Rawls’ Theory of Justice

John Rawls in his work, Theory of Justice attempted to build a theoretical foundation for the a notion of justice that would be in the liberal tradition but not as each-man-forhimself as the early liberals and hence help to support the notion of a welfare state that became the preferred developmental aim and route of non-communist nations worldwide by the end of the second world war.
(Including in India for instance where Jawaharlal Nehru launched a model of a developmental interventionist state and an ideology behind it that is also referred to as Nehruvian Socialism. In reality of course it was not remotely socialistic but firmly positive liberal in the Laskian and Keynesian tradition.)

Needless to say Rawls’ theory takes a position that was opposed to that of the Utilitarian Classical Liberals like Bentham and Mill whose ideas of justice held great sway particularly in the legal traditions of Anglo-Saxon countries till the middle of the last century. Rawl draws up his theory on the basis of the notions of social contract and distributive justice. He defines two kinds of goods (1) Social Goods: such as income and wealth, opportunities and power, rights and liberties that are directly distributed by social institutions and (2) Natural Goods: like health, intelligence, vigour, imagination, natural talents etc which are not directly distributed by social institutions but may be subject to those institutions partly or affected by them.

Since Rawl also built his theory in the traditions of Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke, he used the hypothetical assumption of a social ‘contract’ in his analysis. Rawl assumes a presocial period in the history of mankind and nature when human beings did not naturally live together in communities and societies but later came together after reaching a consensus among themselves as to the form the society that they live in and agree to be members of should take. Here he assumes that the individual participants in a society would naturally choose a form of society, which is ‘just under the sterile conditions of impartial choice’. About the individual participants for the purpose of his theory he makes the following assumptions:

  1. All the individuals are indifferent to others and don’t suffer from envy as long their own interests are satisfied.
  2. All the individuals in agreeing to be part of one society are seeking to maximise their own interests like rights, liberty, opportunities, income or wealth.
  3. Each individual is under a ‘veil of ignorance’ at all times which prevents him from knowing fully about the talents of others.

If these conditions or assumptions are satisfied, then that would be what Rawl terms the ‘original position’ in which he says every one has ‘particular wisdom’ and ‘general ignorance’. Rawl believes such a society would be a just society since each person would seek to advance his own interest but since no one is able to distinguish him self from others, he will favour principles which allow the maximum opportunity to everyone for the pursuit of one’s life plans to everyone. Also everyone will choose a kind of society which minimises his possible losses and makes sure that even the worst of persons is not too destitute. Rawl terms this the ‘maximising principle’ and says it maximises the minimum welfare. In such a just society, according to Rawls, people would inevitably choose two principles of justice:

  1. That each person should have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties.
  2. And Social and Economic inequalities are to be so arranged so that both are :
  3. (a) to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair quality of opportunity .

Rawls also deals with the possibility of conflict between the two above principles of justice. For instance it is possible that a restriction on liberty of some individuals may constitute an inequality but it may satisfy the second principle above that is it may lead to lead to greater benefits for everyone. But Rawls says such inequalities will not be acceptable then since people will always give priority to the first principle – that is liberty. Even an improvement of in the welfare of everyone is an insufficient justification for inequitable abridgement of liberty. So clearly Rawls puts liberty first and says the basis for self esteem in a just society is the publicly affirmed distribution of fundamental rights and liberties. Thus the two principles of justice and the priority of the liberty principle are the fundamental elements of justice.

1 thought on “Rawls’ Theory of Justice”

  1. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really neatly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to learn extra of your helpful information. Thanks for the post. I will certainly comeback.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *