Notes on


"A Theory of Justice" (1971)

Thanks to this book, many people consider Rawls to be the most influential philosopher of the late 20th century.
Even a lot of politicians have read Rawls' book!
He is now getting on in years, and has not been entirely well lately, but he is still at Harvard University.
In his book, Rawls used a bunch of catchy phrases and terms that have really caught on among social and political thinkers. So you can often tell if a person is familiar with Rawls' theory just by the way they talk!

Justice As Fairness

Here are the key features of Rawls' theory:

The Original Position

Recall that Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau each described a state of nature. The state of nature was just an idea; nobody was saying that humans ever were actually in the state of nature. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau each described how people could leave a state of nature by a hypothetical social contract.
Instead of a state of nature, Rawls has what he calls the original position.
Rawls says that the original position is just an idea to help the discussion.
Here's how it works: people should imagine themselves without any government and rationally discuss what sort of government could be supported by a social contract and achieve justice.
Rawls uses the original position not to justify the authority of some particular government, but rather to try to figure out what basic principles should govern any society when it is set up. In the end, Rawls comes up with a society that is not too different from our own.

The Veil of Ignorance

Rawls recognizes that persons act on self-interest.
Rawls thinks that a person can be rational about their self-interest. This means that If a person like that started in the original position, Rawls figures that they would simply design a society which would help them with their own personal plan, and to hell with everybody else.
According to Rawls, this would not result in a just society.
To get around this problem, Rawls has invented the veil of ignorance, which applies to persons in the original position while they are supposed to be figuring out the best social contract.
The key point is that, in the veil of ignorance, a person does not know who they are in the real world!
That is, These things that a person does not know in the veil of ignorance are things that cannot be controlled by the social contract for the design of the society, so there is no point discussing how these things will get distributed among the persons.
The design of society does, however, determine what happens to persons and how a lot of other things, like education, health care, welfare and job opportunities, will get distributed among the persons in society.
The idea is that persons in the veil of ignorance will end up designing a society that will be fair to everyone because they don't want to risk ending up in an intolerable position.

The Maximin Rule

Rawls says that persons in the veil of ignorance would base their design of society on the maximin rule. The idea is that Rawls suggests a super-simple way to think of the original position: two persons have a piece of cake to share between them by cutting it into two pieces. They each like the cake and want as big a piece as possible. They agree that one of them will cut the cake once and the other will get to choose one of the two pieces. This guarantees that the cake will be shared fairly. This is the maximin rule applied to just two persons.

If all this sounds very artificial and contrived, it is!
Rawls admits that the whole theory is designed to fit a proper sense of justice.
Rawls concludes that the persons in the original position will agree to a society that obeys the

Two Basic Principles of Justice

  1. Each person should get an equal guarantee to as many different liberties — and as much of those liberties — as can be guaranteed to everyone else at the same time.
  2. Inequalites in society are okay only if they are arranged so that the inequalities
The liberties Rawls is talking about are:
  1. political liberty (the right to vote and to be eigible for public office)
  2. freedom of speech and assembly
  3. liberty of conscience and freedom of thought
  4. freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property
  5. freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure
However, it is worth noting that Rawls is not talking about complete liberty to do, to have or to keep absolutely anything.

The inequalities Rawls is talking about are:

  1. inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth
  2. inequalities set up by institutions that use differences in authority and responsibility or chains of command
Rawls says these two principles of justice are ordered: society cannot justify a decrease in liberty by an increase in social and economic advantages.
A classic example of how Rawls' principles might apply relates to doctors.
Prepared by Peter Jedicke for SYST315, fall 1996.
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