Justice as Fairness

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical is an essay by John Rawls, published in 1985.[1] In it he describes his conception of justice. It comprises two main principles of liberty and equality; the second is subdivided into Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle.

Rawls arranges the principles in 'lexical priority', prioritising in the order of the Liberty Principle, Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle. This order determines the priorities of the principles if they conflict in practice. The principles are, however, intended as a single, comprehensive conception of justice—'Justice as Fairness'—and not to function individually. These principles are always applied so as to ensure that the "least advantaged" are benefitted and not hurt or forgotten.

Rawls presented the theory in the famous A Theory of Justice, subsequently revising it in Political Liberalism.

First Principle: The Liberty Principle

The first and most important principle states that every individual has an equal right to basic liberties, Rawls claiming "that certain rights and freedoms are more important or 'basic' than others".[2] For example, Freeman argues, Rawls believes that "personal property" – personal belongings, a home – constitutes a basic liberty, but an absolute right to unlimited private property is not.[3] As basic liberties, they are inalienable: no government can amend, infringe or remove them from individuals.[4] Thomas Mertens says Rawls contends that principles for a society are just when chosen by representative citizens placed within “fair” conditions.[5]

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls articulates the Liberty Principle as the most extensive basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others; he later amended this in Political Liberalism, stating instead that "each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties".[6]

Second Principle: The Equality Principle

The Equality Principle is the component of Justice as Fairness establishing distributive justice. Rawls awards the Fair Equality of Opportunity Principle lexical priority over the Difference Principle: a society cannot arrange inequalities to maximise the share of the least advantaged whilst not allowing access to certain offices or positions.

Fair Equality of Opportunity

This principle maintains that "offices and positions"[7] should be open to any individual, regardless of his or her social background, ethnicity or sex. It is stronger than 'Formal Equality of Opportunity' in that Rawls argues that an individual should not only have the right to opportunities, but should have an effective equal chance as another of similar natural ability.[8]

Difference Principle

The Difference Principle regulates inequalities: it only permits inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off. This is often misinterpreted as trickle-down economics; Rawls' argument is more accurately expressed as a system where wealth "diffuses up".[9] By guaranteeing the worst-off in society a fair deal, Rawls compensates for naturally-occurring inequalities (talents that one is born with, such as a capacity for sport).

Rawls justifies the Difference Principle on the basis that, since Fair Equality of Opportunity has lexical priority, the Just choice from Pareto optimal scenarios which could occur would be that benefiting the worst-off rather than the best-off.

Original Position

A key component of Rawls' argument is his claim that his Principles of Justice would be chosen by parties in the original position.[10] This is a thought experiment in which the parties select principles that will determine the basic structure of the society they will live in. This choice is made from behind a veil of ignorance, which would deprive participants of information about their particular characteristics: his or her ethnicity, social status, gender and, crucially, their conception of The Good. This forces participants to select principles impartially and rationally.

See also



  1. John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (Summer 1985): 223-251.
  2. Freeman, 2007:45
  3. Freeman, 2007:50
  4. Freeman 2007:51
  5. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  6. Rawls 2005:5
  7. Freeman, 2010:86
  8. Werner, 2008: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/equal-opportunity/#2
  9. Freeman, 2010:291-2 & 222-3
  10. Freeman, 2009: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/