Rawls: “Justice as Fairness”


NB: this is not the reading you were given, and the page numbers are incorrect.  HOWEVER, it does explain Rawls’s theory in outline.  For more, go here.



For the question of SOCIAL justice, the primary subject of justice is “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation”, where the major institutions are determined by the political constitution (legal protection of freedom of thought and conscience, e.g.), principle economic arrangements (competitive markets, private property), principle social arrangements (the monogamous family, e.g.)

These things together form the basic structure which favours certain starting places over others, even though one might be born into them without so choosing.  For that reason, it is most imperative that their arrangement be just.



[W]e are to imagine that those who engage in social cooperation choose together, in one joint act, the principles which are to assign basic rights and duties and to determine the division of social benefits. [518]

To make it fair (hence justice as fairness), we assume a veil of ignorance such that

no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.  I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. [518]

Besides being ignorant of such things, the parties in the original position are rational and mutually disinterested (not the same as uninterested).


What principles would they pick?  NOT the principle of utility, which calls for some to sacrifice themselves for the good of all.

In fact they would choose two principles:

principle 1: requiring equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties

principle 2: stipulating that social and economic inequalities (e.g., wealth and authority) are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, especially the poorest.

Only on the basis of these two principles could the “better endowed” or more fortunate (in the basic structure) expect the willing cooperation of others.


Justice as fairness (like other contract views) has two stages:

1.      The Original Position: debate centres on whether this will achieve justice

2.      The Principles: debate centres on whether people in the OP really would choose these



The Equality Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic set of liberties compatible with a similar set for others

The Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are (a) to the benefit of the least advantaged

(b) attached to positions and offices open to all.


These principles are a special case of a more general conception of justice:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.

That is: injustice is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.


So: assume (1) there are primary goods (goods distributed by the basic structure that are things that every rational man is presumed to want, because they have a use whatever a person’s rational plan of life), e.g., rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth

(2) an initial distribution of equality—everyone gets the same parcels of primary goods

(3) departures from this distribution are only just if they ensure that everyone has more.


The principles are lexically ordered, that is, the equality principle takes precedence over the difference principle—you cannot trade any liberties for greater wealth.



Q1: Why allow any inequality?

Answer: because some inequalities can have beneficial effects for every individual, say, by encouraging competition (suppose I pay doctors more, that will make more people want to be doctors, which we need.  Or suppose I pay CEOs more, and, provided CEOs are picked solely on the basis of efficiency, then more people will be motivated to be more efficient, creating more wealth overall.)

Why limit inequalities to those that are in the best interests of all? 




Forms of procedural justice:

1.      Perfect
this is when there is (a) an independent criterion of justice, and (b) a procedure that is guaranteed to achieve that end.  (Example: cutting the cake)

2.      Imperfect
like perfect, there is (a) and independent criterion, but unlike perfect, the (b) procedure is fallible, not guaranteed to achieve that end.  (Example: criminal trial)

3.      Pure
Unlike (1) and (2), there is no independent criterion: the procedure determines what is just.  That is, whatever results from the procedure is just (so, like perfect, the procedure is guaranteed to produce justice, but unlike perfect, you have to run the procedure before you know what justice is.)  Example: gambling, Monopoly game.

The basic structure must be arranged so that it exhibits pure procedural justice



Natural talents as common asset.

The natural (unequal) distribution of talents and abilities (beauty, intelligence, savvy, strength, speed, etc.) is neither just nor unjust, neither is the fact that persons are born into society at a particular position (i.e., into a certain family, with certain possibilities already open), BUT it is arbitrary, AND:

“What is just and unjust is the way institutions deal with these facts. ...there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies.  The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action.... The two principles [of Justice as Fairness] are a fair way of meeting the arbitrariness of fortune” [529].

Society must be justifiable to everyone in society.  We have the difference principle because without it, society cannot be justified to the least well off.  BUT, how do we justify a society with the difference principle to those who would be better off without it (e.g., Bill Gates, Shaquille O’Neal, Britney Spears, et. al.]?  Answer [529-30]:

a.       Even the well-being of the wealthy depends on society being a system of cooperation (so that the poor do not rise up and take the rich’s wealth at gunpoint), and

b.      cooperation is only reasonable if “the terms of the scheme of cooperation are reasonable”, and only a system with the difference principle is reasonable.

That is, the rich are losing money, but gaining security and justice.  They would be unreasonable to ask for more.

BUT: don’t they deserve more because of their talents [Nozick’s point]?

Response to Nozick:

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their development possible.  Because he is more worthy in this sense, he deserves the greater advantages that he could achieve with them.  [e.g., Shaquille O’Neal deserves his salary because he’s bigger and stronger than everyone else.]  But this is surely incorrect.... [N]o one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society.



The parties in the Original Position would use MAXIMIN reasoning – that is, they would pick the principles that would MAXimize the MINimum position in society (make the least well-off in society better off than in alternative societies).  Maximin usually follows from three conditions:

1.      No access to probabilities (so gambling that one will be one of the better off is not rational)

2.      Not greedy (so no incentive to want more than the minimum)

3.      Alternatives to maximin reasoning are too risky


These conditions apply to the OP because:

  1. The veil of ignorance obscures all probabilities (for all one knows, one is destined to be the lowest of the low)
  2. Envy of others is an irrational emotion, so has no part in the design of the OP
  3. One would not risk one’s whole life prospects on a chance one could be rich.