A Theory of Justice | John Rawls

Summary of: A Theory of Justice
By: John Rawls


Embark on a journey to discover a captivating alternative to classical utilitarianism in John Rawls’ magnum opus, ‘A Theory of Justice’. Rawls presents an innovative theory – ‘justice as fairness’, which builds upon the social contract theories of philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, while tailoring it specifically for democratic societies. The book delves into the significance of a shared conception of justice in maintaining a stable, efficient, and cooperative society, and explores how principles of social justice can create the foundations for social arrangements, rights, and duties. Discover how justice as fairness provides a clear, well-defined system for prioritizing principles and offers a moral foundation that nurtures egalitarianism and self-respect.

Beyond Classical Utilitarianism

In classical utilitarianism, society’s aim is to create maximum utility for all members, denying liberties for the collective good. However, this anti-individualistic approach has its flaws, especially regarding certain liberties and rights. Justice as fairness, an alternative theory, returns to the social contract view of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant but provides a better framework for a democratic society. Justice as fairness recognizes the need to balance individual rights and freedoms with societal benefits to create a more just and fair society.

A Society’s Fundamental Charter

A just society is necessary for stable social cooperation, and a theory of social justice provides principles for deciding on social arrangements and distributing benefits. A public conception of justice offers a standard for assessing a society’s basic distributive aspects. Institutions such as political constitution and economic and social design implement a society’s conception of justice. A system of social justice helps bind a society and fosters self-respect and dignity for its members.

The Theory of Justice as Fairness

The theory of justice as fairness, put forth by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, proposes that a society’s basic structure and principles are determined by a social contract. In this contract, free and rational individuals, starting from a position of equality, would agree upon principles of social cooperation and government that they find fair. The principles of justice as fairness prioritize what is right over what is good, and attribute moral worth to certain qualities of character. Society is regarded as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, with justice functioning as a form of pure procedural justice when institutions operate according to fair rules. The original position, which refers to a specific interpretation of the initial situation, includes widely held presumptions about the conditions required for choosing principles of justice. People in the original position prioritize and balance principles they see fit for attaining social goods, without being motivated by benevolence or vanity. Their decision is permanent and obliges them to abide by it, regardless of unforeseen consequences for their lives.

The Veil of Ignorance and Justice

The veil of ignorance is a crucial feature of the original position where individuals have no knowledge of their social status, abilities, assets, or even their conception of what is good. It eliminates the allure of unjust principles and ensures that the agreed-upon principles of justice are fair. People in the original position affirm equal liberty of conscience and reject the principle of utility to protect their liberty. The veil of ignorance prevents individuals from shaping their moral views according to their interests or attachments and excludes unjust considerations of bargaining. It allows the parties to reach a consensus on principles of justice that reflect fairness.

Justice as Fairness

The concept of justice as fairness proposes two principles that apply to the basic structure of a society’s institutions, ensuring fundamental rights for all individuals while minimizing negative outcomes. The first principle advocates for an equal distribution of primary social goods, with exceptions only when it benefits everyone. Primary social goods consist of rights, opportunities, powers, wealth, income, and self-respect. The second principle ensures that inequalities in the distribution of social goods are to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This includes access to education and job opportunities, among others. These principles prioritize equal basic liberties, including political freedom, speech, and personal freedom, and guarantee rights that are not subject to political bargaining or social interests. Justice as fairness acknowledges the inherent equality of individuals and calls for institutions that uphold and promote this equality.

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