Rawls, John (1921–2002)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S091-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1. Justice as fairness

Rawls’ overriding aim is ‘to provide the most appropriate moral basis for a democratic society’ (1971: viii). Despite its many strengths, he sees the dominant utilitarian tradition as providing deficient foundations for democracy. Rawls begins with a normative conception of persons, whom he describes as free, equal, rational and endowed with a moral capacity for a sense of justice. Because of differences in knowledge and situations, free persons inevitably will develop different conceptions of the good. To pursue their good, they make conflicting claims on scarce resources. Principles of justice regulate the division of benefits and burdens resulting from social cooperation. Rawls contends that the appropriate way to decide principles for a democratic society is by conjecturing what principles free persons would agree to among themselves to regulate basic social institutions (the political constitution, property, markets and the family). But to ensure this agreement is fair, they must abstract knowledge of their own situations – of their talents and social positions and their conceptions of the good. Since these principles will be used to assess the justice of existing institutions and the reasonableness of existing desires and claims, Rawls further envisages that contracting parties abstract not just awareness of their own, but everyone’s historical circumstances, desires and conceptions of the good. They are to be placed behind a thick ‘veil of ignorance’. What such free individuals do know are general social, economic, psychological, and physical theories of all kinds. They also know there are certain all-purpose means that are essential to achieving their good, whatever it might be. These ‘primary social goods’ are rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, and the basis of self-respect.

The effect of these restrictions on knowledge is to render Rawls’ parties strictly equal. This enables Rawls to carry to the limit the intuitive idea of the democratic social contract tradition: that justice is what could, or would, be agreed to among free persons from a position of equality (see Contractarianism). Rawls sees his strong equality condition, along with other moral conditions on agreement (that principles be universal, general, publicly known, final, and so on), as reasonable restrictions on arguments for principles of justice for the basic structure of society. These conditions define the ‘original position’, the perspective from which rational agents are to unanimously agree. Parties to the original position are presented with a list of all known feasible conceptions of justice and consider them in pairwise comparisons. The parties are rational, in that all utilize effective means to secure their ends, and are motivated by their interests, and so are moved to acquire an adequate share of the primary social goods needed to pursue their interests. The parties are also assumed to be rationally prudent (with zero time-preference), mutually disinterested (of limited altruism) and without envy.

Given these conditions, Rawls argues that the parties would unanimously agree to justice as fairness over the classical and average principles of utility, perfectionist and intuitionistic conceptions, and rational egoism. Its main principles state: (1) each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all; and (2) social and economic inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity and must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society (the ‘difference principle’). The basic liberties of the first principle are liberty of conscience, freedom of thought, equal political rights, freedom of association, freedoms specified to maintain the liberty and integrity of the person (including rights to personal property), and the rights and liberties covered by the rule of law. These liberties are basic in that they have priority over the difference principle; their equality cannot be infringed, even if inequalities would increase the opportunities or wealth of those least advantaged. Moreover, the rights implied by both principles have priority over all other social values: they cannot be infringed or traded for the sake of efficiency, others’ likes and dislikes or perfectionist values of culture.

Rawls’ argument for these principles is that, given complete ignorance of everyone’s position, it would be irrational to jeopardize one’s good to gain whatever marginal advantages might be promised by other alternatives. For included in one’s conception of the good are the religious and philosophical convictions and ethical ways of life that give one’s existence meaning. It is fundamentally irrational, Rawls contends, to gamble with these given complete ignorance of risks and probabilities. In his later work, Rawls contends that parties in the original position are also moved by ‘higher-order interests’ to develop and exercise the ‘moral powers’ that enable them to engage in social cooperation – the capacity to form, revise and rationally pursue a conception of the good, and the capacity to understand, apply and act from a sense of justice. Parties agree on the two principles underlying justice as fairness since they provide each with primary goods adequate to realize these powers; other alternatives jeopardize these conditions.

One objection to Rawls’ theory is that the parties’ ‘maximin’ strategy of choice is too conservative. Harsanyi (1982) contends that Rawls’ parties should assume an equal probability of being any member in society. Given sympathetic identification with each person’s interests, they should choose (as if they were following) the principle of average utility (see Utilitarianism). But Harsanyi’s ideal chooser, although ignorant of their own identity, still has full knowledge of everyone’s desires and situations; Harsanyi views such knowledge as necessary for sympathetic identification. But Rawls’ parties are without knowledge of anyone’s desires and circumstances, and thus are rendered incapable of sympathetic identification, as well as making interpersonal comparisons of utility. Rawls also finds that, especially under conditions of radical uncertainty, gambling freedom to practise one’s conscientious convictions against added resources betrays a failure to understand what it is to have a conception of the good. For these and other reasons Rawls contends that it is difficult to see how the argument for average utility can arise from his original position. More important, assuming publicity of basic principles, a utilitarian society will not command the willing allegiance of everyone (especially those made worse off), and so will not evince stability (see §3). That basic political principles be publicly known is required by democratic freedom; otherwise citizens are under illusions about the bases of their social relations and are manipulated by forces placed beyond their control. With Rawls’ liberal egalitarian principles, nothing is, nor need be, hidden from public view in order to maintain social stability.

Citing this article:
Freeman, Samuel. Justice as fairness. Rawls, John (1921–2002), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S091-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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