John Rawls – Theory of Justice (Summary)

Cons the classical utilitarianism of Bentham, Rawls offers a new solution to combine social justice and liberalism in the Theory of Justice. Theorist of the contract, this work is considered today in the United States as a classic of political philosophy and often as the greatest book of the contemporary philosophy.

John Rawls founded his thought on his readings : mostly Aristotle and the classics of English political philosophy (Locke, Hume, Hobbes). His contractualism is partly inspired by Rousseau but without a theory of the state of nature. His conception of morality is rooted in Kant’s ethics. Rawls criticizes utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.

Rawls and utilitarianism – the veil of ignorance

Bentham’s utilitarianism believes that humanity’s aim is the happiness, which everyone seek to obtain what is good and avoid what is painful. Similarly, the purpose of the government is to seek the ommon welfare, considered as the sum of the utility of individuals. This is to get maximum satisfaction for everyone.

Yet this argument is problematic. Consider to understand the following situation: you have to organize a collective struggle against a fatal disease highly contagious. But to make the serum necessary to protect general must sacrifice two victims at random. According to the utilitarian criterion we face the following choice: either all die or die and only two others survive. It is therefore prefer the second solution. Utilitarianism goes even further: those who will sacrifice the two less useful to society. But here is the moral conscience is shocked and, in particular, the Kantian principles. Kant, indeed, at least two reasons we should forbid such a choice:

Everyone is an individual and, as such, there is no individual who more or less valuable than another. Discrimination is unethical. We must all have the same rights.

One of the formulations of the categorical imperative tells us never to humanity (in my person as in that of others) only as a means but always at the same time as an end. Now it is clear that the two people killed are taken only as a means and not at the same time as ends.

Should we then sacrifice the entire population, however, because morality forbids the sacrifice of two of us? This is where the theory of Rawls who is considering a purely hypothetical original situation in which individuals react under a veil of ignorance. This hypothetical situation is not without thinking of the Social Contract Rousseau or Locke. This is, indeed, to derive the principles of political authority of a convention by which first isolated the partners together to form a community of law. But Rawls believes that policy so we are always tempted to try the theories based on the personal benefits that their application would give us. Therefore a position where partners are located behind a veil of ignorance so that they know nothing of what will be their place in society (boss or worker, active or inactive), their natural abilities (strong or weak , invalid or handicapped etc..) and without pre-conception of the good (and therefore not under the influence of any religion). The contractor does not even know what the “circumstances of his own company” that is to say what its economic power, its political system, its cultural level. It is in this context that people agree on what should be the principles of justice.

In our previous example, is more important then the result (save thousand people at the expense of sacrificing two or all) because the ends do not justify the means. Each person will decide according to his own conception of Good. Imagine another example or fifty people living in a swamp with malaria. To save the people, we must drain the swamp. The hard work will probably victims (say two) and three not benefit individuals who are already immune. Is it necessary or not to drain the swamp? Under the veil of ignorance it is not known, nor whether it is one of those immunized, or if you are part of those who die in the works. All we know is that it does not dry out if you have three chances to survive in fifty (because you will be part of the immune), while if it dries out the probability rises to forty-eight out of fifty. No doubt, under the veil of ignorance, we will vote unanimously drying.

Rawls : The Justice as Fairness

Assuming, therefore, subjects placed behind the veil of ignorance, all selfish reasons (they are concerned about their future) and endowed with reason, on what general principles of division of property can they agree?

According to Rawls all citizens in this situation will agree on two principles:

– The first principle (the principle of equal liberty), “each person must have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberty for all, consistent with a single system for all.” This means that everyone has the same basic rights and duties. Everyone wants the same basic rights: freedom of movement, expression, assembly, property etc.. “The basic liberties may be restricted in the name of freedom.” Freedom is inalienable, and here is revealed Rawls liberal and close to the Enlightenment.

– The second principle (the principle of inequality) states that the inequalities (economic and social) are justified only if: attached to positions, jobs available to all under conditions of equal opportunity impartial (principle of equal opportunities). This assumes that the company must reduce the maximum possible natural differences.

These principles are hierarchical: the principle of equal liberty has priority over the other two and the principle of equal opportunity has priority over the difference principle.

A just society is not egalitarian but it is an equitable society where the position giving the greatest benefits are available to all and the benefits obtained by some also benefit left behind. For example, if some are rich enough to acquire works of art, however, they place them in museums where the poorest can admire them. Inequality does not advantage all are unfair.

Conclusion on Rawls’ Theory of Justice :

The Rawlsian ideal is a democratic ideal. Dictatorial regimes can not be accepted as members of law in a reasonable society of peoples.

Cite this article as: Tim, "John Rawls – Theory of Justice (Summary), April 22, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, April 22, 2012,

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