World Philosophy Day: Part 1 – Rawls’ Theory of Justice

by Quentin Wodon

Today, November 20, is World Philosophy Day. Philosophy has many branches, but one of the most important for daily life is political philosophy. Within political philosophy, a key question is: what is social justice? This question matters for this blog given its focus on service and development. This 3-part series is about Rawls, a philosopher who taught at Harvard University, his conception of social justice, and why it matters.

John Rawls
John Rawls

Not all readers of this blog may be interested in the intricacies of philosphical arguments, but it is worth once in a while to discuss issues of social justice and ethics on this blog. This series briefly presents Rawl’s original framework (part 1), discusses how Rawls refined his conception of justice over time (part 2), and considers some of the implications of his framework for nonprofit and service organizations like Rotary (part 3). Consider this post series as a slightly dense, but hopefully useful crash introduction to the most widely read political philosopher of our time.

Original Position

So let’s start with Rawls’s original framework. Rawls proposed a conception of justice whose field of application is limited to the fundamental institutions of the basic structure of societies. The objective of the theory of justice as fairness is not to construct a presentation and justification of moral virtues as a whole. Its objective is confined to understanding how a limited number of essential goods, such as income and wealth, are to be distributed. In the tradition of social contract theories, Rawls emphasizes that each party to the contract must be treated in an equal and fair fashion. Such fair treatment of individuals is made possible by the conceptual framework of the original position.

A fictitious original situation is the starting point for the discussion of the principles of justice that the social contract will uphold. The principles of justice should be agreed to by free and rational individuals. A key component of the original position mechanism is a veil of ignorance which guaranties that no individual placed in the original position knows the real standing that s/he will effectively hold in life, so that s/he cannot take advantage of any specific social standing or special talents. The symmetry of individuals guaranteed by the veil of ignorance leads to fairness in the conception of justice that representative individuals will choose in Rawl’s Theory of Justice published in 1971. Since the partners ignore what differentiates them and are equally rational and placed in the same situation, they are all convinced by the same arguments. The veil of ignorance guarantees unanimous agreement.

Reflexive Equilibrium

Having introduced the concept of the original position, the justification mode used by Rawls for establishing the principles of justice is that of reflexive equilibrium. At first, one must investigate what the society’s representative individuals would select as general principles of justice should they be gathered in the original position. The veil of ignorance voids at this stage the effects of particular contingencies opposing individuals to each other and tempting them into using social and natural circumstances to their personal advantage.

What is available to the representative individuals in order to allow them to make their choice of principles of justice is limited to rather general knowledge regarding for example basic laws of psychology or economics. Next, in order to test the conception of justice selected in the original position, one must apply the chosen principles of justice to actual problems that societies experience; those are particular cases requiring that what is just be distinguished from what is unjust. Focusing on important particular cases, one must consider judgments, that is thoroughly establish opinions concerning what is just and what is unjust. Thereupon one can compare the results achieved through the application of principles stemming from deliberation under the veil of ignorance to widely shared and considered judgments.

Should a discrepancy arise between the results of the application of the proposed principles and considered judgments, two alternatives are conceivable. Either the proposed principles may be modified or the considered judgments may be corrected. In the first case, in order to protect the quality of rational deliberation of the representative individuals placed in the original position, it is necessary to modify the characteristics of the individuals until the setting leads to principles in accordance with considered judgments. In the second case, the considered judgments are revised since they appear erroneous following reflection taking into account the requirements of justice as expressed by the principles of justice. This procedure of reflexive equilibrium amounts to an equilibrium since it results from both considered judgments and the requirements of rationality through the mechanism of the original position. The equilibrium is reflexive since intuition and rationality influence each other.


The above characterization is essentially how Rawls conceived the original position in his book Theory of Justice. There have been lively discussions in the literature on the limits of this conceptualization of the original position, and its implications. While those extensive debates cannot be dealt with here, it is worth noting that Rawls did modify his theory on the basis of some of these critiques (this will be discussed in the next post in this series).

At the same time, he kept intact many of the features of his argumentation. For example, Rawls responded to communitarian critics by explaining that the concept of neutrality and in the functioning of the basic structure of society in the original position may be understood in several ways. One can speak of purely procedural neutrality when arbitrating conflictual demands. There are no moral values with which to contend in such case. For example, one can speak of neutrality with respect to impartiality, identical application to everyone of identical principles, or equal opportunities offered to the different parties to advocate their claim. This does not however mean that justice as fairness is neutral in that sense for it does hold real substantive contents via the principles of justice which express more than procedural values. The State must guarantee that equal opportunities are available to all citizens so they can pursue their own, freely-selected conception of good.

However the State must abstain from supporting any one conception of the good over another, or helping those pursuing one conception of the good over another. The State may not do anything that might lead some persons to prefer one conception of the good over another. Still, this being said, justice as fairness invokes some moral virtues. Liberal and political virtues of civism and tolerance, of measure and fairness, are upheld. Such virtues do not carry the risk that one might hold too complete a conception of the good that it would shatter the hope for a political consensus. Yet such virtues, to which one might add a conception of people as free and equal persons, do contribute, when they are widely shared and promoted, to forms of social cooperation that are not a mere modus vivendi resulting from an equilibrium of forces between diverging interests.

Principles of Justice

In terms of the principles of justice that would be chosen in the original position, after some modifications taking into account a number of critiques of his original account in Theory of Justice, Rawls ended up proposing the following: “(1) Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; (2) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).” The difference principle suggests arranging social and economic inequalities in such a way that they be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.

To summarize this fisrt post in the series, using a contractarian framework Rawls aimed to achieve a consensus on what a proper conception of social justice should be within liberal democracies. His objective was to guide the functioning of what he called the basic structure of societies. Rawls proposed two principles of “justice as fairness”. The first principle guarantees equal basic liberties for all. The second principle ensures equal opportunities for all to reach positions to which economic and social advantages are associated. In addition, economic and social inequalities should be such that they lead to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged in society (the difference principle).

Rawls’ theory of justice led a renewal in political philosophy. He has been one of the most widely read and most influential philosopher of the 20th century. The next post in this series will consider some of the changes that Rawls made over time in his conception of justice in order to respond to his critics, and the third post will discuss why all this matters.

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