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BRIA 23 3 c Justice as Fairness: John Rawls and His Theory of Justice

Bill of Rights in Action
Fall 2007 (Volume 23, No. 3)


The Whiskey Rebellion and the New American Republic | Cicero: Defender of the Roman Republic  | "Justice as Fairness": John Rawls and His Theory of Justice 'Justice as Fairness': John Rawls and His Theory of Justice

Many consider John Rawls the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. He took an old idea, thought of a fresh way of using it, and came up with principles for a just society.

John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1921. His father, a corporate lawyer, supported President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. His mother was a women's rights activist. The second of five sons, Rawls tragically contracted and passed on infectious diseases to two of his brothers who died from them.

Rawls attended mainly private schools before entering Princeton in 1939. He was unsure about a career but ended up majoring in philosophy. This stimulated an interest in religion, and he considered training for the ministry.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1943, he enlisted in the Army and served in the South Pacific for two years in an infantry intelligence unit. After his discharge from the Army following the war, he returned to Princeton and pursued an advanced degree in philosophy under the GI Bill of Rights. He earned his PhD in 1948. In 1950, Princeton hired Rawls as an instructor in the philosophy department. But he also continued his own studies, especially in economics.

In 1952, Rawls won a Fulbright fellowship to Oxford where he first developed the idea for what later became his famous "thought experiment." After returning to the United States, he joined the philosophy faculty at Cornell, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and finally at Harvard. He remained a professor of philosophy at Harvard from 1962 until he retired in 1991.

Rawls was mainly an academic man, involved in abstract thinking and writing. During the Vietnam War, however, he led an effort at Harvard that questioned the fairness of student military draft deferments. Why, he asked, should college students, many with social and economic advantages, avoid the draft while others without these advantages had to go to war? He preferred a lottery system, which the United States eventually adopted late in the Vietnam War.

During the 1960s, he mainly concentrated on writing A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. This complex work attempted to develop standards or principles of social justice that could apply to real societies.

Justice as Fairness

Rawls called his concept of social justice "Justice as Fairness." It consists of two principles. Since he first published A Theory of Justice, he changed the wording of these principles several times. He published his last version in 2001.

The First Principle of social justice concerns political institutions:

Each person has the same and indefeasible [permanent] claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.

This principle means that everyone has the same basic liberties, which can never be taken away. Rawls included most of the liberties in the U.S. Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech and due process of law. He added some liberties from the broader area of human rights, like freedom of travel.

Rawls recognized the right of private individuals, corporations, or workers to own private property. But he omitted the right to own the "means of production" (e.g., mines, factories, farms). He also left out the right to inherit wealth. These things were not basic liberties in his view.

Rawls agreed that basic liberties could be limited, but "only for the sake of liberty." Thus, curbing the liberties of an intolerant group that intended to harm the liberties of others may be justified.

The Second Principle of social justice concerns social and economic institutions:

Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:

first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and

second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the Difference Principle).

This Second Principle focused on equality. Rawls realized that a society could not avoid inequalities among its people. Inequalities result from such things as one's inherited characteristics, social class, personal motivation, and even luck. Even so, Rawls insisted that a just society should find ways to reduce inequalities in areas where it can act.

By "offices and positions" in his Second Principle, Rawls meant especially the best jobs in private business and public employment. He said that these jobs should be "open" to everyone by the society providing "fair equality of opportunity." One way for a society to do this would be to eliminate discrimination. Another way would be to provide everyone easy access to education.

The most controversial element of his theory of social justice was his Difference Principle. He first defined it in a 1968 essay. "All differences in wealth and income, all social and economic inequalities," he wrote, "should work for the good of the least favored."

Later, when he wrote A Theory of Justice, he used the phrase, "least-advantaged members of society" to refer to those at the bottom of economic ladder. These might be unskilled individuals, earning the lowest wages in the society.

Under the Difference Principle, Rawls favored maximizing the improvement of the "least-advantaged" group in society. He would do this not only by providing "fair equality of opportunity," but also by such possible ways as a guaranteed minimum income or minimum wage (his preference). Rawls agreed that this Difference Principle gave his theory of social justice a liberal character.

Finally, Rawls ranked his principles of social justice in the order of their priority. The First Principle ("basic liberties") holds priority over the Second Principle. The first part of the Second Principle ("fair equality of opportunity") holds priority over the second part (Difference Principle). But he believed that both the First and Second Principles together are necessary for a just society.

The "Thought Experiment"

Rawls was interested in political philosophy. Thus he focused on the basic institutions of society. Unless such institutions as the constitution, economy, and education system operated in a fair way for all, he argued, social justice would not exist in a society.

Rawls set out to discover an impartial way to decide what the best principles for a just society were. He reached back several hundred years to philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau who had developed the idea of a social contract.

Locke and Rousseau had written that people in the distant past had formed a contract between themselves and their leader. The people would obey their leader, usually a king, and he would guarantee their natural rights. This would be the basis for a just society. Thomas Jefferson relied on this social contract idea in writing the Declaration of Independence.

By the 20th century, most philosophers had dismissed the social contract as a quaint myth. Rawls, however, revived the social contract concept of people agreeing what constitutes a just society.

Rawls devised a hypothetical version of the social contract. Some have called it a "thought experiment" (Rawls called it the "Original Position"). This was not a real gathering with real people, bargaining over an agreement. Instead, it was an imaginary meeting held under strict conditions that permitted individuals to deliberate only by using their reason and logic. Their task was to evaluate principles of social justice and choose the best ones. Their decision would be binding on their society forever.

Rawls added a requirement to assure that the choice of social justice principles would truly be impartial. The persons in this mental exercise had to choose their justice principles under a "veil of ignorance." This meant that these individuals would know nothing about their particular positions in society. It was as if some force had plucked these people from a society and caused them to experience severe amnesia.

Under the "veil of ignorance," these imaginary people would not know their own age, sex, race, social class, religion, abilities, preferences, life goals, or anything else about themselves. They would also be ignorant of the society from which they came. They would, however, have general knowledge about how such institutions as economic systems and governments worked.

Rawls argued that only under a "veil of ignorance" could human beings reach a fair and impartial agreement (contract) as true equals not biased by their place in society. They would have to rely only on the human powers of reason to choose principles of social justice for their society.

Rawls set up his "thought experiment" with several given systems of social justice principles. The task of the imaginary group members under the "veil of ignorance" was to choose one system of principles for their own society.

Rawls was mainly interested to see what choice the group would make between his own Justice as Fairness concept and another called "Average Utility." This concept of justice called for maximizing the average wealth of the people.

Making the Choice

The fictional persons in the experiment, using their powers of reason and logic, would first have to decide what most people in most societies want. Rawls reasoned that rational human beings would choose four things, which he called the "primary goods":

• wealth and income

• rights and liberties

• opportunities for advancement

• self-respect

In the next and crucial step, the participants would have to decide how a society should go about justly distributing these "primary goods" among its people.

Clearly, designing economic, political, and social institutions that favored the "most advantaged" members of the society would not be justice for all. On the other hand, the members of the experiment group would rationally agree that equal rights and liberties, opportunities, and self-respect for all would be just.

But what about everyone having equal wealth and income? Rawls was sure the parties would reasonably conclude that some (but not extreme) inequality of wealth and income is necessary in a just society. Entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders should be rewarded for working to improve the economy and wealth of the society.

Then how should wealth and income be distributed in a just society if not equally or skewed toward the rich? Again using their reason and logic, Rawls argued, the imaginary parties would adopt what philosophers call the maximum-minimum (or "maximin") rule. Under this rule, the best choice is the highest minimum.

                            Average Wage Per Hour                   Legal Minimum Wage

SOCIETY A            $20.00                                                  $7.00

SOCIETY B            $30.00                                                    $1.00

In the example above, the best choice under the "maximin" rule would be SOCIETY A, which has the highest minimum wage. Those earning the average wage and above are doing pretty well as well. SOCIETY B with its higher average wage benefits those in the middle and at the top income levels, but largely ignores those at the bottom. This is the flaw of the Average Utility social justice system, according to Rawls.

Similarly, Rawls believed the persons in his experiment would rationally choose principles of social justice that maximized benefits for the "least advantaged." The individuals under the "veil of ignorance" do not know what position they really occupy in their society. Any one of them might be Bill Gates or an unemployed high school dropout.

To be on the safe side, Rawls maintained, the rational-thinking members of the imaginary group would choose the principles of justice that most benefited those at the bottom. In this way, Rawls believed, he had demonstrated that his Justice as Fairness principles, skewed toward the "least advantaged," were the best for building or reforming institutions for a just society.

Rawls did not think the United States was yet a just society since it did not satisfy his Difference Principle. To Rawls, wealth and power in the United States were concentrated too much in the hands of the "most advantaged."

A Theory of Justice revitalized political philosophy. Rawls' book was translated into 28 languages. Philosophers all over the world wrote essays and books that discussed, analyzed, and criticized his complex theory of social justice.

Criticism of Rawls

Some critics argued that Rawls' Justice as Fairness principles did not allow enough tolerance for different religious and strongly held beliefs. If, for example, people belong to a religion that teaches men and women are unequal in certain parts of life, those beliefs would contradict Rawls' principles about equality of basic liberties and equal opportunity.

The most controversial part of Rawls' theory of justice centered on his Difference Principle, the idea that the greatest benefit should go to the least advantaged. Conservative and free-market critics argued that it is unfair to take from the most advantaged people what they have earned and redistribute it for the benefit of the less fortunate. They also argued that explanations for how people come to be in more or less advantaged positions is relevant to fairness. For example, some people deserve a higher level of material goods because of their hard work or contributions to society.

Rawls himself acknowledged that his vision for a just society was "highly idealized." He also admitted that there was little support for his Difference Principle "in our public culture at the present time." Rawls responded to his critics by re-thinking and revising elements of his theory.

Even after he retired in 1991, Rawls wrote other books on political philosophy, international justice, and human rights. But he never really finished A Theory of Justice. He considered it a work in progress up to his death at age 81 in 2002.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Why did Rawls use the "veil of ignorance" in his "thought experiment"?

2. Rawls said that "basic liberties can be restricted only for the sake of liberty." Do you agree or disagree? Why?

3. Do you agree or disagree with Rawls' Difference Principle? Why?

For Further Reading

Freeman, Samuel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rawls. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Richardson, Henry S. "John Rawls." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. URL:


Justice as Fairness

Form six groups to each evaluate one of the proposals listed below according to John Rawls' Justice as Fairness theory.

Group members should answer these questions about the proposal they are evaluating:

1. Does the proposal pass or fail John Rawls' two principles of Justice as Fairness? Why?

2. Do you agree or disagree with the proposal? Why?


a. Outlaw burning the U.S. flag as a form of political protest.

b. Provide affirmative action in employment for women and racial minorities.

c. Provide free health care for everyone.

d. Enact a high minimum wage.

e. Do away with all inheritance taxes.

f. Provide free public education from pre-school to college.

Each group should report its answers to the evaluation questions. The students should then discuss whether they like or dislike John Rawls' Justice as Fairness idea.

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