i.e., calculated to derive the two principles that Rawls desired to advance, and/or, as the "contractarian critique" holds, that the persons in the original position articulated by Rawls would not in fact select the principles that A Theory of Justice advocates. 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.[11] 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.[12]

Some egalitarian critics have raised concerns over Rawls' emphasis on primary social goods. For instance, Amartya Sen 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.[13] In a related vein, Norman Daniels has wondered why health care shouldn't be treated as a primary good,[14] and some of his subsequent work has addressed this question, arguing for a right to health care within a broadly Rawlsian framework.[15]

Philosopher Allan Bloom, a student of Leo Strauss, 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.[16]

Other criticisms of Rawls' theory have come from the philosopher Gerald Cohen. Cohen's series of influential papers culminated first in his book, If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?[17] 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 obsession with the using primary goods as his currency of equality.

Philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen critiques and attempts to revitalize A Theory of Justice in his 2009 book The Idea of Justice. He credits Rawls for revitalizing the interest in the ideas of what justice means and the stress put on fairness, objectivity, equality of opportunity, removal of poverty, and freedom. However, Sen, as part of his general critique of the contractarian tradition, states that ideas about a perfectly just world do not help redress actual existing inequality. Sen faults Rawls for an over-emphasis on institutions as guarantors of justice not considering the effects of human behaviour on the institutions' ability to maintain a just society. Sen believes Rawls understates the difficulty in getting everyone in society to adhere to the norms of a just society. Sen also claims that Rawls' position that there be only one possible outcome of the reflective equilibrium behind the veil of ignorance is misguided. Sen believes that multiple conflicting but just principles may arise and that this undermines the multi-step processes that Rawls laid out as leading to a perfectly just society.[18]

Popular culture

A Theory of Justice was the basis of a musical, A Theory of Justice: The Musical!, an "all-singing, all-dancing romp through 2,500 years of political philosophy", which premièred in Oxford in 2013.

See also


  1. Follesdal, Andreas; Mertens (2005). Real world justice : grounds, principles, human rights, and social institutions. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 88. ISBN 9781402031410.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Rawls, p.53 revised edition; p.60 old 1971 first edition
  3. Rawls, p.54 revised edition
  4. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
  5. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
  6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  7. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
  8. Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989).
  9. Arrow, "Some Ordinalist-Utilitarian Notes on Rawls' Theory of Justice, Journal of Philosophy 70, 9 (May 1973), pp. 245-263.
  10. Harsanyi, "Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? a Critique of John Rawls' Theory, American Political Science Review 69, 2 (June 1975), pp. 594-606.
  11. Rawls, Political Liberalism (expanded edition), pp. 22-28, and esp. pp. 25-27.
  12. Rawls, Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, p. 97.
  13. Sen, Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  14. See Daniels, "Rights to Health Care: Programmatic Worries," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 4, 2 (1979): pp. 174-191.
  15. Daniels, Just Health Care (Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  16. "Allan Bloom (1930-1992) on A Theory of Justice". Keith Burgess-Jackson. 2007-02-25. Retrieved 2012-05-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  18. Amartya Sen (2009). The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press (Harvard University Press). pp. 52–74.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Freeman, Samuel. "Rawls". New York: Routledge. 2007

Further reading