"Justice, as Rawls envisioned, is the art of fairness molding a world where
each person's worth is honored and embraced
Introduction to John Rawl
In his 'A theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls (1921) of Harvard University
proposed a general theory of justice. He dealt his theory from the angle of
philosophy and political science rather than of law. He did not explain his
theory as a theory of Natural Law. But it is based on reason, concerns social
justice and purports to be comprehensive. Hence it is naturalistic in
conception. He along with Kant is considered rationalist viewing the limits are
set by rational principles of justice.
That's how his concept of Justice begun !
He says that society is self-sufficient association of persons. Generally the
persons, in their mutual relations, bind themselves by certain rules of conduct
specifying a system of cooperation. Some principles of social justice are
required for making a rational choice between various available systems. A
concept of justice will affect problems of efficiency, coordination and
stability. Hence, it is necessary to have a rational concept of justice for the
basic structure of society. Practical rationality consists of value, right and
The concept of right relates to social systems and institutions,
individuals; international relations and priority between principles. The
concept of right yields principles of justice and efficiency. He arrives at his
theory of justice by grounding his own principles in the exercise of reason in
an imaginary 'original position' and certain 'principles of priority'.
Hypothetical rational persons would choose 'fairness' and 'principles of
justice' in a hypothetical original position' of equality. Fairness results from
reasoned prudence. Principles of justice are dictated by prudence. The
insistence on prudence brings in those who are conservatively inclined by
excluding gamblers in the original position. The concept of the 'original
position' is not a modernised version of the 'social contract', but it is a pure
People in the 'original position' are assumed to know certain things for example
psychology and the social sciences. At the same time a 'veil of ignorance' drops
them with regard to certain other things for example the stage of development of
their society and their own personal conditions, places in that society,
material fortunes etc. Persons should exclude self- interest while choosing the
'Basic Principles of Justice' so as to ensure their generality and validity. A
form of justice is needed to benefit everyone that is common good.
The Main Goals of this Theory
The 'Basic Principles of Justice' are generalised means of securing certain
generalised wants, 'primary social goods', comprising what is styled the 'thin
theory of the good', i.e. maximisation of the minimum. These primary social
goods include basic liberties, opportunity, power and a minimum of wealth.
According to Rawls, the 'Basic Principles of Justice' are as follows"
Principles of his Theory:
Just Saving Principle of Him
The first principle of Justice is: "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all". The basic liberties include equal liberty of thought and conscience, equal participation in political decision-making and the rule of law which safeguards the person and his self-respect.
The second principle is: 'Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
- To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just
savings principle, and
- Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair
equality of opportunity
The 'just savings principle' is designed to secure justice between generations
and is described as follows: "Each generation must not only preserve the gains
of culture and civilisaton, and maintain intact those just institutions that
have been established, but it must also put aside in each period of time a
suitable amount of real capital accumulation.
That's how he wanted to see the society
With the aid of these principles, Rawls seeks to establish a just basic
structure, There has to be a constitutional convention to settle a constitution,
for a just and effective order; next comes legislation and lastly the
application of rules to particular cases. Rawls says that the Basic Principles
will yield a just arrangement of social and economic institutions.
Criticism of his principles
There is some criticism regarding his concept of 'original position'.. One
attack has been to question whether his conclusions follow from his 'original
position'. For instance, distribution of goods is said to follow need, not
Answer of him:
- How does the 'original position' yield this? Again, would people in this
position necessarily choose liberty?
In a time of famine, one critic suggests, the need may be food rather than
liberty. But, Rawls says elsewhere Liberty is to have priority only after a
certain point; It is not easy to see how the balance between liberty and needs
follows from the 'original position', Under the restrictions of 'veil of
ignorance', people in the state, of nascence could not arrive at any of his
conclusions. Although people are supposed to know general psychology and social
science, they are ignorant of the state of development of their society, we
cannot expect that people in a primitive state of development are supposed to
possess the sophisticated psychological and social scientific knowledge of
Veil of Ignorance
It is pointed out that something is good for the individual does not imply that
it will be good for society. Thus, the benefit to an individual of being able to
exercise a liberty may be lost to him if it were enjoyed by all. It the Basic
Principles do not necessarily follow from the 'original position' their ultimate
acceptance must derive from their intrinsic moral appeal rather than reason.
Thus, particular principles may be suitable in an 'original position' of limited
knowledge and there is no basis for continuing to impose them later in the
changed conditions and fuller knowledge. All this shows that the concept of the
original position' and the veil of ignorance' only provide a semblance of
justification for reaching certain desired conclusions.
An objection to intuitionism is that it gives no guidance in choosing between
conflicting principles. To meet this Rawls offers the 'Principles of Priority'.
Such priority is 'lexical' i.e. the first has to be fully satisfied before the
second has to be considered.
First Principle of Priority
The first priority rule is the priority of liberty: "liberty can be restricted
only for the sake of liberty. He further says:
Principle of Second Priority
- A less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberty
shared by all;
- A less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser
The second priority rule is the lexical priority of justice over efficiency and
- An inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunity of those with
the lesser opportunity.
- An excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those
bearing this hardship".
These principles ensure that as between liberty and need, liberty prevails,
as between need and utility, need prevails; and as between liberty and utility,
liberty prevails. Rawls says that liberty is to be given priority only after
certain basic wants.
Conclusion of his concept of Justice
Rawls says that reason of individual yields principles of (i) natural duties and
(ii) fairness. Natural duties include the duty to uphold just institutions, to
help in establishing just arrangements, to render mutual aid and respect, not to
injure or harm the innocent. The fairness principle gives se to obligations,
including promises. The principle of fairness is that one should play one's part
as specified by the rules of the institution as long as one accepts its
benefits. Civil disobedience is justified when substantial injustice occurs; all
other methods of obtaining redress fail and disobedience inflicts no injury on
Written By: Vishal Banga,
LLM Student, Guru Nanak Dev University Regional
Ph no: 8219411908, Email: [email protected]