A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls

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A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

This outline of an extended book review is based in large part on notes composed by Darrell Huwe. I have attempted with limited success to understand Rawls' book - please do not regard this as being in any sense an authoritative summary of Rawls' thought. I personally find this book particularly difficult to penetrate, perhaps because my training is in the physical sciences rather than philosophy, and I generalize quite beyond the evidence when I suspect that others also find it less than accessible. I hope that this review is helpful.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an article, "The Enduring Significance of John Rawls", by Martha Nussbaum.

John Rawls died at age 81 on November 24, 2002.

Dick Piccard

General Conception

All social primary goods - liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect - are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored.

Social Contract

John Locke: Free people need to agree on some ground rules in order to live together in harmony.


John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Act so as to maximize good (pleasure) in the aggregate.

Later twist: minimize pain. From either perspective, your actions are judged good or bad depending on the consequences they have for you and for others.

"The greatest good for the greatest number" can be abused, leading to the "tyranny of the majority" (e.g., Nazi Germany's mistreatment of the Jews and the United States' mistreatment of African Americans). Rawls' approach guards against this common source of injustice.


Acknowledge a set of first principles to be subscribed to, but do not prescribe a priority ordering.

Good vs. Right

A person's good is that which is needed for the successful execution of a rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances.

"The good is the satisfaction of rational desire." (Section 15)

Each person has his or her own plan of life - what is good may vary. Right is set down in the social contract, the same for everyone, influenced by the "veil of ignorance." Rawls specializes the concept of something's being right as it being fair. (Section 18)

Principles of Justice

(Section 11)

First Principle: Liberty

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Second Principle: Wealth

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Representative persons: prototypical members of any identifiable group (e.g., women, high school students, citizens of Haiti, etc.).

Efficiency: any re-arrangement in which every representative person gains is more efficient.

Difference principle: in order for any change to be accepted as an improvement, it must help the least advantaged representative person.

Priority Rules

Rawls explicitly addresses the fact that there will be situations where these two primary principles will be in conflict with each other. Rather than compromise between them in such cases, he takes the position that there is a specific priority.

The Priority of Liberty

The principles of justice are to be ranked in lexical order and therefore liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty. There are two cases:

(a) a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberty shared by all;

(b) a less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser liberty.

The Priority of Justice over Efficiency and Welfare

The second principle of justice is lexically prior to the principle of efficiency and to that of maximizing the sum of advantages; and fair opportunity is prior to the difference principle. There are two cases:
(a) an inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity;

(b) an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.


Rawls adopts the concept of efficiency that is associated with the name Pareto in the field of economics. It is perhaps most easily described in the negative:

No system can be called efficient if there is an alternative arrangement that improves the situation of some people with no worsening of the situation of any of the other people.

In general, there are many arrangements that are efficient in this sense. Not all of them are equally just; other principles of justice must be invoked to select the most just arrangement.

The Difference Principle

"The difference principle is a strongly egalitarian conception in the sense that unless there is a distribution that makes both persons better off (limiting ourselves to the two-person case for simplicity), an equal distribution is to be preferred [page 76, emphasis added - RDP]."

In other words, there should be no differences except those that can be justified on grounds of efficiency.

The Veil of Ignorance

Rawls supposes that a (virtual) committee of rational but not envious persons will exhibit mutual disinterest in a situation of moderate scarcity as they consider the concept of right:

  1. general in form
  2. universal in application
  3. publicly recognized
  4. final authority
  5. prioritizes conflicting claims

Rawls claims that rational people will unanimously adopt his principles of justice if their reasoning is based on general considerations, without knowing anything about their own personal situation. Such personal knowledge might tempt them to select principles of justice that gave them unfair advantage - rigging the rules of the game. This procedure of reasoning without personal biases Rawls refers to as "The Veil of Ignorance."

Pinker (2002), describes Rawls' Veil of Ignorance this way in the midst of presenting wide-ranging evidence that a significant fraction of the variability among human beings, including variations in mental abilities, must be attributed to genetic, rather than purely environmental, factors:

Can one really reconcile biological differences with a concept of social justice? Absolutely. In his famous theory of justice, the philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine a social contract drawn up by self-interested agents negotiating under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status they will inherit at birth--ghosts ignorant of the machines they will haunt. He argues that a just society is one that these disembodied souls would agree to be born into, knowing that they might be dealt a lousy social or genetic hand. If you agree that this is a reasonable conception of justice, and that the agents would insist on a broad social safety net and redistributive taxation (short of eliminating incentives that make everyone better off), then you can justify compensatory social policies even if you think differences in social status are 100 percent genetic. The policies would be, quite literally, a matter of justice, not a consequence of the indistinguishability of individuals.

Indeed, the existence of innate differences in ability makes Rawls's conception of social justice especially acute and eternally relevant. If we were blank slates, and if a society ever did eliminate discrimination, the poorest could be said to deserve their station because they must have chosen to do less with their standard-issue talents. But if people differ in talents, people might find themselves in poverty in a nonprejudiced society even if they applied themselves to the fullest. That is an injustice that, a Rawlsian would argue, ought to be rectified, and it would be overlooked if we didn't recognize that people differ in their abilities.

Natural Duties and Obligations

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is by its nature an act responding to injustices internal to a given society, appealing to the public's conception of justice. (Section 57)

Civil disobedience can be justified if the following three conditions are all met:

  1. If the injustice is substantial and clear, especially one that obstructs the path to removing other injustices (e.g., poll taxes and other burdens on the right to vote). This certainly includes serious infringements of the principle of liberty and blatant violations of the principle of fair equality of opportunity.

  2. If the normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith and have failed. Civil disobedience is a last resort.

  3. If there are not too many other minority groups with similarly valid claims. The just constitution would be eroded if too many groups exercised the choice of civil disobedience. The resolution of this situation is a political alliance of these multiple minorities to form a working majority coalition.

Possible Problems

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Dick Piccard revised this file (http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~piccard/entropy/rawls.html) on April 4, 2005.

Please E-Mail comments or suggestions to "piccard@ohio.edu".